Coercive Habits Lead to Intimate Partner Abuse
A team of psychologists led by UA doctoral student Marieh Tanha has found that while men are more likely to be aggressors in relationships, coercive control by men or women can often lead to abuse and violence.

By La Monica Everett-Haynes, University Communications
Dec. 8, 2010

Coercive and controlling behavior in relationships in which one partner checks the other's calls and texts or tries to direct what he or she wears might be part of a broader pattern that could lead to other forms of abuse and violence. 

This is one of the findings out of a project University of Arizona doctoral student Marieh Tanha completed to understand how men and women act in abusive partnerships.

One of the most telling findings, the team found – regardless of gender – was that coercive control appears to be the key motivator that leads to abusive behavior.

"Sex differences in partner violence is a hot topic, but a lot of people will leave it at 'Men are more violent' and that's it," said Tanha, a student in the UA's psychology, policy and law program. 

Tanha is lead author on a recently published article on the team's study, which contains interesting findings related to the role of coercive and controlling behaviors along with some gender-based nuances relative to partner abuse.

The co-authored article, "Sex Differences in Intimate Partner Violence and the Use of Coercive Control as a Motivational Factor for Intimate Partner Violence," was published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence.

It is one of the first published studies investigating both men and women partners on intimate partner abuse while attempting to measure coercive control independent of other forms of violence.

As defined by the team, intimate partner abuse includes psychological abuse, sexual assault, intimidation, coercion, physical abuse, threats and escalated physical violence, said Figueredo, who was part of the 1990s-era research team that investigated and then designated these categories.

When it comes to partner abuse cases, coercive control holds a particularly important and influential nature, Tanha said. 

"Gender doesn't matter when you hit that point," she said. "When it reaches the point that you want to coerce your partner, there is often also pattern of abuse behavior."

Yet prevailing beliefs about partner violence are that women are rarely abusers and that, gender aside, the source of any intimate partner violence comes down to an anger management issue.

"We now have a clearer picture," said Tanha, who completed the study as her master's thesis.

During that time, Tanha had begun as a member of the UA Psychology, Policy and Law Lab, which is headed up by Connie J.A. Beck, an associate professor of psychology.

Beck is another collaborator on Tanha's study, along with UA psychology professor Aurelio José Figueredo. Both Beck and Figueredo have long investigated a broad range of topics related to partnerships.

The team also consulted with Chitra Raghavan, an assistant professor of psychology at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. 

For the current study, the team investigated the experiences of more than 760 heterosexual married couples actively involved in divorce proceedings. These couples were mandated by Arizona law to attend divorce mediation to resolve custody and parenting time disputes of their children.

The data used for the assessment was part of Beck's longitudinal study of short- and long-term outcomes in divorcing couples with a history of intimate partner abuse. 

In recent years, Beck and her collaborators have begun to incorporate domestic violence logs from Tucson Police Department and Pima County Sheriff's Department in their studies.

Most existing research has approached coercive control as an example of abuse, but the team sought to examine such control as a potential motivator for abuse.

When coercive control led to abuse, it was performed in the service of controlling the partner as opposed to the sheer joy of physically beating the partner, Beck said. It is this need for control that can often lead to other forms of abuse, she added.

While certain correlations exited between other forms of behavior, the study was necessary to explain and "to understand the actual behavior," Figueredo said.

Consequently, coercive control, and certainly other forms of abuse, was generally used "instrumentally" to gain control of one's partner, he added.

Figueredo affirmed that the team did not view aggressors as being "out of control." Instead, aggressors "are trying to accomplish their goal of control with terror. This is highly predictive of violence."

The team's findings also supported certain aspects of existing studies.

Foremost, women were more likely to report that they experienced significantly more frequent psychological abuse, threats and physical violence that led to injury, sexual assault and intimidation. Also, coercion reporting was significantly higher for women.

The researchers found no significant difference in the use of "lower-level" physical abuse, finding that husbands and wives will in equal numbers and frequency push and shove, Tanha said.

Still, the study poses important implications for law enforcement agents, counselors, therapists, judges, researchers and others, she said.

"This study tells us that when you are trying to help a couple, you really want to understand what is going on between them," Tanha said.

"Anger management will help the abuser control feelings," Tanha added, "but it may not help the couple when it really comes down to a control issue."


Resources for the media

Marieh Tanha

UA Department of Psychology