Abused Women Less Likely to be Married or in Long-Term Relationships

Prevention of Abuse Would Help Women, Foster Stable, Long-Term Relationships

Women who experienced physical or sexual abuse in childhood or as adults are less likely to be married or in a stable long-term relationship than are other women, according to a large study of low-income women funded by the federal government.

"The physical or sexual abuse of women and children is never acceptable," said Duane Alexander, M.D., Director of the NICHD. "Beyond that, these findings indicate that preventing the abuse of women and girls can help to build strong families."

Specifically, women who were abused as adults tended to avoid romantic relationships with men, whereas women who were abused as children tended to have a series of short-term relationships.

The study appears in the most recent American Sociological Review.

Most of the federal funding for the study was provided by several components of the Department of Health and Human Services: the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the National Institute of Mental Health, both of the National Institutes of Health; the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, the Administration on Developmental Disabilities, and the Administration for Children and Families. The Social Security Administration also provided additional funding, as did several private foundations.

To conduct the study, the researchers surveyed a random sample of 2,402 women from low income neighborhoods in Boston, Chicago, and San Antonio, explained the study's principal authors, Andrew J. Cherlin, Ph.D., the Griswold Professor of Public Policy at Johns Hopkins University and Linda M. Burton, Ph.D., Professor of Human Development and Sociology at Penn State University. In addition, the researchers followed another 256 women for several years, periodically interviewing them in-depth and observing their daily activities. Most of the women in the study were either African American or Hispanic. A small number of white women also took part.

The researchers found that 52 percent of the 2,402 women had been physically or sexually abused at some time in their lives. Moreover, 24 percent of the women said they had been sexually abused before the age of 18. Dr. Burton added that the percentage of women who had been abused might actually have been higher than the study showed. In the in-depth interviews, many women did not talk about abuse initially, only disclosing that they had been abused after the study was well under way.

Of the women who had not reported being abused, 42 percent were married at the time of the study. In contrast, 22 percent of the women who had been abused were married.

Some of the women who were abused as adults had what the researchers described as a pattern of "abated" unions, meaning they had consciously chosen to take a hiatus from romantic relationships with men. The in-depth interviews revealed that many of the women in the abated union pattern were focusing their energies on raising their children and on learning and personal development. These women tended to have the resources needed to avoid abusive men, such as steady employment and a support network of family and friends.

Women abused as minors tended to have a "transitory" relationship pattern—a series of short relationships lasting only about 6 to 8 months each. The in-depth interviews showed that most of the women in the transitory relationship pattern were not consciously aware of a connection between the abuse they experienced with men and their pattern of short-term relationships.

"Abuse during childhood causes lasting psychological harm—trauma, depression, less clear boundaries between self and others—and weakens family support systems," Dr. Burton said. "Women abused in childhood often don't have the self-protective capacity needed to avoid abusive men or the healthy family relationships that they can draw upon for support."

Dr. Cherlin explained that the rate at which women are abused probably hasn't changed in recent years. What seems to have changed is the likelihood that a woman will remain in an abusive relationship. "Women are less dependent on marriage than in previous years, as single women have more employment opportunities than in previous decades and society is more accepting of partners living together outside marriage."

"Cohabiting relationships give women more control because they are easier to exit from than marriages," he said. "Single parents can also form relationships that offer easier exits. So women who are abused sometimes respond by staying away from marriage."

Dr. Cherlin added that other reasons besides abuse also influence women's decision to marry. Societal acceptance of cohabitation plays a role, as does the inability of a prospective male partner to provide a steady income.

"We're just saying that abuse is an important and overlooked part of the story," Dr. Cherlin said.

The study authors wrote that reducing levels of sexual abuse and physical violence in families might increase the number of healthy, stable, long-term unions. They added that, while shifting societal values or unemployment might also account for lower marriage rates among the poor, efforts to reduce the decline in marriage rates should also focus on the consequences of abuse.

Other authors of the study were Tera R. Hurt, University of Georgia; and Diane M. Purvin, Wellesley College.


The NICHD is part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the biomedical research arm of the federal government. NIH is an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The NICHD sponsors research on development, before and after birth; maternal, child, and family health; reproductive biology and population issues; and medical rehabilitation.

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