"Child abuse perpetration and partner abuse perpetration and
victimization...increases the risk for adulthood family violence,"
said lead author Dr. Richard E. Heyman of the State University
of New York at Stony Brook.
Heyman and his colleague Amy M. Smith Slep examined data on
more than 6,000 American men and women collected by the 1985 National
Family Violence Survey.
All the participants were heterosexual and over age 18. More
than 80% were married at the time of the survey, while the rest
were cohabiting, widowed, divorced, separated or single with a
child younger than 18.
The participants were asked whether and how often they had witnessed
serious physical abuse between their parents or had themselves
been abused by a parent in childhood. In addition, study participants
were asked whether they had engaged in any violent behavior "with
a high potential for harm" directed at either their spouse/partner
or their child.
The researchers found clear evidence for a "cycle of violence"
among men and women--with childhood exposure to family violence
increasing the likelihood of either instigating or being the victim
of violence as an adult. However, in the current issue of the
Journal of Marriage and Family, the authors point out that gender
appeared to affect how this cycle played out.
Women who had both witnessed violence between their parents
and were victims of parental abuse themselves were twice as likely
to abuse their partner or children than mothers exposed to only
one or the other.
Women appeared to be most greatly influenced by their mother's
behavior. The likelihood a woman would abuse her child rose, they
noted, with every witnessed incident in which their mother had
attacked their father. Also, the investigators found that each
incident increased the likelihood that a woman would abuse her
partner by 6%.
In the case of men, however, Heyman and Slep observed that while
exposure to childhood violence was also associated with current
partner and child abuse, the likelihood of such abuse was not
diminished if the father had witnessed only one form of parental
On the other hand, exposure to multiple forms of childhood violence
did increase the likelihood that men would become victims of partner
abuse. Each act of abuse by the man's father and mother raised
the likelihood of being the victim of current partner abuse by
This violence association held for women as well, with every
act of abuse by the woman's mother raising the likelihood of being
the victim of current partner abuse by 35%, the report indicates.
Men appeared to be most greatly influenced by their father's
behavior. Each time a man had witnessed his father attacking his
mother, the likelihood he would abuse a child or partner rose
by 13% and 8%, respectively.
The researchers stressed, however, that despite the possibility
of cyclical family violence, most boys and girls exposed to childhood
violence don't grow up to be victims or instigators of violence
"We don't know whether childhood exposure to parental violence
and childhood physical victimization are causal variables, or
whether they are just part of a constellation of factors that
may be increasing risk--such as poor parenting (or) family conflict,"
Heyman told Reuters Health. "Future studies should investigate
both exposure to parental violence and physical victimization
when investigating the 'cycle of violence."'
SOURCE: Journal of Marriage and Family 2002;64:864-870.