The Influence of Intimate Violence on Transitions out of Cohabitation

Article excerpt

Does the experience of violence in a cohabiting union lead participants away from marriage and toward separation, or does violence have only minimal impact once other characteristics of unions and their participants are controlled? This issue is examined using a sample of 411 cohabiting couples followed in both waves of the National Survey of Families and Households. Marriage and separation are treated as competing risks. Results show that violence does have an effect, although dissimilar effects emerge for transitions to separation, as opposed to marriage. Net of other factors, intense male violence-male violence that is more severe than the female partner's-raises the hazard of separation. In contrast, female violence, but not male violence, lowers the rate of marriage. The findings appear robust to a variety of operationalizations of partner violence.

Key Words: cohabitation, competing risks, intense mate violence, intimate violence, panel study.

In theory at least, living with a prospective partner before marriage ought to result in making a better match than not doing so. In practice, as we now know from several studies, unions that begin as cohabitations are more unsatisfactory and more unstable than those that follow a more traditional trajectory into marriage (Bennett, Blanc, & Bloom, 1988; Booth & Johnson, 1988; Bumpass, Martin, & Sweet, 1991). Such findings cast doubt on the efficacy of cohabitation for testing couple compatibility before marriage. Nevertheless, cohabitation may still screen out of marriage those who are especially incompatible. Compared with unmarried cohabitors, married couples engage in a substantially lower rate of physical aggression (Stets, 1991). This suggests the possibility that violent cohabitors are less likely to marry than their nonviolent counterparts. If this is the case, cohabitation does serve to improve marriage matches by filtering out some of the worst marriage risks-- violent couples. On the other hand, evidence from clinical interviews with troubled couples suggests that couples often minimize the importance of their violence, particularly if it is not very severe (Cascardi & Vivian, 1995; O'Leary et al., 1989). Violence may, therefore, have little bearing on the course of a cohabiting relationship, once other aspects of the relationship are held constant.

As yet these issues go largely unexamined. Only a handful of studies to date have addressed transitions out of cohabitation (Brown, 1997; Manning & Smock, 1995; Sanchez, Manning, & Smock, 1998; Smock & Manning, 1997; Wu, 1995; Wu & Balakrishnan, 1995). No study, to the author's knowledge, has considered the influence of relationship violence on those transitions (but see Brown, who embedded physical conflict within a larger scale of conflict resolution strategies). Because cohabitation is now the modal pathway into marriage, however (Brown), it is important to understand whether and how physical conflict impacts these relationships. A partner's physical aggression conveys crucial information about his or her suitability as a mate. Under the assumption that marital quality is enhanced by maximizing one's information about prospective partners (Becker, 1981), how cohabitors deal with such information becomes key to understanding the process of marital search. The purpose of this study was to explore the extent to which intimate violence in a cohabiting union is related to its subsequent trajectory. In particular, I examined the impact of each partner's aggression on the hazards of separation and marriage as opposed to continuing cohabitation. Data are from a large panel study of U.S. households undertaken between 1987 and 1994. First, I turn to the theoretical backdrop for the study.

THEORETICAL ISSUES

Intimate Violence and Relationship Outcomes

Intimate violence is a serious social problem. Each year in the United States, thousands of men and women are injured in domestic altercations. …

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