Academic journal article Violence and Victims

Effects of Men's Subtle and Overt Psychological Abuse on Low-Income Women

Academic journal article Violence and Victims

Effects of Men's Subtle and Overt Psychological Abuse on Low-Income Women

Article excerpt

A social influence approach to the psychological abuse of women (Marshall, 1994; 1996) was expanded and tested. Distinctions are made between obvious acts (e.g., verbal aggression, controlling behaviors), overt acts which are easily recognized and described, and subtle acts which are least likely to be recognized as psychologically abusive. Men's violence and sexual aggression, and overt (dominating acts, indifference, monitoring, discrediting) and subtle (undermining, discounting, isolating) psychological abuse were examined as they related to women's psychological and emotional state and perceptions of their relationship. Results of regression equations with 834 low-income women in long-term heterosexual relationships are reported. In general, subtle psychological abuse had stronger and more consistent associations with women's state and relationship perceptions than did their partners' overt psychological abuse, violence, or sexual aggression. The importance of extending research beyond obvious acts was underscored by findings showing that subtle psychological abuse accounted for a small but significant proportion of the variance in outcome variables even after the effects of violence and sexual aggression (Step 1) and overt psychological abuse (Step 2) were controlled in eight of the nine regression equations. In contrast, when subtle and overt psychological abuse were entered first (in Steps 1 and 2, respectively), violence and sexual aggression (Step 3) made significant contributions in only two of the nine equations.

My perspective on psychological abuse developed from theories and research on "normal" nonviolent samples from different (sub)disciplines (especially social psychology and communication). This view can best be described as a social influence perspective (Marshall 1994). Briefly, psychological abuse results from normal intrapersonal and interpersonal processes occurring in everyday interactions. Interpersonal processes can make us feel very good or very bad. These influence processes are the same ones that enable therapists and others to help individuals improve themselves or overcome problems. The abuse is in the effect of an act.

This approach does not discount the effects of obviously abusive controlling or verbally aggressive acts. Indeed, important insights are gained from questionnaires, interaction records, and coding of acts during communication (Babcock, Waltz, Jacobson, & Gottman, 1993; Jacobson, Gottman, Gortner, Burns, & Shortt, 1996; Lloyd, 1996; Vivian & Malone, 1997). I simply propose that the prevailing perspective misses too much that is abusive because many acts can cause psychological and emotional harm. If measures are limited to dominance, obvious control or clear verbal aggression, knowledge will be biased. We will learn a great deal about various forms of aggression in relationships, for example, verbal aggression as it accompanies violent or distressed relationships (Margolin, John, & Gleberman, 1988; Murphy & Cascardi, 1993; O'Leary, Malone, & Tyree, 1994), but little about harm that can be done to women through everyday interactions with men who may or may not have any intent to inflict harm or control their partner.

My social influence approach draws on vast bodies of research (e.g., on anger, attribution, compliance tactics, self-concept, nonverbal behavior, persuasion, expectancy effects, relationship development and dissolution, uncertainty, positive illusions, unintended thought), showing how others often have very strong effects on our attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors without intent, without their awareness, and without our own awareness. In this perspective, the intent of the psychologically abusive act is irrelevant. Thus, an act may be done out of love, to have fun or be playful, or to dominate. Regardless of the intent or the style used, an act may still harm the target and a combination or repetition of messages can cause serious damage. …

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