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Research Reveals Indicators That May Put Couples At Risk For Domestic Violence

May 21, 2002 — A recent study that examined more than 4,500 couples and the severity of their aggression towards one another over time may shed light on factors that make couples more vulnerable to domestic violence.

According to Sonia Salari, the University of Utah researcher, couples that reported one or both partners abusing drugs and/or alcohol were more likely to suffer the most serious form of physical injury. “While aggression is not limited to substance abusers, this issue was the strongest predictor of sustained injurious aggression over time,” notes Salari, assistant professor of Family and Consumer Studies. “Couples in which a man had a substance abuse problem were ten times more likely to report severe aggression initially and again five years later. Couples in which the woman had the substance abuse problem were five times more likely to have ongoing injurious aggression.”

Salari and co-author Bret M. Baldwin measured levels of aggression on a continuum that began with no aggression and progressed through various stages, which included verbal aggression (arguing, heated shouting), physical aggression (hitting, kicking or throwing objects at each other) and serious physical injury (bruising or seriously injuring).

The research shows that other factors, such as low income, low self-esteem and dependent children, contributed to the most severe level of aggression. Additionally, the most severe aggression was noted in couples where the men strongly believed they should be the breadwinners and in couples where the women were isolated from their families of origin. In addition to the substance abuse findings, low-income couples were more likely to sustain a severe injurious relationship over time.

The unique study, entitled “Verbal, Physical & Injurious Aggression Among Intimate Couples Over Time,” appears in this month’s issue of Journal of Family Issues. Unlike many domestic violence surveys, based on individual interviews with protective shelter occupants, Salari’s study questioned a nationally representative sample of couples where both individuals were interviewed and then re-interviewed five years later.

“Using couple data was significant because interviewing both individuals gave us a clearer picture of those couples who had problems with physical aggression. In domestic violence circumstances, often one of the partners is in denial and frequently unwilling to report,” Salari states. “The same is true for issues like substance abuse, but we are more likely to capture these problems if we can rely on either partner to report them-not just the one who has the problem.”

Unmarried cohabitants reported nearly four times more serious physical injury as compared to
married couples. Ten percent of cohabitants reported serious physical injury, compared to 2.5 percent for married couples. When the physical aggression without injury category was included, the aggression rate shot up to a full 24 percent for cohabitating couples, who reported hitting, kicking or throwing things. “There could be a number of explanations for this,” Salari says. “Some argue that cohabitants have less social support and that the nature of the relationship is more temporary. Also, those who show aggressive tendencies are less likely to be chosen for marriage. And those with shorter relationships are more aggressive with each other.”

Compared to Caucasians, African American couples reported more physical or injurious aggression (16 percent compared to 7.7 percent for Whites), but Hispanic couples reported slightly less verbal aggression than Whites (35 percent versus 36 percent). Over time, however, Hispanic couples were more likely to report that they increased their aggression level. This suggests an area where prevention efforts could be directed, especially if barriers to getting help currently exist among Hispanics, Salari says.

According to Salari, minor forms of violence, such as verbal aggression, are less of a threat to public health. But, in addition to causing mental distress, they may place a couple at greater risk
for escalation to more severe forms of violence.

Thirty-six percent of the survey’s respondents reported verbal aggression as the worst behavior in which they had engaged. Seven percent reported that physical aggression was their worst behavior, and three percent reported injurious aggression as their worst behavior. All others reported no aggression.

“Our study does not suggest that women are the only victims. Men and women both reported aggressing against the other partner,” notes Salari, who became interested in family violence while working as a victims’ rights advocate in North Carolina.

University of Wisconsin researchers collected the original survey information. The study, which is the only large-scale nationally representative data set that includes both members of the couple interviewed over time, allows victims’ advocates and policy makers to see what happens with aggressive couples who are still together five years later. Says Salari: “Those at risk of increasing aggression or sustaining severe aggression can be targeted for services that might help reduce the problem. Specifically, attention could be focused on substance abuse prevention and treatment programs, services in disadvantaged neighborhoods and on solving language or cultural barriers that might exist in service delivery.”