Domestic violence often comes from men who repress emotions, feel threatened, study finds

December 09, 2002

COLUMBUS, Ohio - A new study suggests that the way abusive men try to manage stress in their relationships and other parts of their lives may be associated with their violent outbursts.

Results showed abusive men were likely to view stressful circumstances as personally threatening, while trying to avoid the situation or repress emotional responses.

The findings indicate that abusive men don't show signs of depression or other reactions to the stress they're under. Instead, the feelings of stress build up and are released in bursts of violence, said Kristi Williams, co-author of the study and assistant professor of sociology at Ohio State University.

That's not an excuse for violence, she said, but understanding how abusers respond to stress may help mental health professionals intervene more appropriately.

"Our study suggests that violent behavior is a likely response among people with particular methods of evaluating and coping with stress," Williams said.

Williams conducted the study with Debra Umberson of the University of Texas at Austin and Kristin Anderson of Western Washington University. The study was published in a recent issue of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior.

The study included 34 men who had a history of domestic violence, most of whom were participating in a rehabilitation program in Texas. They were matched with a sample of 30 nonviolent subjects who were similar in socio-demographic factors.

All of the study participants completed a variety of questionnaires that examined levels of stress in their lives, how they responded to stress, anger and hostility, and other psychological issues. The researchers also conducted in-depth interviews with the participants and asked them to discuss the sources of strain and satisfaction in their relationships, the worst and most recent arguments with their female partners, and their general attitudes about family relationships.

The results showed that, in general, the violent subjects reported significantly higher levels of stress in their lives than did the nonviolent subjects. Surprisingly, though, the violent men did not differ from others in the level of psychological distress they reported. In other words, the violent men did not show signs of depression, loneliness, or other indications that they were dealing with a lot of stress in their lives.

This was consistent with the finding that violent men were more likely to report that they repressed emotions - for example, saying that, when they are depressed, they try to take their mind off their problems rather than confronting them.

"People who repress emotions and feelings are not necessarily free of distress," she said. "They are simply free of traditional symptoms of psychological distress, such as depression. This may lead to a buildup of frustration that results in an outburst of violence."

In addition, violent men were more likely to view stressful situations as personally threatening, Williams said. These were situations in which the men said they did not feel fully in control of their lives. Violent men were most likely to feel threatened by issues involving their relationship with their partner. The in-depth interviews showed that "violent men are more likely to perceive their partner's behavior as threatening, regardless of the objective qualities of the behavior," Williams said.

Men who showed both tendencies - viewing stressful situations as threatening and repressing emotions - were 3.5 times more likely to commit domestic violence than those who didn't share that combination of traits, the study found.

The situation was even worse for men who tended to avoid or withdraw from conflicts with their partners. Men who felt threatened and who avoided conflict were eight times more likely than others to commit domestic violence.

Personal control plays a key factor in domestic violence, according to Williams.

"Issues of control surfaced throughout the in-depth interviews," she said. "Men who engage in domestic violence are more likely to feel they are at the mercy of people or situations in their lives. That's probably one reason why they perceive many events as more threatening to them personally."

Williams said researchers have tended to view violence as either a symptom of a psychiatric problem or a criminal behavior to achieve some goal, such as violence used in a robbery. However, these results suggest violence may also be a expression of distress that some people use in response to a stressful situation. In this case, violence is a way of externalizing feelings of distress that occur as a result of problems in their relationships. These men react with violence, while others may externalize stress in other ways, such as by abusing drugs or alcohol or showing suicidal behaviors, she said. Still others internalize stress by becoming depressed.

"It's not a way of excusing violence, but we hope that more clearly understanding the socio-psychological processes that can lead to domestic violence may help practitioners design more effective interventions that could prevent abuse," she said.
Contact: Kristi Williams, (614) 688-3207;

Written by Jeff Grabmeier, (614) 292-8457;

Ohio State University

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