Is Psychological Aggression as Detrimental as Physical Aggression? the Independent Effects of Psychological Aggression on Depression and Anxiety Symptoms

By Lawrence, Erika PhD; Yoon, Jeungeun Ba et al. | Violence and Victims, January 1, 2009 | Go to article overview

Is Psychological Aggression as Detrimental as Physical Aggression? the Independent Effects of Psychological Aggression on Depression and Anxiety Symptoms


Lawrence, Erika PhD, Yoon, Jeungeun Ba, Langer, Amie Ma, Ro, Eunyoe Ma, Violence and Victims


The differential effects of psychological and physical victimization on depression and anxiety symptoms were examined via APIM and growth curve modeling techniques in a sample of newlyweds (N = 103 couples) assessed four times over the first 3 years of marriage. On average, husbands and wives reported moderate levels of psychological aggression, and there were no sex differences in prevalence rates or mean levels. Changes in psychological victimization were associated with changes in depression and anxiety symptoms, even after controlling for the effects of physical victimization. This study demonstrates the severe impact of psychological aggression on its victims and expands on previous studies of battering samples to demonstrate that psychological victimization may be more damaging than physical victimization in nonbattering, community couples.

Keywords: anxiety; depression; couples; psychological aggression

Psychological aggression is highly prevalent in intimate relationships (e.g., Stets, 1990) and is not limited to relationships that are physically aggressive. Psychologically aggressive acts include behaviors such as ridiculing, verbal threats, isolating one's partner from family and friends, and attempting to control one's partner, and are intended to degrade one's partner and attack his or her self-worth by making him or her feel guilty, upset, or inadequate. Individuals experiencing psychological victimization are significantly more likely to experience relationship dissatisfaction, physical victimization, and depressive symptoms (e.g., Arias, Lyons, & Street, 1997; O'Leary & Jouriles, 1994). In addition, women report that the psychological victimization they endure has a more negative impact on them than the physical victimization they experience, reporting increased feelings of shame, depression, and loss of self-esteem (Follingstad, Rutledge, Berg, Hause, & Polek, 1990). Despite these findings, there is a surprising dearth of research examining psychological aggression in intimate relationships. The purpose of this study was to clarify the developmental course of psychological aggression and its impact on symptoms of depression and anxiety?independent of the impact of physical aggression?over the early years of marriage.

A BRIEF REVIEW OF RELEVANT RESEARCH

The Nature of Psychological Aggression in Intimate Relationships

Based on nationally representative samples, 75% to 80% of men and women report engaging in psychological aggression?as assessed via the Conflict Tactics Scales (Straus, 1979)?in the year prior to assessment (Stets, 1991; Straus & Sweet, 1992). Prevalence rates across the duration of a given relationship are similarly high, ranging from 80% to 90% (Barling, O'Leary, Jouriles, Vivian, & MacEwen, 1987; Katz, Arias, & Beach, 2000). Lifetime prevalence rates of psychological victimization are even higher. In a sample of 578 women, 97% reported experiencing psychological victimization at some point (Marshall, 1996). Rates of psychological aggression are even higher when there is a history of physical aggression in the relationship. In a sample of 234 women with a history of physical victimization, 99% experienced at least one incident of emotional abuse, and 72% were victims of four or more types of emotional abuse (Follingstad et al., 1990). Moreover, rates are similar across established, treatment-seeking couples and community (i.e., nonclinic) couples in the early years of marriage (Barling et al., 1987), and rates are similar for men and women. In a nationally representative sample of married and cohabiting couples, Straus and Sweet (1992) found no overall sex differences in the severity or frequency of psychological aggression. Observational data also demonstrate similar prevalence rates of psychological aggression for males and females (80% and 86%, respectively; Capaldi & Crosby, 1997).

With regard to the stability of psychological aggression, cross-sectional studies of cohabiting and married couples suggest that prevalence rates decline with age (e. …

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