Title: Psychological and Environmental Factors Associated with Partner Violence

Authors: Edna B. Foa, Michele Cascardi, Lori A. Zoellner, and Norah C. Feeny

Published: Trauma, Violence & Abuse, V. 1 (1), January 2000, 67-91

What is the scope of this article?

This article presents two models of women's ability to influence intimate partner violence based on a review of theoretical and empirical literature on the topic. The authors explain the need for "sensitive and contextualized" models of domestic violence that are "generally applicable" for understanding the problems of its victims, and for guiding the efforts of both clinicians and researchers. Because intimate partner violence affects as many as two million women in the United States each year, the authors hope that the models presented will not only contribute to the literature on domestic violence but also improve interventions. Factors that seem to be associated with continued violence and those that appear to enable women to curtail or end partner violence are described.

What did the authors expect to find?

The authors hypothesized the following:

1. Partner violence and psychological difficulties interact in a vicious cycle that hinders victims' ability to act to stop the violence.

2. "Resilience", defined in terms such as good self-esteem, optimism, mental flexibility and generally good physical health, mitigates the effects of violence and serves to help victims act positively to end the violence in their lives.

3. Environmental factors can either facilitate domestic violence or serve to protect and help its victims. Specifically, community resources that helped separate victims from perpetrators and that enable victims to reestablish lives independent from perpetrators help victims end the violence in their lives.

What did the authors propose as models of domestic violence?

The Psychological Model

A. Factors that lead or contribute to psychological difficulties, and which then interfere with ending domestic violence include:

1) Psychological problems such as posttraumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, dissociation or substance abuse. For many victims of domestic violence, these problems result from violence and contribute to the continuation of violence.

2) A past trauma history increases risk of psychological problems.

3) Negative schemas: a negative world-view and view of oneself. In particular:

a) The tendency to react with anger to life events. This may hinder healthy recovery from traumatic experiences. Researchers find that being angry and having PTSD symptoms often occur together, but anger seems to get in the way of resolving trauma-related emotional problems in treatment.

b) Guilt feelings may keep women from leaving abusive relationships.

c) Coping methods characterized by denial, avoidance and passivity are related to depression and poor problem-solving behaviors.

4) Certain perceptions of the relationship with the batterer make women unwilling to leave. In particular:

a) Women who feel emotionally or economically dependent on their abuser tend to stay in the relationship.

b) Women tend to stay in abusive relationships when they engage in "wishful thinking" about the abuse (e.g., wishing their partner would just stop being abusive, or wishing the violence would just stop without attributing its occurrence to a responsible party or basing it on a realistic assessment of the problem).

c) A belief in traditional sex roles seems to be associated with women continuing to stay involved in abusive relationships.

B. Factors associated with resilience which then contribute to victims leaving violent relationships include:

1) Positive schemas: mental habits that buffer against the development of psychological problems resulting from stressful life experiences. In particular:

a) A flexible and balanced view of the world including a willingness to see positive and negative aspects of experiences or others. This seems to prevent the development of posttraumatic stress disorder.

b) Active problem-solvers were less likely to stay in an abusive relationship than women who were passive about addressing problems.

c) Perceived control (i.e., internal vs. external locus of control):

i) Mental health is associated with an "internal locus of control" (i.e., "I have the power and ability to change things I want to change in my life")

ii) The sense of having an internal locus of control seemed to moderate the relationship between self-esteem and violence. E.g., women who left violent relationships had stronger perceived control and better self esteem than those who did not. In contrast, longer or more severe violence reduced a victim's perceived control.

2) Attitudes and beliefs that decreased victim's attachment to the abuser, such as emotional or economic independence and non-traditional sex role beliefs, improved victim's resilience.

The Environmental Model

A. Factors that increase resilience and decrease psychological difficulties help victims stop intimate partner violence in their lives. These factors include:

1) Tangible resources such as housing, childcare, income and employment. These resources improve the likelihood that a victim of domestic violence could become economically independent and capable of leaving an abusive partner.

2) Interpersonal resources such as frequent contact with many family members, friends and neighbors to whom victims could talk about problems with abusive partners. These help buffer victims from psychological problems such as depression.

3) Legal resources such as the use of arrest, restraining orders and prosecution. These protect victims by encouraging and enabling them to get help from the criminal justice system, and have been effective in deterring batterers from resuming violent behaviors.

4) Institutional resources such as access to quality care from shelters, hospital emergency rooms, social services, mental health and pastoral counselors. These help victims work on resolving problems caused by domestic violence.

B. Factors that lead to increased contact with the abuser lead to psychological problems and increased risk of continued intimate partner violence. Such factors include:

1) The lack of tangible resources. These increase victim dependency on abusers decreasing the likelihood that a battered woman would leave her abusive partner.

2) The lack of interpersonal resources increases an abused woman's risk of developing depression and other psychological problems, and in so doing decreases her ability to take positive actions to reduce violence in her life.

3) Barriers to legal resources include fear of contacting the legal system, dissatisfaction, or humiliation when attempting to get help from the legal system, or increased violence from the abuser as a result of legal system interventions.

4) Barriers to institutional resources and institutional interventions themselves could hinder a battered woman's efforts to leave a violent relationship. Barriers include lack of information or fear about using services. When medical or social service personnel blame victims for domestic abuse, or fail to recognize the signs of abuse and give appropriate referrals, victims can be left feeling more isolated, helpless, and distressed.

What conclusions can be made based on the models proposed?

Stopping intimate partner violence is a complex problem that is best understood through the use of conceptual models that include both psychological and environmental factors. Interventions that bolster a woman's ability to become actively engaged in the process of ending the violence are important, but in so doing clinicians are cautioned to avoid implying that victims are to blame for the battering. More exploration into the problem at all levels is warranted.

Reviewed by Priscilla Schulz, LCSW

Center for Trauma Recovery

University of Missouri - St. Louis

August 14, 2000