Title: Defining Psychological Abuse of Husbands Toward Wives: Contexts, Behaviors, and Typologies


Authors: Diane R. Follingstad, and Dana D. DeHart


Published: Journal of Interpersonal Violence, V. 15, 9, September 2000, 891-920


What is the scope of this article?

This article presents a literature review and an original study with the intent to try to standardize the concept of adult psychological abuse.


In the literature review the authors summarize how researchers and clinicians have conceptualized, defined and measured both child and adult psychological abuse. Inconsistencies in how psychological abuse has been defined are discussed.


The study presented identifies areas of agreement among psychologists regarding behaviors that constitute psychological abuse of women by male intimate partners. The researchers hypothesized that study participants (i.e., psychologists who are members of the American Psychological Association), would consistently rate male partners’ behaviors as abusive when they degraded, intimidated, threatened or isolated victims. Researchers expected less agreement on ratings of abusiveness when the behaviors in question could be viewed as consistent with cultural norms for “typically male” or “romantic” behavior. Examples of such behaviors include expecting the woman to serve the man, men not helping with childcare, and jealousy.


How was the study conducted?

Study participants

American Psychological Association (APA) membership rosters were used to identify a nationally representative sample of psychologists who were asked to participate in the study. Of the 1000 psychologists asked to participate, 449 (45%) returned completed surveys.


Of the respondents, roughly half were male, half female; 97% were white, 78% were married, 75% worked in private practice. The average number of years in practice since receiving their doctorate was 18. Most worked with couples. Two-thirds knew a woman who had experienced psychological abuse. Some (one-third) had personally experienced psychological abuse.


The survey

Researchers developed the survey used in the study. It consisted of a list of 102 distinct behaviors considered psychologically abusive. The list of behaviors was based on research and clinical observation of abuse in intimate partner relationships. Researchers randomly divided the survey into two versions  (form A and B), each consisting of 51 items.


Roughly half of the participants completed survey A and half completed B. Participants rated each behavior on the survey as “never abusive”, “maybe abusive”, or “always abusive”. Behaviors rated as “maybe abusive” were qualified using a 5-point Likert scale (i.e., participants indicated how “contextual factors” such as the frequency or duration of a particular behavior, the perpetrator’s intent, or the sense of threat evoked by the behavior influenced a given rating). Behaviors rated as “always abusive” were given a severity rating on the same 5-point scale.


Analysis of responses

Several statistical methods were used to identify areas of agreement as to what constitutes psychological abuse. Survey behaviors were “clustered” into five conceptual groups: 1) threats to physical health, 2) control of physical freedom, 3) general destabilization, 4) controlling, and 5) ineptitude (inept male relationship behaviors). Responses were then analyzed so that each “cluster” received an average (mean) score on each of five dimensions: 1) abusiveness, 2) severity of abusiveness, 3) frequency, 4) intent and 5) perception of threat by the target of the behavior. Researchers referred to the last three dimensions as “contextual factors” for the behaviors being considered, and evaluated how context of behavior affected ratings of overall abusiveness and severity of abuse within each cluster.


What did the study find about what constitutes psychological abuse?

Most study participants agreed that behaviors that threatened physical well-being, controlled and restricted basic physical freedoms, or that psychologically destabilized the victim almost always constituted psychological abuse. Twenty-seven behaviors (26% of the 102 behaviors considered in the study) met these criteria. They were considered quite severe and abusive independent of any contextual factors. Specifically,

1.      Threat to physical health: These behaviors consist of overt threats to harm or disfigure the woman, her children or other family members, and behaviors that deny her access to medical care.

2.      Control/restriction of physical freedoms: Behaviors in this group were considered so severe as to “induce debility”, and include depriving the woman of sleep, imprisoning her in the home, causing her to work as a prostitute, or making her eat from a bowl on the floor.

3.      Destabilization: Intimidation, degradation or trying to convince the woman that she is inferior and undeserving of better treatment; behaviors that isolate the woman, monopolize her time or energy or restrict her access to outside resources and people. Examples include making her beg for essentials (money, food or use of the car), threatening to kill a pet, limiting use of car or telephone.


Seventy-five behaviors comprise the last two clusters. Among these, less agreement was found with regard to ratings of abusiveness. For these behaviors context (i.e., frequency or duration, intent of perpetrator, or sense of perceived threat by the victim) strongly influenced whether or not it was rated as psychologically abusive. Specifically,

4.      Controlling: About half the study participants rated 64% of these behaviors as “always abusive”.  Behaviors in this cluster include suspiciousness and jealousy, emotional blackmail, intimidation, criticism, withholding of money or resources, some isolating or monopolizing behaviors, expressing hatred of other women, poor judgment in caring for children and displaying dramatic mood swings.  Twenty-five percent of participants did not consider the last three behaviors to be psychological abuse.

5.      Ineptitude: Few rated behaviors in this cluster as psychological abuse. Behaviors include role failure (i.e., mismanaging money, lack of sexual interest, not fulfilling commitments) and rigid sex role behaviors (i.e., refusing to discuss emotional problems, or the man insisting he manage/allocate household funds).


The Context of Psychological Abuse

The less there was consensus on whether or not a behavior constituted psychological abuse, the more raters depended on contextual factors. When context was considered, study participants preferred frequency and duration of a behavior as a determinant of abuse to the more subjective contextual factors (i.e., intent to harm, or victim’s perception of threat). Researchers suggest several reasons for this preference:

·         When a behavior’s abusiveness was questionable, study participants seemed to look for a pattern to the behavior, and determined abusiveness when the pattern of its occurrence caused harm.

·         Intent to harm may not be consistent with outcome. Except in cases of extremes of violent behavior, an impulsive, angry act is not always considered to be psychological abuse.

·         Behavior may be misinterpreted by those it affects. Victims of psychological abuse sometimes have difficulty labeling behavior as abusive or identifying the presence of abuse.


When study participants could imagine a reasonable, non-abusive explanation for a behavior, intent to harm and perception of threat were then given more weight in the rating. Examples of such behaviors include refusing to allow the woman to work outside the home, refusing to have children, moving the woman away from social supports, and lack of interest in or refusing to have sexual relations


How did results of the study compare with other concepts of psychological abuse or child maltreatment?

The areas of strongest agreement as to what constitutes psychological abuse of women closely matched behaviors that Amnesty International labels as torture. The occurrence of any of these behaviors even once is considered to be severe psychological abuse.


There was much overlap between behaviors that study participants agreed constituted adult psychological abuse and those reported in the literature to be child psychological maltreatment. Distinguishing between which behaviors constituted child psychological maltreatment versus adult psychological abuse largely stemmed from developmental differences between the victims.



Reviewed by Priscilla Schulz, LCSW

Center for Trauma Recovery

University of Missouri – St. Louis

March 5, 2002


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