Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Domestic Violence, Personal Control, and Gender

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Domestic Violence, Personal Control, and Gender

Article excerpt

DEBRA UMBERSON University of Texas


JENNIFER GLICK Brown University**

ADAM SHAPIRO University of North Florida***

Research on perpetrators of domestic violence suggests that acts of violence may result .from feelings of low personal control. Research on victims suggests that domestic violence may undermine feelings of personal control. Using a national sample, we consider how domestic violence is related to personal control. We find that individuals who have initiated violence against a partner do not differ from individuals who have nonviolent relationships in feelings of personal control. However, experiencing violence at the hands of a partner has significant adverse effects on a sense of personal control for women, but not for men. This suggests that violence, even when both the man and woman participate, is more detrimental to the self-perceptions and well-being of women than of men.

Key Words: domestic violence, marital conflict, mastery, personal control. wife abuse.

National surveys indicate that at least 28% of couples experience physical violence at some point in their relationship and 16% of couples experience violence in a given year (Straus & Gelles, 1986). The consequences of domestic violence are substantial-in terms of physical injury, psychological and emotional distress, suicide, and substance abuse among victims (Stark & Flitcraft, 1991). Much of the research on domestic violence addresses etiological questions: Why do some people perpetrate acts of domestic violence, and why do so many victims remain in abusive relationships? These questions are generally addressed in two very separate literatures that are concerned with either the victims or the perpetrators of domestic violence and that ignore any overlap between these two groups. The victim literature focuses on social and psychological factors that lead individuals-typically women-to remain involved in abusive relationships (Bowker, 1983: Walker, 1984). The perpetrator literature focuses on social and psychological factors that lead individuals-typically men-to abuse their domestic partners (Dutton, 1988; Hamberger & Hastings, 1986; Stets, 1988). A central theme in both literatures is that feelings of personal control play an important role in the dynamics of domestic violence. The victim literature suggests that victims of domestic violence experience an increasingly diminished sense of control that leads to powerlessness and helplessness-psychological conditions that disenable individuals from leaving abusive relationships. The perpetuator literature suggests that perpetrators of domestic violence are characterized by a reduced sense of personal control or a high need for control that plays a role in triggering violent episodesviolent episodes that may enhance personal control. The study presented here draws on theoretical and empirical work in psychosocial epidemiology to explore how personal control is related to domestic violence in a national sample. We consider both victims and perpetrators of domestic violence in our analysis. In light of theoretical and research evidence that domestic violence is a different phenomenon for men and women (Johnson, 1995; Langhinrichsen-Rohling, Neidig, & Thorn, 1995), we also consider how the association of personal control and domestic violence may differ for men and women.


The term, "personal control," developed in previous theoretical and empirical work (e.g., Mirowsky & Ross, 1989, 1990; Rosenfield, 1989; Turner & Noh, 1983), refers to the "belief that one's own intentions and behaviors can impose control over one's environment" (Umberson, 1993, p. 578). This general concept has been similarly labeled "personal efficacy" (Kohn, 1972) and "mastery" (Pearlin, Lieberman, Menaghan, & Mullen, 1981). The obverse of personal control is revealed in Wheaton's (1980) measure of fatalism. …

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