Classes of Childhood Sexual Abuse and Women's Adult Couple Relationships

By Watson, Bronwyn; Halford, W. Kim | Violence and Victims, July 1, 2010 | Go to article overview
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Classes of Childhood Sexual Abuse and Women's Adult Couple Relationships


Watson, Bronwyn, Halford, W. Kim, Violence and Victims


The current study assessed if childhood sexual abuse (CSA) can be meaningfully classified into classes, based on the assumption that abuse by a close family member differs in important ways from other abuse, and whether abuse classes were differentially associated with couple relationship problems. The childhood experiences and adult relationships of 1,335 Australian women (18-41 years) were assessed. Latent class analysis identified three classes of CSA: that perpetrated by a family member, friend, or stranger, which differed markedly on most aspects of the abuse. Family abuse was associated with the highest risk for adult relationship problems, with other classes of CSA having a significant but weaker association with adult relationship problems. CSA is heterogeneous with respect the long-term consequences for adult relationship functioning.

Keywords : family abuse; violence ; marital separation ; relationship satisfaction

Child sexual abuse (CSA) of girls is common and associated with high rates of psychological disorder and other problems in adulthood ( Beitchman et al., 1992 ). The association of CSA is particularly strong with problems in women's adult couple relationships. Compared to their nonabused peers, women with a history of CSA have double the rate of marital separation and are more dissatisfied with their relationships ( Colman & Spatz Widom, 2004 ; Fleming, Mullen, Sibthorpe, & Bammer, 1999 ; Liang, Williams, & Siegel, 2006 ). Despite the strong association between CSA and adult relationship problems, many women with a history of CSA have stable and satisfying adult couple relationships ( Colman & Spatz Widom, 2004 ; Davis & Petretic-Jackson, 2000 ). The variability in couple relationship problems of women with a history of CSA might be partially a function of the nature of the abuse experienced. The current study assessed whether CSA can be meaningfully classified into distinct classes and whether these classes are differentially associated with adult relationship problems.

SIGNIFICANCE OF COUPLE RELATIONSHIP OUTCOMES ASSOCIATED WITH CHILD SEXUAL ABUSE

Clarifying the association between CSA and couple relationship problems is important. Couple relationship distress and separation are common problems, which are strongly associated with elevated risk of psychiatric disorder in adult partners and their offspring ( Whisman & Uebelacker, 2006 ), reduced work productivity ( Whisman & Uebelacker, 2006 ), increased risk for poverty ( Wilmonth & Koso, 2002 ), and are very costly to society ( Halford, Markman, & Stanley, 2008 ). Clarifying the association between CSA and couple relationship problems could guide efforts to prevent or treat such problems.

There have been numerous attempts to refine the assessment of CSA beyond its presence or absence, and to relate aspects of abuse to adult relationship outcomes. These attempts to refine the assessment of CSA fall into three broad categories, discriminating abuse by the presence of a particular aspect of abuse (e.g., vaginal penetration), classifying abuse on a continuum of severity, and defining classes of abuse on the basis of multiple abuse characteristics.

With respect to classification of CSA based on a particular characteristic of the abuse, more extensive adult relationship problems are reliably associated with more physical intrusion by the perpetrator (i.e., vaginal penetration relative to genital touching relative to nongenital touching; Fergusson, Horwood, & Lynskey, 1997 ; Fleming et al., 1999 ) and abuse perpetrated by a family member rather than a friend or a stranger ( Noll, Trickett, & Putnam, 2003 ). Greater use of psychological coercion by the perpetrator ( Basta & Peterson, 1990 ) and a lack of disclosure of the CSA by the victim ( Jonzon & Lindblad, 2004 ) are associated with more psychological impairment in women with a history of CSA, and might also predict adult relationship outcomes.

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