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No One Type of Intimate Partner Abuse: Exploring Physical and Non-Physical Abuse Among Intimate Partners


Although research into intimate partner abuse has expanded throughout the past several decades and increased our understanding of this multi-faceted phenomenon, the vast majority of empirical work is still focused almost exclusively on physical violence—against women in particular. Although a crucial issue in our society, physical violence against women is only one facet in an array of possible abusive behaviors toward an intimate partner. Researchers have long acknowledged the existence of multiple forms of non-physical abuse. These types of abuse have received little research attention, however, and are commonly lumped together simply as “non-physical” or “emotional” abuse. There is no reason to believe, however, that all forms of non-physical abuse are the same, whether in intensity, frequency, or co-existence with physical violence. The current study attempts to disentangle the multiple types of nonviolent abuse to examine prevalence, differences by sex, and its relationships to physical abuse. Using Tjaden and Thoennes’ (1998) survey data, this study examines the prevalence of different types of non-physical abuse, both in the general population and among those experiencing physical violence Findings indicate that non-physical partner abuse is more common than physical and that non-physical abuse does not show striking sex differences, as is commonly believed. There is strong evidence that some types of non-physical abuse serve as clear risk factors for physical abuse and may increase risk of more frequent violence among those already being abused. These relationships do not, however, differ by sex. Implications for future research are discussed.

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  1. Beyond “ten times”, the majority of respondents’ answers seemed to reflect estimates (25, 50, etc) rather than an actual count. Therefore, it seemed that categorizing responses according to the distribution of the variable allowed for the retention of the most information without introducing bias or ‘false precision’.

  2. Differences in prevalence between the three types of non-physical abuse were all significant at the .05 level.

  3. Among those NOT experiencing physical abuse, the gender difference in emotional abuse is nearly significant (p = .052), indicating that men are more likely to report experiencing emotional abuse by their partner.

  4. The analyses were run both as separate models and with all three types included. There were few differences from the results presented here. Any differences are noted in footnotes within the interpretation of the results.

  5. In fact, when all three measures are made binary, reflecting presence or absence of any emotionally, socially, or economically abusive behaviors respectively, findings indicate that emotional abuse has the strongest relationship to violence (exp B = 6.48), then economic abuse, followed by social abuse (exp B = 4.00).

  6. Although it may seem counter-intuitive that females would experience less severe violence, this finding likely results from the way the seriousness measure was constructed. The highest categories of seriousness involves weapon use. Women may be more inclined to use weapons IF they are going to be violent, simply because it would be more effective. Weapons may act as an equalizer. Men may use (or threaten) weapons against female partners slightly less because they don’t need to in order for the threat/violence to be ‘successful’.


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Correspondence to Maureen Outlaw.

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Outlaw, M. No One Type of Intimate Partner Abuse: Exploring Physical and Non-Physical Abuse Among Intimate Partners. J Fam Viol 24, 263–272 (2009).

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  • Intimate partner violence
  • Non-physical abuse
  • Sex differences in abuse