Comparing the Emotional Reactions and Behavioral Intentions of Violent and Nonviolent Husbands to Aggressive, Distressed, and Other Wife Behaviors

By Holtzworth-Munroe, Amy; Smutzler, Natalie | Violence and Victims, January 1, 1996 | Go to article overview

Comparing the Emotional Reactions and Behavioral Intentions of Violent and Nonviolent Husbands to Aggressive, Distressed, and Other Wife Behaviors


Holtzworth-Munroe, Amy, Smutzler, Natalie, Violence and Victims


The present study was designed to compare the self-reported emotional reactions and behavioral intentions of violent and nonviolent husbands to a variety of wife behaviors depicted with standardized stimuli. We recruited four subject groups, including 25 men beginning domestic violence treatment programs and three groups from the community-21 maritally violent and maritally distressed men, 23 nonviolent/distressed men, and 28 nonviolent/nondistressed men. Using stimuli and measures derived from Biglan, Rothlind, Hops, and Sherman (1989), along with stimuli designed for this study, subjects read written descriptions and examples of various wife statements (e.g., aggressive, distressed, and facilitative) and viewed videotaped depictions of wife behaviors varying in verbal content and nonverbal affect (i.e., aggressive/irritated, aggressive/dysphoric, distressed/irritated, and distressed/dysphoric). In response to each wife behavior, subjects rated what their emotional reactions (e.g., sympathetic, caring, supportive, sad, anxious, irritated, angry) and their behavioral responses (e.g., try to comfort, say something supportive, discuss the subject, not say anything, say something hostile, argue) would be. As predicted, in response to a wide range of wife behaviors, and relative to nonviolent men, violent men were less likely to report sympathetic/positive emotions and more likely to experience anger and irritation, but not other negative (i.e., sad or anxious) emotions. They were also more likely to report negative behavioral intentions and less likely to report positive behavioral intentions. The theoretical and clinical implications of these findings are discussed.

Husband-to-wife violence is a serious problem in this country. Data from nationally representative surveys suggest that each year, one out of every eight wives experiences husband physical aggression and up to 2 million wives are severely assaulted by their male partners (Straus &Gelles, 1990). Husband violence has many negative consequences; it has been linked to physical injury, psychological problems, and problems among children raised in violent homes (see review by Holtzworth-Munroe, Smutzler, &Sandin, 1997). While data indicate that both husbands and wives engage in physical aggression (e.g., Straus &Gelles, 1990; O'Leary et al., 1989), husband violence has been demonstrated to have more negative effects than wife violence; for example, husband violence is more likely than wife violence to result in physical injuries and depressive symptomatology (see review in Holtzworth-Munroe, Smutzler, &Bates, 1997).

In attempting to understand why some husbands use physical aggression, we have applied a social information processing model to the study of husband violence (Holtzworth-Munroe, 1992). Using this model, we proposed that violent husbands lack behavioral and cognitive skills in marital conflict situations, placing them at high risk to engage in physical aggression. We hypothesized that violent men would differ from nonviolent men in their emotional reactions (e.g., more anger) and behavioral responses (e.g., less competent, more aggressive responses) to actual negative wife behaviors and to behaviors husbands misperceive as negative, particularly in response to wife behaviors perceived as being aggressive (i.e., negative behavior directed at the husband; for example, criticism or blame).

Our previous research, along with that of others, has supported these hypotheses. We have demonstrated that when responding to standardized stimuli presenting negative wife behavior, particularly behavior that might be viewed as aggressive by the husband, violent husbands are more likely than nonviolent husbands to experience anger (Holtzworth-Munroe, Stuart, Willoughby, &Anglin, 1995) and are less likely to offer competent responses (Holtzworth-Munroe &Anglin, 1991). In these studies, the standardized stimuli have generally presented wife behavior that can be perceived as negative and aggressive (i. …

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