Relationships in which one or both partners are violent are often characterized by dissolution and low relationship quality. Indeed, across a variety of samples, studies comparing violent and nonviolent couples generally find that individuals in violent relationships report less satisfaction with their relationships and exhibit more negative behaviors during relationship problem discussions. In a study of newlywed couples, one research team found that whereas violent and nonviolent couples did not differ shortly after marriage, violent relationships were over two times more likely to fail over a 4-year period. In this study, marital failure was defined as evidence of relationship distress and/or a change in marital status. Also of note, in this study wives in aggressive marriages were considerably more likely to be maritally distressed than wives in nonviolent marriages; however, husbands in aggressive relationships were only slightly more likely to be maritally distressed than husbands in nonviolent relationships. The association between partner violence and relationship dissatisfaction is further supported when considering divorce as a proxy for marital quality. Several studies have shown that partner violence is a very strong predictor of divorce.
Perceived relationship quality has also been shown to be associated with partner violence. For example, in studying nonaggressive, mildly aggressive, and severely aggressive men, one research team found that a 20% increase in relationship discord increased the odds of being mildly aggressive by 101% and being severely aggressive by 183%. Although cross-sectional data support this relationship, longitudinal research suggests that it is more likely that the violence itself predicts low relationship satisfaction than that relationship discord predicts the onset of partner violence. However, there is some evidence that relationship dissatisfaction predicts psychological abuse, which, in turn, predicts the future onset of partner violence.
Importantly, there appears to be a dose-response association between violence and relationship quality. Research suggests that as the frequency and severity of intimate partner violence increase, the quality of the relationship decreases. For example, even after controlling for initial relationship variables, research found that while moderately violent relationships are slightly more likely to end in divorce than nonviolent relationships, severely violent relationships are twice as likely to end in divorce.
Despite the apparent simplicity of the notion that violence negatively affects the quality of relationships, the actual association is more complex. Not all violent relationships are characterized by relationship discord. In fact, some studies have found that a substantial number of couples with a history of intimate partner violence are not distressed. Studies of newlywed couples have shown that approximately one third report a history of intimate partner violence, even though most report high relationship satisfaction. It should be noted, however, that intimate partner violence among these newlywed couples is typically relatively mild in severity. There is also some evidence that a number of non-newlywed couples who report being satisfied with their marriage also report the occurrence of physical aggression. Thus, it may be that the severity of the violence and/or additional factors predicts the quality of abusive relationships, as opposed to a direct relationship between violence and relationship quality. This notion is supported by previous research findings on the interplay of factors such as relationship status, substance use, life stressors, negative communication, and day-to-day interactions among partners that may determine the impact of violence on relationship quality. Finally, it may be that positive aspects of the relationship counteract the impact of the abuse.
Although not all violent couples are distressed and not all distressed couples are violent, it is clear from existing literature that, in general, intimate partner violence is inversely related to relationship quality and positively related to relationship dissolution. This association seems especially strong in relationships characterized by severe violence. Additionally, research has shown that compared to their nonviolent counterparts, premarital and newlywed couples experiencing violence report similar relationship satisfaction initially, but become less satisfied over time. This finding suggests that intervention (e.g., counseling, education) early on in the relationship may reduce the occurrence of violence and improve the quality of the marriage.
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