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The Causes of Wife Abuse - Signs Of Potential Violence

risk markers abused sugarman

Predictive Characteristics and Risk Markers

Can a woman expect to see certain signs of potential violence in a man she is dating or living with before she becomes a victim of abuse? The National Coalition against Domestic Violence published a checklist of predictive behaviors in men that signal violence. (See Table 2.11 in Chapter 2.) Along with the predictors described in the checklist, there are other indicators, known as risk markers, which may indicate an increased propensity for violence. These include:

  • an unemployed male
  • a male who uses illegal drugs
  • males and females with different religious backgrounds
  • a male who saw his father hit his mother
  • male and female unmarried cohabitants
  • males with blue-collar occupations
  • males who did not graduate from high school
  • males between eighteen and thirty years of age
  • males or females who use severe violence toward children in the home
  • total family income below the poverty level

In "Men Who Batter: The Risk-Markers," Richard Gelles, Regina Lackner, and Glen Wolfner found that in families where two risk markers were present, there was twice as much violence as those with none (Violence Update, vol. 4, no. 12, 1994). In homes with seven or more of those factors, the violence rate was a staggering forty times higher.

A separate analysis by Hotaling and Sugarman surveyed risk markers present in more than four hundred studies. In "A Risk Marker Analysis of Assaulted Wives" (Journal of Family Violence, vol. 5, no. 1, 1990) and in "Prevention of Wife Assault" (Treatment of Family Violence [New York: Wiley, 1990]), the researchers found that abused women do not differ in specific personality traits from women who are not abused in terms of age, educational level, race, occupational status, length of time in the relationship, or number of children. Furthermore, a woman's poor self-esteem did not appear to be a risk factor but rather a consequence of abuse.

Contrary to other researchers, Hotaling and Sugarman found that being an abused child or seeing a parent being abused does not necessarily mean a woman has a greater chance of becoming a battered wife. Instead, severe male batterers can be distinguished from nonassaultive and verbally abusive men, as well as men who commit minor abuse, by the greater likelihood of having witnessed violence between their parents. In addition, men who engage in minor physical aggression are more likely to have experienced violence in the past than are men who were verbally abusive.

Hotaling and Sugarman also concluded that the only factor that differentiates abused wives from wives who are not abused is the level of marital conflict. Obviously, if a marriage has very little or no conflict, there is no reason or provocation for violence. The researchers maintained that while there is some level of conflict in every relationship, it does not necessarily result in violence. Individuals in adequately functioning relationships negotiate their way through disagreements, while individuals in violent relationships lack these skills and resort to violence.

Hotaling and Sugarman concentrated on four factors most often associated with abuse: marital conflict, the frequency of the husband's drinking, expectations about the division of labor in the relationship, and a measure of educational incompatibility. Hotaling and Sugarman concluded that to understand wife abuse, researchers are better served by consideration of the perpetrators' behavior rather than the characteristics of the victims.

RISK MARKERS AND A CONTINUUM OF AGGRESSION. Sugarman et al. used the analysis of risk markers to test the theory that there is a continuum of aggression in husband-to-wife violence that is linked to some of the risk markers. The risk markers considered were marital conflict, depressive symptoms, alcohol use, attitude toward interpersonal violence, violence in the family in which the individuals grew up, nonfamily violence level, and socioeconomic status. The researchers found that an increase in the severity of husband-to-wife violence was associated with an increase in depressive symptoms in the husband, along with his greater acceptance of marital violence and a higher likelihood that he experienced and witnessed violence in his family as a child. In addition, greater alcohol use and higher levels of nonfamily violence by the couple were linked to more severe violence.

Consistent with other research, Sugarman et al. concluded that persons who engage in minor violence do not necessarily progress to severe violence, but those who use severe violence almost always began with minor violence. The most important implication of this finding is that early intervention may prevent more severe abuse. Most treatment programs are only initiated after a woman has suffered severe battering. Prevention programs that emphasize the importance of seeking treatment for lowlevel abuse before it escalates to serious violence might encourage women to escape abuse before it claims their health or their lives.

A study by Jacquelyn C. Campbell et al. titled "Assessing Risk Factors for Intimate Partner Homicide," evaluated the risk factors among abused women for being killed by their intimate partners (National Institute of Justice Journal, no. 250, November 2003). The researchers found that abused women whose abusers owned guns and who had threatened to kill them were at high risk of being killed by their intimate partners. (See Figure 3.2.) Other


high risk factors for homicide included extreme jealousy, attempts to choke, and marital rape. The study authors hope that the "danger assessment" tool they used may assist women and advocates for battered women to better assess the level of risk in abusive relationships.

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