COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Researchers have for the first time looked at the relative role of biological, social and psychological factors in predicting which men are most likely to physically abuse their spouses.
The results showed that social factors -- particularly low income and poor relationship quality -- were the best predictors of who would become abusive.
Biological factors, including alcohol use and high testosterone levels, were also associated with increased violence.
Somewhat surprisingly, psychological problems in the men such as anxiety, hostility and paranoia were not strong predictors of abuse once the biological and social components were taken into account.
"Other studies have looked at how biological, psychological and social factors are related individually or in pairs to domestic violence," said Patrick McKenry, professor of family relations and human development at Ohio State University. "Our contribution is that we were able to look at how all three
operate together to predict abuse."
McKenry conducted the study with Teresa Julian, an assistant professor of psychiatry, and Stephen Gavazzi, assistant professor of family relations, both at Ohio State. Their results appear in the May 1995 issue of the Journal of Marriage and the Family .
The research involved 102 married men and their spouses. Thirty-four of the couples were defined as violent, meaning that either spouse reported one or more acts of physical violence by the man against his wife in the past year. During an hour-and-a-half session the men had blood drawn and the serum was analyzed for testosterone levels as well as for alcohol and illicit drug use.
In addition, each partner was interviewed separately and completed several standardized questionnaires measuring social and psychological problems, as well as difficulties experienced in their marriage.
There are several possible reasons psychological factors were not found to be a significant predictor of violence in this study, according to McKenry. For one, the study included a sample of relatively "normal" couples. Most were recruited through newspaper ads and very few had seen counselors about abuse problems. Men who are more violent than those in this sample may have more psychological problems.
But also, psychological factors may not be involved in many cases of abuse.
"The majority of people who abuse their spouses may not have any significant psychological problems that you could identify," McKenry said. "Abusers often seem normal and don't always appear to suffer from personality disorders or other forms of mental illness."
The results underline the importance of social conditions in contributing to domestic violence, McKenry said. Men with lower incomes are more likely to abuse their spouses for several possible reasons. One, a lack of money can be a significant cause of stress in a relationship, he said.
In addition, "people with lower income may also have fewer sources of assistance for marriage difficulties and other problems, and have fewer problem-solving skills. That can only add to their stress," McKenry said.
Couples with poor relationships, as measured by a standardized test, were also more likely to experience violence, the study showed. The findings suggest that poor relationships are often characterized by husbands' attempts to exercise undue control over their wives, McKenry said.
The findings indicated that men with higher levels of testosterone were slightly more likely to be abusers. This is consistent with other research that has linked testosterone with aggression. The connection may be stronger than this study suggests, McKenry said, because none of the men in this sample had testosterone levels that were much above normal.
The research team was one of the first in the United States to use a new test -- called CDTect -- which is thought to be among the most reliable and valid means of testing for recent alcohol use. The test uses blood samples and can detect almost any alcohol use in the last 15 days, McKenry said. Consistent with other studies, the findings showed a connection between higher levels of alcohol use and domestic violence.
The researchers are continuing this research and have begun analysis of data from another 50 couples. The new sample is more diverse in that it includes partners who are experiencing greater dissatisfaction in their marriages. This sample also contains male spouses with higher reported levels of violence, said Gavazzi, one of the study's co-authors.
"Since this additional sample contains more violent men, certain psychological factors like hostility, depression and paranoia may factor more prominently into reports of domestic violence in these couples," Gavazzi said.
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Contact: Patrick McKenry, (614) 292-5616, or Stephen Gavazzi, (614) 292-5620
Written by Jeff Grabmeier, (614) 292-8457