Academic journal article Family Relations

Female Victims of Spousal Violence: Factors Influencing Their Level of Fearfulness

Academic journal article Family Relations

Female Victims of Spousal Violence: Factors Influencing Their Level of Fearfulness

Article excerpt

This study employed data from the 1985 National Family Violence Survey to explore the predictors of fear about future abuse among 356 married or cohabiting women whose partners had previously abused them. We found that fear was higher among women whose partners had initiated the violence or who had subjected them to forced sex, or women who felt that their own use of violence would result in disastrous consequences for them. Unexpectedly, having enlisted the help of shelters, lawyers, or therapists was related to greater fear. Accounting for fear at more than one point in time may explain these findings.

One of the more insidious aspects of family violence is the climate of fear that is created for those who are victimized by it. Regardless of whether the violence has been relatively minor, or more severe, relatively infrequent or more routine, the fear that it will reoccur is an ever-present reality. Because of their relative inability to ef fectively defend themselves against assault, women who have been the victims of past assaults are more likely than their male counterparts to feel fearful about their continued safety in a violent home. Despite a plethora of research on family violence in the last two decades or so, very few studies have focused on fearfulness as an outcome in its own right. However, this topic should command our attention for two reasons. First, pervasive fear is stressful and, therefore, psychologically debilitating. Second, although a certain amount of fear often motivates victims to take steps to reduce or end the violence, excessive fear may instead immobilize the victim. Fearful of retribution from their batterers, women may expose themselves to greater danger by failing to take the appropriate actions.

This study explored the factors that affect the fear of future assault among a sample of women from the 1985 National Family Violence Survey who had been abused at least once by their intimate partners. Specifically, drawing upon selfefficacy theory, we tested a set of hypotheses concerning the impact on fearfulness of six different factors: whether forced sexual relations occurred in conjunction with the physical assault; whether the husband or the wife was the initiator of violence; the socioeconomic resources of the wife; the immediate actions taken by the wife; the longterm help sought by the wife; and the degree to which her own use of violence (whether defensive or not) would have negative consequences for her. The study included both married women and unmarried women currently living with an intimate partner. Following others' terminology (DeMaris & Longmore, in press; Straus & Gelles, 1986), we have used the terms husband and wife throughout the article to indicate an intimate partner, regardless of official marital status.


The Consequences of Fearfulness

Several previous studies of family violence attest to the negative consequences of fear. Persistent fearfulness is synonymous with heightened anxiety, itself a form of mental disorder (Langner, 1962). However, whereas anxiety disorders often have no external referent, fear of future violence involves anxiety about a very real possibility in an abused woman's life: being battered by an intimate partner. Fear can also lead to feelings of victimization on a par with those felt by victims of violent crimes. Indeed, the trauma of a woman assaulted by an intimate partner may even be more severe than if she were attacked by a stranger (Frieze & Browne, 1988). Additional pressure from children and relatives to make the marriage work can add to the stress of living with an abusive partner (Stets & Straus, 1990).

Fear has also been found to have an effect on the types of actions a battered woman engages in to stop her partner's assaults (Browne, 1987). Whether or not she leaves an abusive relationship may depend upon her level of fear. A woman can be afraid that if she does not leave her abuser, the violence will continue. …

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