Abused Women Less Likely to Be in Stable Relationships

January 21, 2005

(University Park, Pa) — Poor women who are physically or sexually abused at some point in their lives are less likely to maintain stable intimate relationships, according to a new study of more than 2,500 women by sociologists from The Johns Hopkins University and Penn State.

The women involved in the study said they wanted fair treatment and companionship from their partners just like everyone does, the researchers said. Many of those who had been abused as adults told ethnographers that they had decided to forego marriage and cohabiting relationships, at least temporarily. Those who were sexually abused in childhood were not as likely to avoid relationships altogether; rather, they tended to engage in a series of short-term, transient relationships, many of them abusive.

While there is no evidence that abuse rates have increased, the number of women postponing intimate relationships may be growing, said Andrew Cherlin, the Griswold Professor of Public Policy at Johns Hopkins and lead author of the report, “The Influence of Physical and Sexual Abuse on Marriage and Cohabitation,” published in the January 21 issue of American Sociological Review.

“What’s changed over the past few decades is the social context of abuse,” Cherlin said. “Women don’t have to stay with abusive men anymore because they have alternatives to marriage.”

The researchers, working in Boston, Chicago and San Antonio as part of the long-term research project called “Welfare, Children and Families: A Three-City Study,” surveyed a random sample of 2,402 Hispanic, African American and White women. Ethnographic research teams studies another 256 women in depth for several years, observing day-to-day activities and conducting repeated interviews. All of the women studied were the primary caregivers of at least one child.

Fifty-two percent of women in the random-sample survey reported being physically or sexually abused at some point during their lives. Twenty-four percent said they were sexually abused during childhood or adolescence. Forty-two percent of women who had never been abused were married at the time of the survey, compared to 22 percent of women who had ever been abused. Of the 256 women studied in-depth, one-sixth — many of whom had been physically abused as adults — said they were taking a timeout from intimate relationships with men.

“Women’s decisions to take a timeout from such relationships is an important one for policymakers to understand,” said co-author Linda Burton, director of the study’s ethnographic component, professor of human development and sociology at Penn State and director of the Center for Human Development and Family Research in Diverse Contexts. “These women are not saying they will never enter intimate relationships again, but, rather, they need recovery and reflection time from abuse they experienced as adults to avoid entering a subsequent abusive relationship.”

Cherlin and Burton suggest that reducing levels of sexual abuse and physical violence in families could increase the number of healthy, stable, long-term unions. They argue that current marriage promotion policy debates at the federal and state levels, which tend to blame declining cultural values or unemployment for lower marriage rates among the poor, should also focus on the consequences of abuse.

Other authors on the report are Tera Hurt from the University of Georgia and Diane Purvin from Wellesley College.

Funding support came from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development; Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation; Administration on Developmental Disabilities; Administration for Children and Families; Social Security Administration; National Institute of Mental Health; The Boston Foundation; The Annie E. Casey Foundation; The Edna McConnell Clark Foundation; The Lloyd A. Fry Foundation; Hogg Foundation for Mental Health; The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation; The Joyce Foundation; The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation; W.K. Kellogg Foundation; Kronkosky Charitable Foundation; The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation; Charles Stewart Mott Foundation; the David and Lucile Packard Foundation; and Woods Fund of Chicago.

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Editors: For interviews with Dr. Burton, please contact Vicki Fong at (814) 865-9481 or vfong@psu.edu. For interviews with Dr. Cherlin, please contact Amy Cowles at (443) 287-9960 or amycowles@jhu.edu.