Dating Violence: The Association between Methods of Coping and Women's Psychological Adjustment

By Coffey, Patricia; Leitenberg, Harold et al. | Violence and Victims, January 1, 1996 | Go to article overview

Dating Violence: The Association between Methods of Coping and Women's Psychological Adjustment


Coffey, Patricia, Leitenberg, Harold, Henning, Kris, Bennett, Robert T., Jankowski, M. Kay, Violence and Victims


The present study examined the psychological impact of dating violence and the relationship between methods of coping with dating violence and psychological adjustment in a nonclinical female student population. Analyses revealed that women who experienced dating violence were at significantly greater risk than a comparison group for experiencing psychological distress. More symptoms of psychological distress were observed even after controlling for differences between the groups in histories of sexual aggression since age 16 and violence experiences in childhood including physical abuse, sexual abuse, and witnessing physical conflict between one's parents. The dating violence group was also more prone to use disengagement methods of coping to deal with nondating violence stressful life events than was the comparison group. In addition, disengagement methods of coping with the dating violence per se accounted for unique variance in psychological adjustment even after controlling for characteristics of the dating violence and methods of coping with other stressors.

Physical aggression in intimate relationships is an endemic and serious problem (Browne, 1993; Goodman, Koss, & Russo, 1993). Based on national survey data, it is estimated that approximately 30% of women in the United States will be victims of physical aggression by their husbands at least once in their lifetime, and in any year approximately 1.8 million women are beaten by their spouses (Strauss & Gelles, 1990). Over 50% of all women homicide victims are killed by current or former partners (Walker, 1989).

Women are also physically assaulted in relationships without the ties of marriage, children and economic dependence. In a review of the literature on dating violence, Sugarman and Hotaling (1989) indicated that approximately 36% of females report having been the victim of physical aggression from their partner. Physical aggression within a dating relationship is also not necessarily just a one-time occurrence, with the mean number of incidents in one study being 9.6 (Roscoe & Benaske, 1985). These acts of dating aggression can have potentially serious physical consequences. In one study 53% of the women who experienced dating violence reported that they had sustained an injury due to the violence (Makepeace, 1984).

Although physical injury is a serious consequence of violence in relationships, there may also be a considerable emotional and psychological toll. Studies of married women in battered women's shelters indicate that the initial effects involve extreme fear, shock, and emotional numbing. Long-term effects include clinical levels of depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptomatology (for review, see Goodman et al., 1993). These psychological effects are not limited to women in battered women's shelters. For example, Gelles and Harrop (1989) used a nationally representative community survey and found an association between experiencing marital physical aggression and psychological distress.

Research has not yet addressed, however, whether women who experience physical aggression in nonmarital dating relationships also exhibit greater psychological distress than comparison groups that have not had such experiences. Because there is usually less of a sustained pattern of physical and emotional intimidation and dependency in dating relationships than in marital relationships, lasting psychological effects may be less evident. One purpose of the present study was to determine if the psychological adjustment of college women who have experienced dating violence is poorer than a comparison sample who have not experienced dating violence. Because women who have been victims of physical aggression by a dating partner are also more likely than comparison samples to have been victims of sexual aggression in relationships (e.g., Makepeace, 1986), which in turn could account for differences in psychological adjustment between dating violence and nondating violence groups, we controlled for this variable in the present study. …

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