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Fall 1998

Research Magazine > ARCHIVE > Spring 98 > Article

Psychological Weapons in the Intimate War

by Libby Coyne and Judy Purdy

Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words can also hurt you.

That’s especially true if the damaging words come from someone close to you, especially a spouse, said psychologist Ileana Arias. Bruises and broken bones are easier to see than the injuries of psychological abuse, but it doesn’t mean that they are any less painful — or long-lasting.

"It’s not clear that people can get over psychological abuse, that it doesn’t hurt as much as physical abuse," said Arias, a leading researcher in this young but rapidly developing field.

In 1995, when Arias began to look at psychological abuse among couples, "there wasn’t anything out there you could identify as a significant body of research. The most important thing that I’ve done so far is to identify that psychological abuse is as detrimental as physical abuse. Psychological abuse is rampant, and its effects are underestimated, significantly so," said the UGA clinical psychology professor, who has studied domestic violence for 15 years.

Arias leads a team of UGA faculty and graduate students who are investigating the destructive consequences of psychological abuse on intimate partners, their children and society. Among their findings: Psychological abuse harms parenting ability and children’s emotional well-being.

She said she suspects psychological abuse also impairs children’s ability to form healthy intimate relationships as adults. Her research, supported in part by a grant from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, also helps explain why people may have a hard time leaving abusive partners.

"Intimate violence is a huge social and public health problem in the United States. It is an underlying cause of the larger problems of violence in our society as well as an important contributor to other health and social problems," said James A. Mercy, CDC’s associate director for science in the division for violence prevention.

"Male violence is the number one source of injury to women," said Terrence (Red) Crowley, community intervention project director of the Atlanta-based organization Men Stopping Violence. "The problem is daunting. Conservatively, 40 percent of men use force with women to get their way.

"Battery is a systematic campaign of psychological, economic, verbal and sexual abuse, all held in place by violence and the threat of violence," he said. "It’s a crime not just against women but against society and nature. It’s our responsibility as men to end it."

Psychological abuse is more common and widespread than physical abuse. Arias has found that people who physically abuse their mates almost always use psychological abuse first and that men who escalate from psychological abuse to physical force frequently grew up in domestically violent homes.

"There are women who are psychologically abused, even severely, and are never, ever touched," Arias said. "Those women don’t usually identify themselves as victimized, and often professionals don’t either. They just say, ‘Well, you know, it’s a bad marriage.’"

But it goes beyond being a bad marriage, she said. "There’s a population of women out there who need specific services and attention, and they are being ignored because of the bias toward looking at physical abuse."

Arias’ studies are providing solid information for therapists, social service providers and policy-makers who work with abusive people, their spouses and children.

Abuse and the Dating Scene

It’s no secret that abusive behavior is a way to gain or maintain power and control in a marriage. But Arias’ team has shown that physical abuse and psychological abuse are just as prevalent in dating relationships.

In a recent study of 156 college men in dating relationships, she and doctoral students Heidi Ronfeldt and Rachel Kimerling measured perceptions of power compared to levels of psychological abuse — isolation, humiliation and threats — and physical abuse, from pushing and grabbing to using a knife or gun. They found that men who physically abused their girlfriends were dissatisfied either with their own amount of power in the relationship or with the relationship itself.

"Low levels of satisfaction with relationship power increased the likelihood of psychological and, ultimately, physical abuse," Arias said.

The study also showed that dating men who are at greatest risk for escalating from psychological to physical abuse were the ones who, as children, had seen their fathers physically abuse their mothers. These findings, published in the February 1998 issue of the Journal of Marriage and the Family, are consistent with abuse patterns among married couples. But Arias notes that the UGA study is a short-term look at a narrow slice of society and should be interpreted cautiously.

Stand By Your Man

Psychological abuse may be harder to define than physical abuse, but Arias’ research suggests its effects can be just as damaging.

"It’s harder to escape from psychological abuse," she said. "A lot of the women say they can handle the physical abuse. What they can’t handle is the degradation, the humiliation and the psychological control their partners engage in."

Severely abused women may not have the psychological wherewithal to stay out of the abusive relationship. They have a high incidence of depression and anxiety, which makes it difficult for them to cope with the ordinary demands of life, much less make life-changing decisions about ending a marriage and going it alone, she said.

Psychological abuse includes emotional abuse, which destroys self-esteem, and domination abuse, which exerts physical control.

"Emotional abuse is trying to convince her that she’s crazy or stupid, or that she’s lucky to have you, that she’s a bad parent," Arias said. "Domination abuse is not allowing her to have access to a car or money, making her account for every single minute of the day and calling several times a day to make sure that she’s home."

The UGA team found that when women leave an abusive relationship the decision hinges more on the psychological abuse than on the physical abuse. Most battered women say they know the danger signals for physical abuse, which occurs intermittently. Psychological abuse, however, is more continuous and harder to recognize.

To an extent, psychologically abused women also carry on their own psychological abuse, Arias said. Psychological abuse compounds their fears and causes them to question their ability to make

it on their own. They worry about what their husbands might do next and how bad the situation could get.

To compound the problem, battered women, especially those who lack community-based social support, may use excessive alcohol as a coping strategy, according to a study by Arias, doctoral student Amy Street and Research Professor of Child and Family Development Gene Brody.

"It’s rare that both psychological and physical abuse get addressed," Arias said. "So battered women are not getting services they need to overcome the totality of their abusive experiences."

Getting Out

Understanding women’s intentions to get out and stay out of abusive partnerships is an important factor in ending domestic violence. Surprisingly, for women in battered shelters, neither severity nor frequency of physical abuse predicted their resolve to stay out of an abusive relationship, according to Arias’ studies. Instead, the motivation to leave was related more to psychological abuse.

"What did predict their resolve to leave was their perception that the violence had gotten worse over time," Arias said. "That is scary, because that means that as long as the abuser maintains a [stable] level of abuse — and it doesn’t matter if it’s very severe or very moderate — she’s not motivated to get out."

How women deal with stress and setbacks also predicts who gets stuck and who takes action. Coping strategies that only reduce emotional impact or make a person feel better — eating chocolate, calling a friend — don’t change long-term behavior. Abused women must learn to confront problems head-on.

"What we’ve been seeing with our shelter sample is that it doesn’t make sense to tell them, ‘You are going to do X, Y and Z to get out.’ Instead, you tell them they have to face the problem, figure out their alternatives and take a more action-oriented approach," she said. "The idea is for them to discover ways they can change the situation. A lot of times they don’t believe they can."

The stress of abuse also may impact women’s health. Arias plans to study health issues of abused women and their children. If her study finds specific physical conditions associated with abuse, then professionals will have other abuse indicators, in addition to bruises or broken bones.

From Generation To Generation

Not everyone who grows up with abuse becomes abusive. But Arias has collaborated on several studies that confirm domestic violence is the most significant and most reliable predictor of spouse-abuse behavior among adults.

Her studies have shown that children who grow up in violent homes are more accepting as adults of violence against intimate partners and are more likely to engage in violence. Her findings also indicate that abused mothers more often withdraw from parental duties and have a higher tendency for child neglect: They don’t reinforce, reward or pay as much attention to their children. Their kids more often act out and become juvenile delinquents.

And just like their psychologically abused mothers, boys and girls both are more likely to be depressed and have low self-esteem.

"Development of self-esteem and self concept are very important as pre-adolescents start defining themselves as truly independent beings from their peers and grapple with identity issues," Arias said.

Arias also plans to study what effect domestic violence has on kids when they start forming their own intimate relationships.

There are bright spots in the UGA findings. For instance, grandparents are good buffers. Kids who have a good relationship with grandparents — at least with maternal grandparents — don’t have as many depression and self-esteem issues.

"We think it’s because the kids have more contact with the mother’s parents than they do with the father’s parents," Arias said. "While growing up in a violent home is bad, it doesn’t have to be fatal."

Profile of an Abuser

Spouse abuse is no respecter of social, educational, gender, ethnic or racial group, but Arias has found that abusive husbands have high aggression, low self-esteem, an increased desire for control, impulsiveness and defensiveness. Frequently, they also grew up in violent homes.

She and her graduate students recently added two more characteristics to the profile: a high level of narcissism and a large discrepancy between how the abuser sees himself and how others see him. Many people who score very high on narcissistic personality traits very quickly become angry and express rage when they don’t get what they want or what they think they’re entitled to, Arias said.

"A high degree of self-discrepancy leads an abusive man to interpret others’ behavior, especially his wife’s, as a personal affront, whether it is or not," she said. "He’ll interpret something that she did as [disrespecting] him and become very angry."

Identifying personality characteristics of abusive men could help predict who might engage in psychological or physical abuse and help those at risk change their behavior. For example, a person probably can’t get rid of highly narcissistic behavior but can learn that it may lead to domestic violence and other dysfunctional behavior.

The same is true for self-discrepancy.

"You can change the outcome of the comparison by decreasing its frequency, focusing more on your own evaluation and paying less attention to what others may be thinking about you," Arias said. "Even if there is a large discrepancy, you can change the standards so that instead of feeling angry and frustrated, you feel guilty or ashamed, which will prevent you from abusing another human being."

And stopping the abuse with parents may help halt it before it contaminates the next generation.

ABUSE The Cold, Hard Facts

1 out of 8
number of husbands who batter their wives in a 12-month period

number of U.S. battered women’s shelters

number of U.S. animal shelters

the age of females for whom domestic violence leads the cause of injury

domestic violence tops the list of why women visit the emergency room

percentage of abusers who have no criminal record

percentage of murdered women killed by a current or former husband or boyfriend

percentage of middle-class divorces that result from violence

2 out of 3
number of white men who verbally or psychologically abuse their wives/partners

percentage of homicides committed by current or former spouse/partner (of either sex) in 1996 — down from 13.6% in 1976

percentage of men who will use physical force at some point in the relationship.

Source: Department of Justice, FBI, 1990 Senate Judiciary Hearings, EAP Digest, Partnership Against Violence, National Clearinghouse for Defense of Battered Women

For more information, e-mail Ileana Arias at iarias@uga.cc.uga.edu or access the U.S. Depart-ment of Justice web site: http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/vawo/

Libby Coyne, a former, intern in the research communications office, graduated from UGA with a degree in English. Judy Purdy is the editor of Research Reporter.


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