Are Bi-Directionally Violent Couples Mutually Victimized? A Gender-Sensitive Comparison

By Vivian, Dina; Langhinrichsen-Rohling, Jennifer | Violence and Victims, January 1, 1994 | Go to article overview

Are Bi-Directionally Violent Couples Mutually Victimized? A Gender-Sensitive Comparison


Vivian, Dina, Langhinrichsen-Rohling, Jennifer, Violence and Victims


Mutual victimization in marriage was studied in a sample of clinic couples (N = 57) where both spouses reported partner aggression on an adapted version of the Conflict Tactics Scale (Straus, 1979). As predicted, wives sustained more injuries and were more negatively affected by their partner's physical aggression than did husbands. Multiple dimensions of aggression were used to identify subgroups of mutually victimized couples (e.g., frequency, severity of aggressive act[s], psychological impact, and severity of injury). The largest subgroup consisted of spouses who reported low levels of victimization on all dimensions. Subgroup 2 included couples in which wives reported higher overall levels of victimization than did their husbands. A third small subgroup was also identified where husbands reported higher levels of victimization than did their wives. Contrary to prediction, both highly victimized wives and highly victimized husbands in the asymmetrical victimization subgroups reported greater levels of relationship and individual distress than did spouses in the mutual/low victimization and nonaggression control groups. However, the marriages of the two highly victimized subgroups did differ in important ways. The findings were interpreted to suggest an integration of feminist and dyadic theories of marital aggression.

Researchers have consistently reported that physical aggression occurs with surprising frequency in both nondiscordant and discordant marriages. For example, in a nationally representative sample, 12% of men and women reported having been aggressive toward their spouses during the prior 12 months, and as many as 28% reported some aggression during the duration of the marriage (Straus, Gelles, & Steinmetz, 1980). In a community dating sample, O'Leary and colleagues (1989) found that 44% of the women and 31 % of the men had been physically aggressive toward their partners in the prior year. With respect to spouses seeking marital therapy, Cascardi, Langhinrichsen, and Vivian (1992) found that as many as 71% of the couples reported physical aggression in their marriage during the prior year. Furthermore, 85% of the "aggressive" couples reported bi-directional aggression (Cascardi et al., 1992). These prevalence rates were determined primarily with use of the Conflict Tactics Scale (CTS; Straus, 1979), a self-report inventory that measures the presence and frequency of aggressive behaviors. A summary of these studies might suggest that: (1) physical aggression is a relatively frequent phenomenon, particularly in unhappy marriages; (2) both sexes are likely to self-report being victims and perpetrators of physical aggression; and (3) physical aggression in marriage appears to be a dyadic and interactive phenomenon (Steinmetz, 1981,1987; Steinmetz & Lucca, 1988).

The view that marital aggression is a bi-directional and an interactive phenomenon may be supported further by research documenting that marital conflict/mutual verbal aggression is one of the strongest correlates of physical abuse. In fact, of the 2,143 spouses surveyed by Straus and colleagues (1980), those reporting low levels of verbal conflict were 16 times less likely to report physical aggression than spouses reporting high verbal conflict Moreover, high levels of verbal/psychological aggression in both spouses have been shown to predict the onset of physical aggression in couples during the first 3 years of marriage (Murphy & O'Leary, 1989). Observational studies have also shown that physically aggressive couples are characterized by mutual negativity and reciprocal negative escalations (Burman, Margolin, & John, 1993; Vivian & O'Leary, 1987; Vivian, Smith, Mayer, Sandeen, & O'Leary, 1987). In addition, mutual verbal hostility appears to be a stable conflict style of physically aggressive couples during the first year of marriage (Vivian, Mayer, Sandeen, & O'Leary, 1988). Supporting the researchers' impression that dyadic communication problems may be of primary importance in explaining marital aggression, clinic couples themselves, even those endorsing severe husband-to-wife aggression on the CTS, do not present the aggression as a primary concern; rather, they view mutual communication problems as their main marital complaint (Masters, Vivian, & O'Leary, 1989; O'Leary, Vivian, & Malone, 1992). …

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