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Domestic Violence, Personal Control, and Gender

Author(s): Debra Umberson, Kristin Anderson, Jennifer Glick and Adam Shapiro
Source: Journal of Marriage and Family, Vol. 60, No. 2 (May, 1998), pp. 442-452
Published by: National Council on Family Relations
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/353860
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DEBRAUMBERSON University of Texas


KRISTIN
ANDERSON Drew University*
JENNIFERGLICK

Brown Universitvy**

ADAMSHAPIRO University of North Florida ***

Domestic Violence, Personal Control, and Gender

Research on perpetrators of domestic violence


suggests that acts of violence may result from
feelings of low personal control. Research on victims suggests that domestic violence may underminefeelings of personal control. Using a national
sample, we consider how domestic violence is related to personal control. Wefind that individuals
who have initiated violence against a partner do
not differ from individuals who have nonviolent
relationships in feelings of personal control. However, experiencing violence at the hands of a partner has significant adverse effects on a sense of
personal control for women, but not for men. This
suggests that violence, even when both the man
and woman participate, is more detrimental to
the self-perceptions and well-being of women
than of men.

Department of Sociology, University of Texas, Burdine Hall


336, Austin, TX 78712 (umberson@mail.la.utexas.edu).
*Department of Sociology, Drew University, Madison, NJ
07940.
**Department of Sociology, Box 1916, Brown University,
Providence, RI 02912.
***Department of Sociology, University of North Florida,
Jacksonville, FL 32224.
Key Words. domestic violence, marital conflict, mastery, personal control, wife abuse.

442

National surveys indicate that at least 28% of


couples experience physical violence at some point
in their relationship and 16% of couples experience violence in a given year (Straus & Gelles,
1986). The consequences of domestic violence
are substantial-in terms of physical injury, psychological and emotional distress, suicide, and
substance abuse among victims (Stark & Flitcraft,
1991). Much of the research on domestic violence
addresses etiological questions: Why do some
people perpetrate acts of domestic violence, and
why do so many victims remain in abusive relationships? These questions are generally addressed
in two very separate literatures that are concerned
with either the victims or the perpetratorsof domestic violence and that ignore any overlap between
these two groups. The victim literaturefocuses on
social and psychological factors that lead individuals-typically women-to remain involved in abusive relationships (Bowker, 1983; Walker, 1984).
The perpetrator literature focuses on social and
psychological factors that lead individuals-typically men-to abuse their domestic partners (Dutton, 1988; Hamberger & Hastings, 1986; Stets,
1988). A central theme in both literatures is that
feelings of personal control play an important role
in the dynamics of domestic violence. The victim
literaturesuggests that victims of domestic violence
experience an increasingly diminished sense of
control that leads to powerlessness and helpless-

Journal of Marriage and the Family 60 (May 1998): 442-452

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443

Violence and Control


ness-psychological conditions that disenable individuals from leaving abusive relationships. The
perpetuatorliterature suggests that perpetratorsof
domestic violence are characterized by a reduced
sense of personal control or a high need for control
that plays a role in triggering violent episodesviolent episodes that may enhance personal control. The study presented here draws on theoretical and empirical work in psychosocial epidemiology to explore how personal control is related
to domestic violence in a national sample. We
consider both victims and perpetratorsof domestic violence in our analysis. In light of theoretical
and research evidence that domestic violence is a
different phenomenon for men and women (Johnson, 1995; Langhinrichsen-Rohling, Neidig, &
Thorn, 1995), we also consider how the association
of personal control and domestic violence may
differ for men and women.
EPIDEMIOLOGICAL
RESEARCH
AND
PERSONAL
CONTROL
The term, "personal control," developed in previous theoretical and empirical work (e.g.,
Mirowsky & Ross, 1989, 1990; Rosenfield, 1989;
Turner & Noh, 1983), refers to the "belief that
one's own intentions and behaviors can impose
control over one's environment" (Umberson,
1993, p. 578). This general concept has been similarly labeled "personal efficacy" (Kohn, 1972)
and "mastery"(Pearlin, Lieberman, Menaghan, &
Mullen, 1981). The obverse of personal control is
revealed in Wheaton's (1980) measure of fatalism. A substantial body of theory and research in
psychosocial epidemiology has established that
various aspects of the social-structural environment affect the emotional state of individuals
(House, Umberson, & Landis, 1988). For example, the social environment is defined by such
characteristics as poverty, social resources (e.g.,
supportive relationships, reliable child care), and
by various sources of stress (e.g., unemployment,
work strain). In turn, these characteristics of the
social environment affect individuals' physical
and psychological well-being (Mirowsky & Ross,
1989). In recent research, the primary activity of
epidemiologists centers on identifying the psychosocial mechanisms through which socialstructural factors affect individuals (House et al.,
1988). One of the psychosocial mechanisms that
has proven to be a link between social-structural
conditions and individuals' emotional well-being

is a sense of personal control (Mirowsky & Ross,


1989; Turner & Noh, 1983; Umberson, 1993;
Wheaton, 1980). Previous research clearly establishes that personal control is inversely associated
with psychological distress and that beliefs about
control explain a substantial part of the impact of
sociodemographic variables and stress on psychological distress (Ross, 1991; Umberson, 1993).
Theoretically, this occurs because the social environment (e.g., poverty, social resources, stressors)
influences individuals' actual control over the environment, as well as their subjective sense of
personal control over the environment. For example, poverty may diminish one's actual opportunities to control the environment by restricting
choices about living conditions. Poverty may diminish one's perceived sense of control over the
environment when reduced control is experienced
as pervasive in one's life. In turn, the absence of
real and perceived control contributes to psychological distress. Certainly, the presence of domestic violence in one's social environment could be
expected to alter the individual's sense of mastery
or control over the environment. Furthermore, an
individual might engage in violence in an effort to
gain some sense of control over the environment.
Personal Control and Victims
of Domestic Violence
A substantial research literature describes the
repercussions of domestic violence for victims'
physical and psychological well-being, and this
literature suggests that violence may affect wellbeing partly by affecting one's sense of personal
control. Exposure to violence within an individual's immediate social environment can produce
temporary or permanent changes in that individual's physical health and emotional state. Several
studies conducted with victims of domestic violence suggest that experiencing physical or emotional assaults at the hands of a family member
significantly reduces a victim's sense of personal
control. Lenore Walker (1984) characterizes this
psychological outcome as one component of the
"batteredwoman's syndrome." Drawing on Seligman's (1975) work, Walker contends that women
who are repeatedly victimized by domestic violence learn that they cannot predict the outcome
of their behavior-a process called "learned helplessness." Although women attempt to keep male
partners calm in order to avoid conflicts that
could escalate into violence, they are unable to

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444

Journal of Marriage and the Family

predict whether their behavior will soothe or enrage their male partners. The women studied by
Walker clearly suffered a reduced sense of control over their own physical safety.
This loss of personal control has severe psychological and emotional consequences. Some studies
document the presence of flashbacks and dissociative experiences among women victimized by
domestic violence (Walker, 1984). Other studies
suggest that domestic violence is associated with
depression, substance abuse, suicide, and a loss of
self-esteem among female victims (Kirkwood,
1993; Stark & Flitcraft, 1991; Stark, Flitcraft, &
Frazier, 1979). These findings are consistent with
the epidemiologic literature documenting associations among the social environment, personal
control, and psychological distress. The negative
psychological effects of domestic violence documented in past research may be due, in part, to
victims' lack of personal control over the violence
in their environments. However, previous survey
research has not examined whether exposure to
violence within the social environment leads to a
reduced sense of personal control.
Personal Control and Perpetrators
of Domestic Violence
Much theory and research on batterers and some
intervention programs designed for batterers emphasize some aspect of "control" as playing a role
in domestic violence (e.g., Gondolf, 1985; Stets,
1988). For example, many studies suggest that
domestic violence occurs in response to a perceived lack of control over the environment and
in order to obtain control over the primary individual in one's social environment (Campbell,
1993; Dobash & Dobash, 1979; Sonkin, Martin,
& Walker, 1985; Stets, 1988). Furthermore, this
violent attempt to control others is most likely to
occur when the perpetratorperceives some threat
or challenge to his control over others (e.g.,
Campbell, 1993; Dutton, 1988; Stark & Flitcraft,
1991). This may explain why physical aggression
toward women escalates when women attempt to
leave their male partners and when women are
pregnant (Reiss & Roth, 1993). These situations
may threaten men's actual or perceived control
over women and their own lives. Previous studies
imply that a perceived lack of control over one's
partner or perceived threats to control by one's
partner cause emotional distress for some men
(Umberson & Williams, 1993), especially those
with a high need for control (Gondolf, 1985). In

turn, distress may trigger violent acts (Umberson


& Williams, 1993). Separation and divorce often
are associated with the initiation or escalation of
domestic violence (Reiss & Roth, 1993). This
may occur, in part, because men feel a loss of
control in such situations, and violence is an attempt to regain control over their environment
(Umberson & Williams, 1993). Stets (1995)
makes a similar argument based on dissonance
theory. She suggests that:
when people suffer a loss of controlover their
environment,this threatenstheir view of themselves as havingefficacy or mastery,and compensationthroughcontrollingothers will occur
in orderfor them to regain the view that they
havecontrol.(p. 491)
In an earlier study, Stets (1992) found that attempts to control one's partner were associated
with interpersonal aggression. These studies suggest that attempts to establish personal control
may be linked to the use of violence.
Several studies of perpetratorsof domestic violence have found that violent men often attribute
their behavior to a "loss of control" (Ptacek, 1988).
Feminist theorists, however, have argued that
male perpetratorsoften are explicit about the timing, place, and target of their violence. This suggests that these men are actually in control of
their behavior and are using violence in an instrumental fashion (Ptacek, 1988). These are not necessarily mutually exclusive situations. Perpetrators
may, indeed, feel that they have little control over
some element of their social environment (e.g.,
unemployment). Violence may be an instrumental
act initiated in an attempt to regain a sense of
control over at least one element of their environment when they feel out of control generally. This
suggests that perpetrating acts of violence may
enhance the perpetrator'ssense of personal control.
Gender, Violence, and Control
In light of the possibility of gender differences in
the process of control and violence, we consider
how personal control is associated with domestic
violence for men and women. The literature on
control and the perpetration of domestic violence
has concentrated on men, and the literature on the
consequences of domestic violence for personal
control has focused almost entirely on women, although neither literaturehas empirically tested the
association of personal control and domestic violence with national data. Past studies suggest that
both personal control and domestic violence may

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Violence and Control


be influenced by gender. Women report lower
levels of personal control than do men in national
surveys (Mirowsky & Ross, 1989; Umberson,
1993). There is also some evidence that men and
women differ in their definition of control and in
the salience of control for personal well-being (e.g.,
Ross, 1991). Campbell (1993) provides qualitative
evidence that the meaning of control in relation to
aggression may differ for men and women. She argues that women tend to see violence as a negative
outcome that represents a loss of self-control, but
men tend to view violence as an instrument
through which control and a sense of self-esteem
can be reclaimed. The literatureon perpetratorsof
domestic violence does not generally make gender
comparisons, but it strongly emphasizes that a
sense of control is central to masculine identity,
perhaps to an extreme degree in certain men
(Gondolf, 1985; Stets, 1988). For this group of
men, masculine identity often involves the notion
that men have power over women and should successfully control women, even if this requires violence (Smith, 1990).
Johnson (1995) argues that issues of control
are linked to "common couple violence" (less serious domestic violence in which both partners
participate)and "patriarchalviolence" (more severe
domestic violence perpetrated primarily by men
against women), although in different ways. He
contends that common couple violence is an "intermittent response to the occasional conflicts of
everyday life, motivated by a need to control in
the specific situation." Acts of patriarchal terrorism, in contrast, reflect "a general intent to control one's partner"(p. 291). Furthermore, control
is seen as more central to patriarchal violence
than to common couple violence. The general
need to control one's partner,then, is primarily an
issue for men who perpetratepatriarchalviolence.
A situational need to control, according to Johnson, is an issue for men and women involved in
common couple violence.
Feminist researchers contend that social structuresof genderand power shape men's and women's
access to resources for control within intimate relationships. Kirkwood (1993) suggests several ways
that domestic violence and control may be shaped
by gender and power:
A partnerwho is abusive uses his or her own
powersof persuasion,his or hersensitivityto the
vulnerabilitiesof a woman,his or her physical
strength,and many more personalresourcesto
enact control.Moreover,if that partnerhas access to externalresources,such as management

445
of the family income, he or she can use this to
enactfurthercontrol,such as economicdeprivation. The hierarchiesof Westernculture,which
affordmen greaterresourcesin termsof money,
culturalstatus,andthe historicallegacy of men's
right to "punish"their wives, support men's
abuseof women.(p. 64)
Certainly the significance of violent acts generally
differs for women and men. Men are, on average,
larger and stronger than women so that the same
acts perpetrated by men are likely to be more
damaging than those perpetrated by women.
Compared with men, women are more likely to
be injured during domestic disputes and to report
engaging in violence in self-defense (Gelles &
Straus, 1988; Langhinrichsen-Rohling et al.,
1995). Johnson (1995) suggests that there may be
gender differences in "(a) motivation to control,
(b) normative acceptability of control, (c) inclination to use violence for control, [and] (d) physical
strength differences that make violence effective
..." (p. 292). The clinical work on domestic violence and control-along with the different nature
of men's and women's violent acts in terms of
severity, injuriousness, and self-defense-suggest
that the link between personal control and violence may reflect different social-psychological
processes in men and women.
STUDY QUESTIONS

We use data from a national survey to consider


whether a sense of personal control is associated
with acts of domestic violence. In assessing the
relationships among sociodemographic characteristics, violence, and personal control, we address
four general questions: (a) Are respondents' acts
of domestic violence associated with their sense
of personal control? (b) Are partners' acts of domestic violence associated with respondents'
sense of personal control? (c) Are there gender
differences in the association of respondents' acts
of domestic violence with their sense of personal
control? (d) Are there gender differences in the
association of partners' acts of domestic violence
with respondents' personal control?
DATA AND METHODS

The data analyzed for this study are from the second wave of the National Survey of Families and
Households (NSFH2, Sweet, Bumpass, & Call,
1988). The NSFH2 is a nationally representative
sample of the contiguous United States designed

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446

Journal of Marriage and the Family

as a follow-up to the 1987 National Survey of


Families and Households (NSFH). Reinterviews
were conducted between 1992 and 1994. Face-toface interviews were conducted with 10,008 individuals for the NSFH2. We analyze a NSFH2
subsample of individuals over the age of 18 years
who are involved in ongoing relationships. The
subsample includes 5,939 individuals in the survey who were currently married or cohabiting
with a partnerof the opposite sex, and it comprises
2,660 men and 3,297 women. The sample includes 5,538 individuals who claim that no domestic violence occurred in the previous year and
401 individuals who claim that they or their partner engaged in acts of domestic violence during
the previous year. Sixty-four percent (n = 256) of
the cases of domestic violence reported in the
NSFH2 involved common couple violence, 15%
(n = 61) involved respondent-only violence, and
21% (n = 84) involved partner-only violence.
Measures
Sociodemographic variables. A number of previous studies have demonstrated that education,
race, age, and income are associated with personal
control, and these variables are included in our
analysis (Mirowsky & Ross, 1989; Umberson,
1993). We also include a control for cohabiting
status, a variable that is associated with domestic
violence (Stets, 1991). The literature on personal
control and sociodemographic variables has not
examined the relationship between cohabiting status and personal control. However, our theoretical
framework suggests that individuals who cohabit
might feel less personal control over their lives
than do married individuals.
Age (in years), education (in years), and personal income (in thousands of dollars) are measured as continuous variables. Personal income is
a summary measure that combines respondents'
annual salary and self-employment income. The
income variable had 398 missing cases in the analyzed subsample. In these instances, missing values are recoded as the mean income (based on the
entire NSFH2 data, n = 9,350) separately for
women and men, and a missing data indicator for
income is included in estimation procedures. The
mean annual income for men was $28,438, and
the mean annual income for women was $12,909.
Female is the excluded category for the dummy
variable of sex. Cohabiting status is a dichotomous
variable. Cohabiting respondents are assigned a
value of 1, and marriedrespondents are assigned a

TABLE 1. MEANS AND STANDARD


DEVIATIONS OF VARIABLES

Variable

Sex (0 = female)
Race or ethnicity (0 = White)
AfricanAmerican
Hispanic
Other
Age
Personalemploymentincome
(annual/$1,000)
Missing income (0 = not missing)
Education
Relationshipstatus (0 = married)
Personalcontrol
Respondent'sviolent acts
Partner'sviolent acts
n

SD

.45

.50

.11
.06
.01
44.51
21.84

.31
.24
.12
13.84
29.51

.07
13.11
.08
10.44
.05
.06

.25
2.88
.27
2.56
.22
.23

5,939

value of 0. Race is a four-category variableWhite, Hispanic, African American, and other,


with White respondents as the excluded category
in regression analyses. Means and standarddeviations of all variables in the analysis are presented
in Table 1.
Personal control. Personal control is a summary
index of three items from Pearlin et al.'s (1981)
Mastery Scale (alpha = .85). Respondents were
asked whether they "strongly agree, agree, neither
agree nor disagree, disagree, or strongly disagree"
with the following statements: (a) "Sometimes I
feel that I'm being pushed around in life; (b)
There is really no way I can solve some of the
problems I have; and (c) I have little control over
the things that happen to me." Item responses are
coded so that a higher value on the personal control measure indicates a greater sense of personal
control. The NSFH2 is the only national data set
that we have been able to locate that includes a
measure of domestic violence and a measure of
personal control.
Domestic violence. Two dummy variables are included as measures of domestic violence. Respondent violence is a dummy variable that indicates
whether or not the respondent perpetrateddomestic violence against his or her partnerin the previous year. Partner violence is a dummy variable
that indicates whether or not the respondent's
partner committed an act of violence against the
respondent in the previous year. Spouses and
partners of NSFH2 respondents were asked to
complete the self-administered portion of the survey. Thus, the NSFH2 data contain couple data

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Violence and Control


on domestic violence. Recently, scholars have argued that couple data provide more accurate measures of domestic violence than data collected
from only one partner (Szinovacz & Egley,
1995). Our measures of domestic violence include information from both primary respondents
and their partners-who were interviewed separately for the NSFH. Both partners responded
separately to the same questions on domestic violence via a self-administered questionnaire. Individuals and their partnersof the opposite sex were
asked the following question: "Sometimes arguments between partners become physical. During
the past year, has his happened in arguments between you and your partner/spouse'?" If the respondent and their partner answered that arguments had not become physical in the past year,
they were assigned a value of 0. If the respondent
or the respondent's partner stated that arguments
had become violent, they were asked two additional questions: "During the past year, in how
many of these arguments did you become physically violent with your husband/wife/partner?"
(Answers ranged from 0 to 4 or more times.)
"During the past year, in how many of these arguments did your husband/wife/partner become
physically violent with you?" (Answers ranged
from 0 to 4 or more times.) Respondent violence
and partner violence are assigned a value of 1
when violence was reported by either the respondent or his or her partner. Of the cohabiting and
married individuals analyzed in this study, 4% of
men (n = 117) and 4% of women (n = 139) reported that both they and their partner had perpetrated one or more acts of physical violence in the
previous year. One percent of men (n = 29) and
1% of women (n = 32) reported that only they had
perpetratedviolence in the previous year. One percent of men (n = 33) and 2% of women (n = 51)
reported that only their partnerhad perpetratedviolence in the previous year.
Using Survey Data to Study
Domestic Violence and Personal Control
Recent work raises two general questions about the
use of survey data to study domestic violence. First,
much of the basic researchon domestic violence relies on clinical and shelter data. Questions arise
about the comparabilityof clinical and shelter data
with survey data. Second, questions arise about the
validity of survey data to study domestic violence.

447
Comparability of survey data with clinical and
shelter data. The literatureon victims and perpetrators of domestic violence relies more heavily on
clinical and shelter data than on survey data. Some
controversy arises because it may not be appropriate to base survey analyses on insights from clinical and shelter studies. Johnson (1995) argues that
clinical and shelter data provide information
about only the most severe cases of domestic violence, which he terms "patriarchalviolence" and
which he defines as a "a form of terroristiccontrol
of wives by their husbands" (p. 284). He differentiates these most severe cases of domestic violence
from common couple violence that tends to be less
injurious and to involve aggression by both partners. Of course, in some cases domestic violence is
perpetratedby women against their male partners
without a violent response from the male partner.
Johnson does not elaborate on such cases, although
the NSFH data suggest that the same percentage
of men and women report that only they-and not
their partner-perpetrated acts of domestic violence
within the previous year. In the following analysis,
we consider all three types of domestic violence:
male-only violence, female-only violence, and
common couple violence.
Johnson contends that common couple violence is more likely than patriarchal violence to
be reported in national surveys. In this sense, survey data might not represent the most significant
cases of domestic violence and could produce
misleading results about the consequences of domestic violence. In fact, national surveys do reveal that the majority of individuals involved in
domestic violence are perpetrators,as well as targets, of domestic violence. This is true in survey
reports from men and women. Issues of control
are central to the research drawn from clinical and
shelter data. However, issues of control have not
been explored with survey data. We argue that an
extensive epidemiologic literature on personal
control, based largely on survey research, combined with theoretical and research insights on
control found in studies of clinical and shelter
data can provide a sound foundation for exploring
how personal control is associated with domestic
violence in a large national survey that includes
both victims and perpetrators of domestic violence. If we find evidence of a link between personal control and domestic violence in a national
survey population, this lends greater support to
theoretical insights from clinical and shelter data.
If we find no link, it does not refute theoretical insights from clinical and shelter data but suggests

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448

Journal of Marriage and the Family

that the domestic violence revealed in national


surveys does not conform to those insights.
Validity of survey data. The validity of survey
data to study domestic violence is in question if
domestic violence or specific, severe types of domestic violence are not included or reported in
survey formats. Some studies raise questions
about the ability of surveys to address domestic
violence. In particular, some feminist scholars
suggest that the ways in which surveys measure
violence tend to make it appear that men and
women are violent to similar degrees when all
other sources of evidence (e.g., data from clinical
encounters, shelters, emergency rooms, and arrests) suggest that men are more violent toward
women than women are toward men (Dobash,
Dobash, Wilson, & Daly, 1992). One of Dobash
et al.'s primary criticisms of survey research is
that it does not contextualize violent episodes.
Contextual information about the causes and consequences of violent acts might reveal gender differences in the qualitative experience of domestic
violence. This is a limitation of most survey research on domestic violence. However, survey research has some unique qualities that can provide
certain types of insights into the processes of domestic violence. Surveys can provide information
about the general prevalence of the most common
forms of domestic violence and can reveal the social and psychological correlates of domestic violence in the general population (Johnson, 1995).
Furthermore,when we use theoretically grounded
models to explore possible consequences of domestic violence for both victims and perpetrators,
we may provide some insights into the dynamics
and consequences underlying the most prevalent
types of domestic violence.
Causal Direction
The literature on victims of domestic violence
and that on perpetrators suggest slightly different
causal processes involving personal control and
domestic violence. The victim literature suggests
that being the victim of domestic violence reduces
one's sense of control. The perpetrator literature
suggests that a low sense of control may contribute
to acts of violence and that acts of violence may,
in turn, enhance one's sense of personal control.
The effect of violence on a sense of control is as
theoretically important as the effect of a sense of
control on violence-particularly because casual
processes may differ for victims and perpetrators,

men and women. We are unable to conduct a longitudinal analysis using both waves of NSFH data
because personal control was not measured in
Wave 1. We analyze domestic violence as the independent variable and personal control as the dependent variable for two reasons. First, the theoretical
and clinical work on victims and perpetratorssuggests that domestic violence will affect levels of
personal control of both victim and perpetrator.
Second, the structure of the NSFH2 data is best
suited to this assumed causal model. The NSFH2
measure of violence is based on violence that occurred during the previous year. The measure of
personal control pertains to current feelings of
control.
Our inability to examine the causal order of a
sense of control and domestic violence is an inherent limitation of this study. We are able to
evaluate only whether or not there is a statistical
association between personal control and domestic violence. We emphasize that our data do not
provide a definitive answer to the casual ordering
of personal control and domestic violence and that
there may be reciprocity between the two variables. However, we also emphasize that our analysis provides the first empirical assessment of a
statistical link between personal control and domestic violence in a general population survey.
RESULTS

In the analysis presented in Table 2, we consider


whether domestic violence is associated with personal control. We present two models in Table 2.
In the first model, we regress personal control on
the sociodemographic variables. The second model
adds respondent violence, partnerviolence, an interaction term for gender by respondent violence,
and an interaction term for gender by partner violence to the equation predicting personal control.
The results in Model 1 show that men exhibit
higher scores on personal control than do women,
that African Americans score lower on personal
control than do Whites, and that cohabitors score
lower on personal control than do the married.
The results in Model 1 also indicate that age is inversely associated with personal control, but income and education are positively associated with
personal control. We are not aware of previous
studies that have considered the relationship between cohabiting status and personal control. All
of the other findings are consistent with previous
epidemiological work on personal control. The
results in Model 2, compared with the results in

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Violence and Control

449

TABLE2. UNSTANDARDIZED
OLS COEFFICIENTS
FOR
THE EFFECTS OF SOCIODEMOGRAPHICCHARACTERISTICS
AND DOMESTIC VIOLENCE ON PERSONAL CONTROL

Variable

Model 1

Model 2

Sex (0 = female)

.260***
(.069)

.229***
(.070)

-.242*
(.106)
-.088
Hispanic
(.140)
Other
-.446
(.279)
-.015***
Age
(.002)
Personalemploymentincome
.003**
(.001)
Missing income (0 = not missing) -.004
(.129)
Education
.169***
(.012)
Relationshipstatus (0 = married) -.404***
(.120)
Respondent'sviolent acts

8.78***
(.208)

-.206*
(.106)
-.089
(.140)
-.370
(.278)
-.017***
(.002)
.003**
(.001)
-.004
(.129)
.166***
(.012)
-.339**
(.120)
-.045
(.299)
-1.05**
(.285)
-.292
(.449)
.918*
(.437)
8.96***
(.210)

.062
5,939

.068
5,939

Race or ethnicity (0 = White)


AfricanAmerican

Partner'sviolent acts
Sex x respondent'sviolent acts
Sex x partner'sviolent acts
Intercept
R2
n

Note: Numbersin parenthesesare standarderrors.


*p<.05. **p<.01. ***p<.001.

Model 1, also suggest that domestic violence may


play a mediating role in the relationship between
certain demographic variables and personal control. Once domestic violence is added to the model
predicting personal control, the coefficient for sex
is reduced by 12%, the coefficient for African
American status is reduced by 15%, and the coefficient for cohabiting status is reduced by 16%.
The results in Model 2 further suggest how domestic violence may influence individuals' feelings of personal control. Model 2 indicates that
the respondent's own acts of domestic violence
are not significantly associated with personal control. However, having a violent partner is significantly associated with a reduced sense of personal
control. The interaction term for sex and respondent violence is nonsignificant. However, the interaction term for sex and partner violence is statistically significant. We calculated the effects of
the partner's violence on personal control by gen-

der and conducted t tests for the gender-specific


effects to further elucidate the nature of this significant interaction. The t test results indicate that
the estimated effect of having a violent partneron
personal control is significant for women but not
for men. In sum, it appears that having a violent
partner undermines personal control for women,
not for men.
DISCUSSIONAND CONCLUSIONS

Previous theoretical and empirical work in psychosocial epidemiology and in domestic violence
suggests that domestic violence should be associated with personal control and that this association might differ for men and women. Our results,
based on data from a national survey, indicate
that perpetrating acts of domestic violence is not
associated with personal control for either men or
women. However, being the victim of domestic
violence is associated with a reduced sense of
personal control, but only for women. This gender difference is not surprising in light of research
and theory on domestic violence. Research and
theory suggest that domestic violence-even
when both the man and woman participate in violence-is a qualitatively different experience for
women and men. Thus, although men and women
who report domestic violence may be inclined to
respond to survey questions in a way that suggests
that both partnersperpetrate violence, such a conclusion does not take into account the substantially
different situations of men and women. If women
are more likely than men to be victims of domestic
violence-in the sense of physical injury and psychological fear-then a unique social-psychological
process may occur for women. Domestic violence
may result in a reduced sense of personal control
for women in a way that it does not for men. In
turn, a sense of low personal control may make it
more difficult for women to leave abusive partners (Walker, 1984). The social-psychological
process for men may be different. The literature
on male control and domestic violence is generally
vague when it comes to defining control. However,
this literature suggests that men who perpetrate
domestic violence often do so in response to feelings of having no control over their partner or
other aspects of life. In turn, engaging in domestic
violence may enhance the perpetrator's sense of
personal control. The results presented here do
not support the hypothesis that engaging in domestic violence enhances personal control. It may
be that, even if violence represents an attempt to

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450

Journal of Marriage and the Family

increase personal control, violence is simply ineffective in this endeavor. On the other hand, committing violence is not associated with a reduction
in personal control. Violence may at least serve to
maintain the individual's sense of personal control,
or any enhanced sense of control may be only
temporary. Future research should explore these
and other connections between acts of domestic
violence and personal control. For example, personal control may be associated with domestic violence perpetratedby men but only under certain
conditions, such as perceived threats to masculinity or for individuals who have little self-control.
Personal control, as we defined it in this study,
may be too general. Personal control in the domain of family and gender relations may be the
more critical issue for men who become violent.
Johnson (1995) argues that the most severe cases
of domestic violence will not be revealed in surveys. These severe cases are the ones that are most
likely to be characterizedby men's extreme need to
controlwomen. Futureresearchshould considerhow
the link between personal control and domestic violence differs for men and women involved in
common couple violence, as well as the most severe and one-sided cases of domestic violence.
Qualitative research could be used to begin to explore possible gender differences in these processes.
Studying Domestic Violence
with National Surveys
Survey researchon domestic violence has produced
controversy over why men and women report
similar rates of domestic violence-both as victims
and as perpetrators. Feminist researchers argue
that violence perpetratedagainst and by women is
different from violence perpetratedagainst and by
men (Dobash et al., 1992). Johnson (1995) has attempted to address the survey research controversy
by suggesting that common couple violencewhere both men and women participate in the violence-represents less severe cases of domestic
violence and is more likely to be reported in surveys than are the most severe cases. We suggest
that, even in common couple violence, the experience and effects of violence differ for men and
women. Our findings are consistent with the argument that violence, even when both the man and
woman participate, is more frightening and undermining of female well-being than male wellbeing. We contend that national survey data can
provide insights about gender, victimization, and
perpetration of domestic violence, and this may

help clarify how and why gender matters in the


process of domestic violence, even if men and
women perpetrateviolence at similar rates.
Causal Order
We are unable to disentangle the causal order of
personal control and domestic violence with
cross-sectional data from the NSFH2. Furthermore,
even if we had data from two time points, we
would not be able to solve this question of causality. One would expect sense of control, couple
conflict, and violence to fluctuate a great deal
over several years. Therefore, data obtained several
years apart may not reveal how control, conflict,
and violence actually unfold over time. An excellent way to begin to understand these processes
would be to collect diary data from men and
women to assess fluctuations in sense of control,
conflict, and violence. Diary studies are uniquely
suited to examining the vicissitudes of couple dynamics over time (DeLongis & Lehman, 1989).
Stress researchers emphasize that cross-sectional
and even longitudinal studies are limited because
stress is a process that must be considered at multiple points over short periods of time (House,
Strecher,Metzner, & Robbins, 1986). Daily diaries
may provide an advantageous approach to studying domestic violence because the process can be
assessed as it occurs.
Despite our inability to establis. cusal order
with the present data, we establish a moderate association between personal control and having a
violent partner. In fact, the degree of association
between these two variables is striking when
women have violent partners. Whether personal
control is affected by domestic violence or affects
domestic violence or both is important to determine. But our results provide the baseline finding
of a significant link between personal control and
domestic violence.
Future research on personal control and domestic violence should include more extensive measures of personal control than were examined in
this article and other dimensions of control, as well
as more contextually based measures of domestic
violence (Dobash et al., 1992). More information
on the context of violent acts can help determine
whether the act occurred in self-defense or was
noninjurious. Then this information should be
linked to various dimensions of control for men
and women.
Our findings reveal a significant association
between having a violent partner and feelings of

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Violence and Control

451

low personal control among women. These results


provide a foundation for the pursuit of further empirical work and on the link between domestic violence and personal control. Future research should

include a focus on the men and women involved


in violent acts, should include multidimensional
measures of control, and, if possible, should obtain
diary data to identify causal pathways among various control issues, elements of social context, and
the dynamics of domestic violence.
NOTE
An earlierversion of this articlewas presentedat the annual
meeting of the American Sociological Association, Washington, DC, 1995. We would like to thank Dan Powers,
Jordan Steiker, Paul Sterling, and Christine Williams for
theirassistancewith this project.We are especially indebted
to Meichu Chen and ArthurSakamoto for their technical
advice and comments.
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