Sex Roles

, Volume 69, Issue 3–4, pp 168–181 | Cite as

Men’s Experience of Psychological Abuse: Conceptualization and Measurement Issues

  • Maureen C. McHugh
  • Samantha Rakowski
  • Catherine Swiderski
Original Article


In this paper the literature on men’s experience of psychological abuse (in the U.S.) is reviewed and the ability to conceptualize and measure such abuse is reconsidered. Scales used to measure psychological abuse based on the experiences of battered women are critiqued as inadequate as measures of psychological abuse of men. Although both men and women direct psychological abuse toward their partners, violence perpetrated by men and women is not necessarily the same. Adopting a gender role perspective on psychological abuse, we argue that women may use different strategies to hurt men including manipulation and gender role harassment, whereas coercive control paired with physical abuse may constitute one version of (male) intimate partner violence.


Psychological abuse Intimate partner violence Emotional abuse Verbal aggression Gender harassment Couple violence 


Violence and abuse in intimate relationships is a serious social problem that can result in a number of negative physical and psychological consequences (McHugh et al. 2008; Frieze 2005). Intimate partner violence (IPV) is defined as any behavior in an intimate relationship that causes physical, psychological, or sexual harm to an individual in the relationship (World Health Organization 2002). Although physical abuse and violence have been the focus of extensive research and public attention, psychological abuse has received less research and clinical attention (Babcock et al. 2008). Yet, psychological abuse as defined and measured in the United States has been found to have a significant and sometimes greater impact on the victim (Arias et al. 1996; Follingstad et al. 1990; Walker 1979).

Much of the US research on psychological abuse has focused on female victims, thus comparatively less is known about men’s experience of psychological abuse (Follingstad 2007). Likewise, many of the instruments used to measure psychological abuse have followed from women’s reports and narratives (e.g., O’Leary 2001). Some recent research in the United States has indicated that men are psychologically abused by their intimate partners (e.g. Randle and Graham 2011; Simonelli and Ingram 1998). A review of the literature on men’s experience of IPV, particularly psychological abuse, suggests that there is not yet a thorough and well-grounded conceptual understanding of this phenomenon. While definitional and conceptual issues plague the field of psychological abuse in general, this especially seems to be the case for the study of men as victims of partner’s psychological abuse (Follingstad 2007). This review and discussion focuses on the research and theoretical conceptualization of psychological abuse within the United States. Are there adequate measures to research psychological abuse experienced by men in intimate relationships? Is there adequate understanding of what is it like for men to experience psychological abuse by their female intimate partners? The ability to conceptualize and measure psychological abuse as experienced by men is critically examined here.

McHugh and her colleagues (McHugh et al. 2005, 2008) argued against the conceptualization of intimate violence/battering as a single truth, and encouraged researchers to recognize how research methods, questions and measures may impact on conclusions about the gendered nature of IPV (McHugh and Bartoszek 2000; McHugh et al. 2005; McHugh 1993, 2005). Like women’s use of violence, women’s perpetration of psychological abuse challenges the current understanding of psychological abuse, questions the adequacy of explanatory theories of abuse, demonstrates methodological and measurement shortcomings in the research, and contests notions about men and women and gender (McHugh et al. 2005). From this perspective, we examine how consideration of women’s use of psychological violence against their male partners may serve as a prism for identifying inadequacies in the present conceptualization and measurement of psychological abuse.

Review of Psychological Abuse Research

Defining Psychological Abuse

Psychological abuse was defined by Straus (1979) as “verbal and nonverbal acts which symbolically hurt the other, or the use of threats to hurt the other” (p.77). Marshall (1996) elaborated on the nature of psychological abuse as targeting the victim not through physical abuse, but through non-physical means including derogation, ridicule, coercion, humiliation, disrespect, intimidation, threats, vandalism, surveillance, and control. O’Leary (1999) views psychological abuse as coercive and controlling behaviors, which can include derogation, isolation, domination, and patterns of verbal aggression. This sampling of definitions of psychological abuse demonstrates that a single cohesive and universal definition has not been created (Follingstad 2007).

The name or label assigned to a phenomenon both reflects and determines conceptualization (McHugh 2005). Without a name, individuals and researchers have difficulty discussing the experience. Today, researchers do not agree on what to call the phenomena of non-physical forms of aggression or abuse directed at one’s intimate partner. For example, some different labels include: emotional abuse, maltreatment of women, psychological abuse, and psychological aggression. Debates about definitions and labels are struggles about conceptualization and ideology (McHugh et al. 2005; Cosgrove and McHugh 2008); different labels reflect differences in the conceptualization of partner violence. Aggression suggests an intention to hurt another; violence has a very physical connotation. Abuse implies a negative pattern of behavior that seriously injures the partner. Stark (2007, 2010) defines abuse in terms of dominance, and the accrual of benefits to the abuser. Inconsistencies in the research findings and arguments about the role of gender in intimate partner violence are frequently related to definitions and measures (McHugh et al. 2005).

Despite debates over labeling, there is increasingly an understanding of both the prevalence and the seriousness of psychological abuse (Follingstad et al. 1990; Tolman 1992). More than one half of women reported emotional abuse as the reason for divorce (Cleek and Pearson 1985), and 27 % of college women characterized at least one of their dating relationships as abusive (Raymond and Bruschi 1989). Prevalence rates of psychological abuse appear to vary widely. In fact, some studies that include mild as well as severe forms of abuse count a single interaction as evidence of abuse, and report that over 90 % of their participants experienced some form of psychological abuse (e.g., Jezl et al. 1996). Prevalence rates for US college students range from 50 to 75 % of students having experienced some form of psychological abuse in the context of a relationship (e.g., Neufeld et al. 1999; Sugarman and Hotaling 1989). Estimates of prevalence rates reflect differences in how psychological abuse is defined and measured. However, it is clear that in the US, psychological abuse is a serious problem that is not uncommon in intimate relationships. Psychological abuse may also be a problem in other nations and cultures, but since psychological abuse is perceived, experienced and understood in a cultural context, this paper focuses on the conceptualization and research on psychological abuse in the US.

Historical Emergence of Psychological Abuse

Research on psychological abuse in marital relationships emerged from the battering literature of the 1970s and 1980s (Follingstad 2007). Research emerging in the 1970s on violence in marital relationships indicated that victims of such abuse were also recipients of non-physical abuse (e.g., Walker 1979; Murphy and O’Leary 1989). In early research, battered women reported experiencing fear and anxiety as a result of their partner’s use of threats, insults, and control tactics (Dunn and Powell-Williams 2007; Follingstad 2007). The victims often stated that the psychological abuse they endured was more damaging and hurtful than the accompanying physical abuse (Walker 1979). Subsequently, researchers began to focus on the concept of psychological abuse. Psychological and physical abuse were initially researched together, with the focus being on the relationship between the two (e.g., Murphy and O’Leary 1989; O’Leary et al. 1994). Research indicated that psychological abuse was reported by 99 % of battered women (Stets 1990), and Murphy and O’Leary (1989) found that psychological/verbal aggression is often predictive of subsequent physical abuse for both male and female partners. In research on battered women, psychological abuse often precedes physical violence (Frieze 2005), and may make it difficult for battered women to leave violent relationships. Follingstad and her colleagues (Follingstad et al. 1990) reported subsequent physical abuse could be predicted based on respondent’s reports of nonphysical abuse they had experienced. In particular, threats and restriction of movement predicted later physical abuse.

Researchers have compared the effects of physical abuse with those of psychological abuse (O’Leary 2001). In a study comparing the impact of physical and psychological abuse conducted by Follingstad and colleagues (Follingstad et al. 1990), women respondents with a history of being physically abused by a male partner were asked to disclose experiences with six types of psychological/emotional abuse (threats of abuse, ridicule, jealousy, threats to change marriage status, restriction, damage to property). Victims were also asked to indicate frequency and impact of these behaviors. Seventy-two percent of the women rated emotional abuse as having a greater negative impact than physical abuse.

Measurement Issues in Research on Psychological Abuse

As psychological abuse emerged from the battering literature, many of the methods for studying physical abuse were adopted for the study of psychological abuse (O’Leary 2001). It can be argued that this is problematic, as current studies on psychological abuse often still utilize these methods (Follingstad 2007). These scales involve indicating which of a series of non- physical acts of aggression have been committed by one’s partner. The behaviors on the scales are behaviors reported by battered women as directed toward them (e.g. Tolman 1989; Sullivan et al. 1991). Such lists are problematic in several ways. Psychological abuse cannot be measured through exhaustive lists of mean things that partners say or do to each other. There are an infinite number of punitive and cruel actions partners can undertake, and such lists may vary over the course of the relationship, and over the course of time.

Secondly, although using victim reports to inform the measures is a positive approach, developing measures and conceptualizations using victim samples that are limited in terms of gender, or any other dimension of human diversity, limits our understanding of the phenomena. For example, the Psychological Mistreatment of Women Scale (Tolman 1992) includes 64 ways that violent men have mistreated women. Merely changing the pronouns is not an adequate way to study men’s experience of psychological abuse. A starting point in the measurement of men’s experience of psychological abuse might be an analysis of men’s experience of psychological abuse as reported in open-ended interview questions.

O’Leary (2001) discussed the problematic approach of adopting methods used to study physical aggression to investigate psychological aggression. Using this approach may be practical, but listing specific behaviors does not truly address the subjective and complex issue of how to determine whether or not psychological abuse has occurred. Definition issues can lead to considerable over-classifying of psychological aggression as abuse, which may lead to results such as Jezl et al. (1996), in which over 90 % of high school students reported experiencing some form of psychological maltreatment. Furthermore, current measures may be measuring abuse as conceptualized by one partner. In a study on the degree of agreement between partners reporting various types of IPV, Caetano and colleagues (Caetano et al. 2009) found that there was generally a lack of agreement between partners regarding abusive behavior. Thirty percent of events would not have been identified as psychological abuse if agreement between partners regarding the abuse were required. Similar disagreements on what constitutes abuse can occur among researchers, between respondent and researcher, and between clients and clinicians.

In many ways, psychological abuse is more complex and subjective than physical abuse and thus listing a specific set of behavioral examples of psychological abuse does not fully conceptualize the construct. Without a clear and concrete definition and conceptualization of psychological abuse, psychologists cannot accurately and consistently determine when or if psychological abuse has occurred. As O’Leary (2001) points out, there is no current cutoff score for psychological abuse; in other words, researchers do not know at what point someone should be classified as psychologically abused (or abusive). Similarly, Tolman (2001) concluded that there is no gold standard for deciding who is actually being psychologically abused and who is not.


One of the first scales used to measure psychological abuse was the Conflict Tactics Scale (CTS) (Straus 1979). This scale was designed to tap the tactics that partners might use during the course of a conflict. The focus of this scale is physical violence, but also includes a six-item scale for psychological aggression. Items on the CTS psychological aggression scale include both verbal and nonverbal items and are designed to be answered by either a male or female partner. Straus reported that the more psychological aggressive a partner is, the more likely they are to be physically aggressive (Straus and Smith 1990).

Even though the CTS and revised CTS are widely used, there are numerous issues in the use of this scale (McHugh 2005; McHugh and Swiderski 2010; Ryan 2012). Some of the criticisms of the CTS were addressed in the development of the CTS2 (Straus et al. 1995). The revised CTS measures physical, psychological, and sexual forms of aggression and includes estimates of injury. However, like the CTS, the CTS2 does not adequately address the issue of the context of the aggression. The (revised) CTS2 has a limited number of items pertaining to psychological abuse, and psychological abuse is conceptualized as a uni-dimensional construct in this case. Other scales have found psychological abuse to be a multifactorial construct.

There are many different forms and types of psychological aggression, making it particularly hard to define (O’Leary 2001) and to measure. The Index of Spouse Abuse (ISA) by Hudson and McIntosh (1981) is a 30-item scale that lists various behaviors that partners may have used against the respondents. The scale measures the severity of both psychological and physical abuse. A factor analysis indicated that the scale essentially measured domination and control, which are two commonly identified domains of psychological abuse (O’Leary 2001). Shepard and Campbell (1992) similarly view psychological abuse as a means of establishing power and control over the victim; their scale, the Abusive Behavior Inventory (ABI), was designed to assess a wide range of abusive behavior. Developed using men in a chemical dependency program and the women who were married to them, the ABI measures the frequency of 20 psychologically abusive behaviors and ten physically abusive behaviors. This scale is noteworthy in that it uses both the client’s assessment of abuse and the clinician’s. Correlations were modest between men’s responses and the clinicians’ reports suggesting that even experts who have some knowledge of the couple are not very accurate in their perceptions of the abuse, and/or that clients’ responses to measures may not be consistent with clients’ reports to their therapist (Shepard and Campbell 1992).

Another widely used measure of psychological abuse is the Psychological Maltreatment of Women Inventory (PMWI), developed by Tolman (1989) based on reports of battered women and batterers. The scale contains an extensive list of controlling and seriously abusive behaviors; women respondents are asked to indicate how often each abusive behavior occurred in the past 2 years. According to this measure, psychological abuse is conceptualized as having two domains: dominance-isolation and verbal-emotional abuse. The dominance-isolation scale includes items such as: limited access to phone, prevented use of car, limited access to money, asked her to account for her time and report where she had been. The emotional-verbal scale includes items such as: yelled and screamed, called her names, shamed her in front of others. The Index of Psychological Abuse (Sullivan et al. 1991) developed for use by married and dating women, also involves a list of ways men psychologically abuse partners. Factor analysis revealed six dimensions of psychological abuse for this scale: criticism and ridicule, social isolation and control, threats and violence, emotional withdrawal, manipulation, and emotional callousness. Criticism and ridicule were found to have the highest correlation with physical aggression (Sullivan et al. 1991)

While some scales measure overt acts, other measures attempt to measure dimensions of aspects of psychological abuse. For example, O’Leary (1999) defines psychological abuse as controlling and coercive behavior, including isolating romantic partners from others, denigrating and dominating them, and using criticism, threats, and verbal aggression. Alternatively, the Multidimensional Measure of Emotional Abuse was developed by Murphy and Hoover (1999) based on interviews with young women who experienced dating violence. The scale lists 28 behaviors that are fairly specific in nature, which according to Murphy and Hoover’s conceptualization measure four factors: dominance/intimidation (e.g., threats, behavior intended to produce fear), restrictive engulfment (e.g., isolation of partner; intense jealousy), denigration (e.g., humiliate/degrade), and hostile withdrawal (e.g., withholding emotional contact). Dominance/intimidation and denigration were found to be especially related to physical abuse and the authors suggest that these two domains in particular may be central to psychological abuse. Hostile withdrawal and restrictive engulfment were believed to represent different patterns of psychological abuse, as these two domains of psychological abuse tended to occur in the absence of physical abuse.

Measuring Psychological Abuse of Men

A few of the available measures of psychological abuse were designed to include males as the target of abuse. Marshall (1992a, b) originally developed the Severity of Violence Against Women scale by having college women rate a series of aggressive acts in terms of seriousness, abusiveness, violence, and threatening nature (Marshall 1992a). Marshall (1992b) extended the scale using a procedure similar to that described above to assess acts of psychological abuse perpetrated by a woman towards a man. Male college students rated each of the behaviors as if a woman was committing them towards a man. In addition to threats of violence, this scale also assesses physical abuse toward men. Marshall also conceptualized psychological abuse, distinguishing between subtle and overt forms of abuse (Marshall 1996) and arguing that research is frequently focused on the overt forms of psychological abuse while missing the subtle acts that can have a substantial impact (e.g., abusive acts enacted in a loving or joking way).

The Dominance Scale, developed by Hamby (1996) using both male and female college student respondents, measures three forms of dominance: authority, restrictiveness, and disparagement. Hamby conceptualized these forms of dominance as causes of physical and psychological abuse, rather than violence or aggression in and of themselves. The results indicated that the restrictiveness factor was significantly correlated with one’s use of physical aggression, and all three factors were related to one’s use of psychological aggression. Importantly, the pattern of correlations was not significantly different for males and females. Hamby advocated that the scale be used to predict psychological aggression rather than as a measure of psychological aggression itself.

The scales reviewed (and the other measures not included here) vary in terms of what acts or behaviors are included on the scales, and also in terms of the dimensions that characterize psychological abuse. Several of the scales emphasize domination and control as the essential characteristic of psychological abuse (e.g. O’Leary 1999; Hamby 1996). O’Leary (1999) emphasizes the importance of coercive control in psychological abuse, and poses several dimensions of control including isolation, denigration, and threats and verbal aggression, whereas for Hamby (1996) domination is characterized by authority, restrictiveness and disparagement. Domination and control are sometimes seen as one of several dimensions which may include emotional/verbal abuse (e.g. Psychological Maltreatment of Women, Tolman 1989), intimidation, denigration, hostile withdrawal, and restrictive engulfment (Murphy and Hoover 1999). This review reveals agreement on the centrality of domination and control in psychological abuse, and notes some similarities in the other dimensions measured in existing scales.

These scales, some of which date from the 1980s, demonstrates the numerous attempts and lack of agreement as to how best measure abuse in relationships and highlights the complex and confusing nature of the phenomenon. Varied approaches to measuring psychological abuse indicate the lack of a cohesive conceptualization or consensus regarding the nature and the dimensions of psychological abuse. Only a few scales are designed to be used with male targets of psychological abuse.

Problems with the Current Conceptualization of Psychological Abuse

Psychological abuse is a complex concept and there is a lack of agreement as to how it should be defined. There is currently no single agreed upon definition and unlike other forms of abuse (e.g., sexual, physical), there is no legal definition for psychological abuse (Follingstad 2007; O’Leary 2001). As demonstrated here, definitions of psychological abuse and what constitutes this form of abuse varies widely by study and scale. As the field currently stands, there is no consensus or empirical answer to the questions of a valid and reliable definition or measurement of psychological abuse (Follingstad 2007).

Maiuro (2001) suggests that the definition of psychological abuse should include the action or intent of the perpetrator, and the impact on the victim (e.g., emotional impact, ability to function). O’Hearn and Davis (1997) agree, stating that emotional abuse is an intentional act, and that the intent to harm the victim is a necessary component of psychological abuse. How can the intent of the perpetrator be accurately measured? In the case of physical abuse, the intent is frequently, but not always, clear. However, due to the subjective and often times subtle nature of psychological abuse, the intent of the “perpetrator” may not be clear to the victim or others observing the interaction.

Other authors focus on the impact on the recipient of the behavior. Is an impact on the target necessary in defining this concept? Straus (1979, p.77) defines psychological abuse as “verbal and nonverbal acts which symbolically hurt the other, or the use of threats to hurt the other.” Hoffman (1984) stated that abuse is characterized by consequences for the target (e.g., for the woman’s capacity to work, her capacity to interact with family or society, or her physical or mental health). Murphy and Hoover (1999) also include consequences in their definition (e.g., fear, or damage to self-esteem/self-worth). Marshall (1994) focuses solely on the impact on the victim, arguing that psychological abuse is any behavior that has the potential to hurt someone psychologically, even if harm was not the intention. Using a definition such as this could prevent missing many of the more subtle acts that can cause psychological harm. According to this definition, any behavior could be considered psychologically abusive if the recipient finds it to be so. While this definition may help to determine who has felt psychologically abused, labeling individuals as abusive remains problematic.

Loring (1994) argued that psychological abuse should be defined as a pattern of behaviors, and suggested that a single act is not sufficient to label an individual as psychologically abusive or abused. Tolman (1992) also suggested a pattern of behavior is required to constitute abuse, rather than any single act. A potential issue with this definition becomes what constitutes a pattern (e.g., what behaviors have to occur, how many times, in what contexts). Typically, scales and other measures currently employed to study psychological abuse cannot measure temporal patterns of behaviors. Other definitions include some combination of acts, such as dominance, control, isolation, ridicule, or threats of violence (Jones et al. 2005). Studies of psychological aggression ask individuals (mostly women) if they were ever the target of certain behaviors from their partner, which is a somewhat limiting method for collecting information about a complex interpersonal phenomenon. In addition, endorsing one particular behavior does little to help us understand the nature of psychological abuse, which is conceptualized as a pattern of both overt and subtle behavior that acquires meaning in the context of the relationship. The more intricate but important aspects of the behavior are lost, such as the interpretation of the behavior, its intention, or the context of the interaction. These aspects of abuse were emphasized in a commentary on gender parity by Stark (2010), who argued that we need to “set violent acts in their historical context, consider the co-occurrence of other coercive and controlling tactics, take the subjective experience of those who are targeted into account…and assess individual and societal harms…” (p. 202).

Some researchers have attempted to more closely examine the role of context in psychological abuse. In a study by Dehart et al. (2010), vignettes portraying psychologically abusive behaviors between intimate partners were presented to undergraduate students. The contexts of these vignettes were altered to see if what the participants considered abusive varied according to the context of the behavior. The researchers found that context did matter; participants rated acts as especially psychologically abusive when initiated by a male partner, when a pattern was evident (versus an isolated event), and when harm to the recipient of the act was evident.

The Follingstad Psychological Aggression Scale (FPAS) was developed in response to the researchers’ observations of inadequacies of current measures of psychological aggression (Follingstad 2011; Follingstad et al. 2005). In the development of the FPAS the researchers focused on targeting a broader range of psychologically aggressive acts, including a range of severity (mild, moderate, severe forms of each dimension), and using more general/less specific items in order to more fully capture each dimension of abuse. The scale was also designed to be used for both dating and married populations. Categories or domains of abuse were developed from a review of the psychological abuse literature, resulting in a total of 17 categories of abuse: threats/intimidation; destabilizing perceptions of reality; isolation/monopolization; treatment as inferior; establishment of power through refusals; verbal abuse/criticism; jealousy/suspicion; rigid gender roles; control over personal behavior; withholding emotionally/physically; public embarrassment/humiliation’ emotional wounding behavior around fidelity; lying/deception; guilt-induction/blaming; manipulation; and attaching attractiveness/sexuality. For each category, a mild, moderate, and severe item was included on the scale. For example, for the threats/intimidation category, the mild item is “threatened to leave the relationship,” the moderate item is “threw temper tantrums that seemed dangerous (e.g., broke objects),” and the severe item is “threatened to hurt partner physically.” A sample of college students rated each of these items according to how abusive they believed them to be. Results revealed that the 17 categories were found to be distinct from one another and mild, moderate, and severe items were generally also found to be distinct, with the exception of three categories in which there was little to no distinction between mild and moderate items. The FPAS appears to capture a fuller picture of psychological abuse, but questions regarding the effect of gender still remain.

Men as Victims of Psychological Abuse

Perhaps one of the most problematic underlying assumptions of psychological abuse is that women are the victims of it, and men the perpetrators. However, women are increasingly recognized as perpetrating physical violence (Frieze 2005; McHugh 2005; Langhinrichsen-Rohling 2010; Hamby 2009). A review of the empirical literature indicates that a large number of studies have reported that both sexes admit to using violence against their intimate partners (Frieze 2005; McHugh 2005). Even while rejecting the conclusion that women’s violence is equivalent to men’s, feminist psychologists have begun to rethink conceptions of gender issues in partner violence (McHugh et al. 2005; Langhinrichsen-Rohling 2010).

Similarly, there is increasing evidence that women perpetrate psychological or emotional abuse against their male partners (Hines, and Malley-Morrison 2001). A few studies have reported that women express more emotional abuse than their partners (White and Koss 1991; Pedersen and Thomas 1992), and some research has indicated that women are more likely to perpetrate psychological than physical aggression toward male partners (Hines and Saudino 2003). In research on relational aggression in marriage reported by Carroll and colleagues (Carroll et al. 2010), wives used relational aggression more than husbands, which included love withdrawal and social sabotage. In this study of 336 inner city couples, relational aggression was associated with low levels of marital quality. Other forms of psychological abuse used in escalating violence in the couples included coercive verbal and non-verbal behaviors such as insulting and swearing.

Research on Psychologically Abused Men

Kasian and Painter (1992) studied both male and female college student victims of psychological abuse using the Psychological Maltreatment Inventory (PMI). The authors created the PMI by modifying Tolman’s PMWI to include positive relationship items, to be gender neutral, and by eliminating items that would only apply to a marital relationship. According to Kasian and Painter, males reported experiencing higher levels of psychological abuse than their female counterparts. Specifically, 20 % of male respondents reported experiencing isolating and emotionally controlling behaviors, 15 % reported diminishment of their self-esteem, 20 % reported jealousy behaviors by their partners, and 10 % reported being verbally abused by partners and/or experiencing withdrawal of the partner.

Simonelli and Ingram (1998) used the same modified scale, the PMI, to study men’s experience of physical and emotional abuse in their heterosexual intimate relationships. Over 90 % of their sample reported the experience of at least one emotionally abusive behavior on the PMI, and 90 % of the men experienced at least one form of verbal aggression from their partner. The men who reported higher levels of emotional or physical abuse also reported higher levels of depression and anxiety.

Rogers and Follingstad (2011) examined reports of psychological abuse in a national sample of 312 male and 302 female respondents. Using the Measure of Psychologically Abusive Behavior, male and female respondents reported similar levels of psychological abuse experience. Foran et al. (2011) report on a large-scale study of the prevalence of IPV and emotional abuse for men and women in the Air Force. They concluded that partner maltreatment is widespread in the military, including emotional abuse. Although self-reports indicated that women were more likely to perpetrate emotional abuse, men were more likely to perpetrate clinically significant emotional abuse (i.e., abuse that resulted in depression or stress). Six percent of the men in the sample reported as victims of clinically significant emotional abuse compared to 8.5 % of women respondents. In a study of relational aggression among 336 US American married couples, Carroll and colleagues (Carroll et al. 2010) reported that wives were more likely to be relationally aggressive than were husbands, engaging in both social sabotage and withdrawal. Vandello and Cohen (2003) argue that men more than women are motivated to violence by concerns over their partners remaining sexually faithful. However, a study of psychological and physical abuse among college students (Avant et al. 2011) found no differences between men and women’s experience of incidents of physical and psychological abuse.

Considering Gender Issues

In a discussion of women’s use of physical violence, Anderson (2005) commented that the confusion about how partner assaults are gendered is a reflection of a larger theoretical confusion about what it is that researchers mean by gender (West and Zimmerman 1987). Anderson (2005) observed that, even as theories of gender have shifted substantially over the past decades, expanded conceptualizations of gender have not substantially impacted social sciences.

Traditionally, gender was conceived as an individual trait; individuals were viewed as gendered beings, and the public was interested in ways in which men and women differed (Hyde 2005; McHugh and Cosgrove 2004). From this perspective, a propensity to use aggression and violence has been viewed as a characteristic of men. Anderson (2005) challenged this gender perspective, and explains the conclusion that gender (as an individual trait or identity) is not a potent predictor of intimate partner violence. Many theorists have challenged the gender paradigm that assumes gender is dichotomous or essential (Hyde 2005; McHugh and Cosgrove 2004). Such thinking results in overemphasizing the differences between men and women, and in minimizing the heterogeneity of both women and men (McHugh and Cosgrove 2004). For example, not all men are batterers, and others (e.g. Gondolf 1985) have encouraged the field to recognize that men who use violence with their partners are not all alike. Anderson (2005) and Dutton (1994) suggest that individualistic conceptions of gender make it difficult to explain why only some men and women perpetrate intimate partner violence.

Although an individualistic perspective on gender may not be useful in the understanding of interpersonal violence, alternative constructions of gender may contribute to contemporary theories. One alternative perspective on gender is gender as a lens or framework that organizes experiences and interactions, and impacts perceptions and reactions in multiple situations and contexts. Gender generally operates in social interactions between people, and is a factor in our enactment and understanding of intimate partner violence. For example, gender can be confirmed or constructed through the use of violence. Violence is one means by which men can perform masculinity (Anderson and Umberson 2001; Hearn 1998; Vandello and Cohen 2008). Further, research confirms that men’s and women’s violence is perceived and evaluated differently. This is empirically documented by the work of Taylor and Sorenson (2005), which measured the social acceptability of various forms of interpersonal violence. Across several studies, men viewed women’s acts of aggression directed towards them as not violent, and women who admit to committing acts of aggression did not report using violence. Miller and Simpson (1991) reported that both men and women trivialized women’s use of violence. Anderson (2005) called for researchers and theorists to develop more complex constructions of gender as one path to understanding violence in interpersonal relationships.

Gender and the Measurement of Psychological Abuse: What They Do

Before accepting research documenting that women perpetuate psychological abuse against men, there is a need to rethink the measures of psychological abuse utilized in the research. One approach to investigating psychological abuse as perpetrated against men by women is to modify the pronouns on a measure designed to measure psychological abuse perpetrated by men on their female partners. However, is this really an accurate way of measuring female perpetration of psychological abuse? Is female-perpetrated psychological abuse simply a reversal of male-perpetrated psychological abuse? Merely changing the pronouns in a measure of the psychological maltreatment of women does not constitute a gender-neutral measure of psychological abuse. Hamby and Jackson (2010) argue gender impacts the perceptions of responsibility, severity, and dangerousness of intimate partner violence; male and female perpetrated intimate partner violence is not experienced or perceived as equivalent. Male IPV is viewed as more serious and dangerous (e.g. Seelau and Seelau 2005; Sorenson and Thomas 2009). In a similar study, Rakowski and McHugh (2012) examined student perceptions of psychological abuse when the gender of the actor/perpetrator and of the target/victim were varied, along with the intent of the actor and the reaction of the victim. In the vignette, one partner placed the other partner under surveillance because he/she was worried (or suspicious) and the actor was (or was not) bothered by the surveillance. The results indicated that women actors were unlikely to be viewed as perpetrators, and that gender as well as intent and reaction influenced students’ perceptions of the potentially abusive behavior of monitoring one’s partner. The complex series of results indicated that student perceptions of psychological abuse are complex, not straightforward, and are influenced by both gender and context.

Specific acts included on psychological abuse measures may not have the same meaning when performed by men and women. When women commit the same behavior as men do in the context of an intimate relationship, it is not always experienced or observed as abusive (Hamby and Jackson 2010; Taylor and Sorenson 2005). For example, a man who criticizes his wife’s appearance and tries to control how she dresses is often viewed as controlling and degrading. Yet many women report that they typically scrutinize their husbands’ appearance and tell them how to dress. This behavior is not viewed as abusive by either men or women. Similarly, in a study of partner psychological abuse, no men endorsed “Called me fat and ugly” as an abusive action by their partner, and no women reported “destroying something” as an abusive action they had taken (Matte and Lafontaine 2011).

Thus, there is the possibility, or even likelihood, that women adopt different behaviors strategies to hurt their partners. For this reason, measures based on the experiences of battered women are not ideal for investigating the possibility of women’s psychological abuse of male partners. If measures of psychological abuse involve responses to extensive list of abusive acts or behaviors, then there is a need to consider victims’ reports of what acts or interactions are perceived or experienced as abusive. Although it is recognized that women can be psychologically abusive, it is reasonable to suggest that women’s use and men’s experience of psychological abuse should be conceptualized differently than men’s abuse of women partners.

Follingstad and her colleagues noted that gender played an important role in participants’ ratings of behaviors (Follingstad et al. 2005). Female participants tended to find the behaviors included as more problematic and abusive than did males. The researchers hypothesized that this is partly due to the cultural message that relationship abuse is portrayed as male-perpetrated, and that women are victims. The authors also point out that some items may be more threatening due to gender differences (e.g., threats of physical violence more threatening if given by a man), and note that if women have more affiliative needs, then items regarding social isolation may also appear more threatening to a woman. Even though it appears Follingstad and her colleagues have taken the measurement of psychological abuse to the next step through more sophisticated methods (e.g., distinguishing severity level, moving away from lists of specific acts), the question of gender remains unanswered. It is possible that psychological abuse is more severe or has more negative consequences for women; however, it is also possible that because we are used to conceptualizing psychological abuse as male-perpetrated, we do not fully understand what men find to be psychologically abusive.

Follingstad (2007) presents results that suggest that men and women experience psychological abuse differently. In her study, women reported engaging in monitoring and manipulation behaviors whereas men reported treating their partners as inferior and being unfaithful. Men’s description of abusive behaviors directed towards them included monitoring behaviors, controlling decision making, and wounding with regard to sexuality. Women reported that their male partners threw temper tantrums, insulted their intelligence, criticized them physically and sexually, demanded obedience, called them names, and threatened to harm them or a pet. In the Foran et al. (2011) study of men and women in the US Air Force, participants who reported depression or stress as a result of their partner’s behavior indicated how often their partner committed ten acts against them (e.g., put me down, stalked me, interrogated me about where I had been). In response to inquiries about other abusive behaviors, men reported that their partners threatened to report them to their commander and threatened to leave.

In a classroom exercise, upper level psychology students described psychological abuse of men by women from experience, or having heard of the experiences of others. Some examples of partners’ psychological abuse of men included: degrading men about their salary, their life choices, their job, for not being a good provider, for not (being) a good person, and for being a bad father. Students also said the partner might tell him he is worthless, might emasculate him, could make him feel inadequate as a lover, and could challenge his masculinity (Swiderski and McHugh 2011).

Gender Role Harassment

In the previous classroom exercise students suggested that women’s psychological abuse of their male partners would involve numerous challenges to their masculinity and enactment of the male role. Such comments have been termed gender role harassment (Berdahl 2007). Gender role harassment refers to comments directed toward men criticizing their behaviors, personalities, performances, and role choices as being not manly enough. Berdahl and her colleagues (Berdahl 2007; Berdahl et al. 1996) have observed that harassment of men frequently challenges men’s ability to fulfill the male role, labeling them as sissies, girls, or gays.

Men in US culture are stigmatized when seen as acting in a feminine way (McCreary 1994). Research documents that comments referring to feminine or insufficiently masculine behavior negatively impact men, resulting in anxiety, shame, cognitive impairments, anger and aggression (Vandello, et al 2008; Funk and Werhun 2011). Current research on the criticism and ridicule of men by their partners does not indicate the degree to which abuse includes gender role harassment because the measures of abuse originated in descriptions of male abuse of women. Because men in US culture are strongly motivated to enact masculine roles and to avoid femininity, criticisms of them as not manly are potent insults (Berdahl 2007), and are potentially an aspect of psychological abuse.

Gender role harassment is one way in which gender roles potentially impact abuse within heterosexual couples. It is interesting that student informants noted this form of harassment, but theorists did not. Women partners may also be subjected to gender role harassment. For example, criticisms of women as fat and ugly, as not sexually appealing, and as not being good mothers may be viewed as forms of gender role harassment. A more careful consideration of gender in psychological abuse may include gender role harassment as an important form of abuse used by women (and men), and may impact how psychological abuse is conceptualized and measured.

Gender and Dimensions of Psychological Abuse

Women may differ from men not only in what actions or tactics they employ in conflict with their partners, but in the underlying dimensions of their abuse. As reviewed here, measures of psychological abuse have detailed different dimensions or factors of abuse. Many theorists and measures have emphasized domination and control (e.g., O’Leary 1999; Hamby 1996). Other dimensions previously studied and cited earlier include: intimidation and threat, verbal aggression, denigration and humiliation, isolation, manipulation and emotional withdrawal.

In terms of gender stereotypes, one might expect women to use manipulation and emotional withdrawal as strategies in partner conflict and there is some evidence to support this perspective. Foran and colleagues (Foran et al. 2011) reported that women in the military were more likely (than male counterparts) to use emotional abuse. In research on marital couples by Carroll et al. (2010), wives employed more relational aggression including withdrawal and social sabotage. Strube and Barbour (1984) concluded that women used indirect aggression in their attempts to equalize the power in their relationships. In research reported by Follingstad and colleagues, women admitted to monitoring and manipulating behaviors. Reviews of the literature do not, however, confirm that women’s psychological aggression is distinct in any of these ways (manipulation, monitoring, emotional withdrawal) from the abuse perpetrated by men.

In the review of scales and models of psychological abuse presented here, domination and control were identified as central dimensions in the multiple conceptualizations of intimate partner violence (e.g., O’Leary 1999; Hamby 1996). Coercive control has been posited as the primary characteristic of serious intimate partner violence (Ehrensaft et al. 1999). Viewing domination and control as motive and an important dimension of abuse is consistent with the traditional male role and with the reported behaviors of batterers. As Dobash and Dobash (1979) put it, “Men who assault their wives are actually living up to cultural prescriptions that are cherished in Western society—aggressiveness, male dominance and female subordination—and they are using physical force as a means to enforce that dominance” (p. 24).

In this vein, Dutton and Goodman (2005) hypothesized a coercive control model of intimate partner violence that characterized male batterers. Central elements of the model included: setting the stage; coercion involving a demand and a credible threat for noncompliance; surveillance; delivery of threatened consequences; and the victim’s behavioral and emotional response to coercion. In a recent (re)conceptualization of coercive control, Stark (2007) argued for a special form of intimate partner abuse that is motivated by coercive control, and involves intimidation, isolation and control to restrict one’s partner liberties. Similarly, Tanha and colleagues (Tanha et al. 2010) describe coercive control as a special case of IPV, and provide evidence that among divorcing couples, more men were motivated by coercive control. Relatedly, Lawson (2008) reported that high levels of dominance among men resulted in more severe IPV of women, and Karakurt and Cumbie (2012) constructed and tested a model in which men resorted to physical violence to reassure their masculine identity.

While some researchers view coercive control as especially characteristic of male batterers, others have concluded that women also use violence to control their partners (Ross and Babcock 2009; Babcock et al. 2003). Hamby (2009), in a review of gender issues in IPV, argues that dominance is not a useful way of understanding gender issues in violence, since males and females both report using controlling behavior. However, Ehrensaft and Vivian (1999) observed that aggressive men viewed control over their partner as acceptable, but these men were very sensitive or reactive to feeling controlled by their partner. Stark (2010) argued that even if men and women are both motivated to control their partners, “coercive control is largely a male phenomenon, not because men are empirically more likely to deploy the requisite tactics or are socialized to expect control, but because inequality constrains women’s options in relationships” (p. 208). Thus, even if both men and women use psychological abuse to attempt to control their partners, there may still be gender issues connected with the exercise of and reaction to coercive control.

Carlson and Jones (2010) integrate empirical findings and previous conceptual models of types of IPV to construct a continuum of conflict and control. Their continuum is designed to inform counselors that all IPV is not alike. Individuals who are motivated by a need to control their partners are characterized as a subgroup of men who use violence, intimidation and psychological abuse to exercise coercive control over their partners. Other couples use physical and psychological aggression in anger and in conflicts, not as a form of control. In summary, coercive control is a core factor in our conceptualizations of psychological abuse, and theorists continue to expect coercive control to be impacted by gender issues. Being in control and reacting to others’ attempts to control oneself are important elements of the male role, and gender roles and gender inequalities remain the context in which psychological abuse occurs.

Connections with Other Forms of Violence

Early research examined psychological abuse in the context of physical violence. Contemporary research emphasizes the importance of studying interconnections among forms of violence, suggesting that examining the relation of psychological abuse to the experience and use of other forms of violence may contribute to our understanding of psychological abuse. For example, a recent issue of Journal of Violence (Grych and Swan 2012) examines interconnections among different types of violence. The articles in the issue examine interconnections over time, across contexts and between perpetration and victimization. Hamby and Grych (2012) examine the concept of poly-victimization, examining individuals’ experiences of multiple forms of victimizations across the lifespan. Poly-victimization refers to the status of individuals who have been victims of multiple forms of victimization sequentially or simultaneously. A general pattern has been documented that individuals who experience any one form of violence are at a much higher risk for subsequent forms. The poly-victimization approach is consistent with the research indicating that battered women experience multiple forms of victimization including sexual coercion, psychological abuse and physical violence. Research reported here and elsewhere also indicates that battered women and batterers have often experienced or observed violence as children.

Psychological and physical abuse were initially researched together, with the focus being on the relationship between the two (e.g., Murphy and O’Leary 1989; O’Leary et al. 1994). For example, Murphy & O’Leary found that psychological/verbal aggression is often predictive of subsequent physical abuse for both male and female partners. Most women experiencing physical abuse also experience psychological abuse (Marshall 1996). A series of research studies have documented that as many as 99 % of battered women experienced some form of psychological abuse (e.g., Stets 1990; Follingstad et al. 1990). Previous research shows that both physical and psychological abuse are related to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms (Babcock et al. 2008; Basile et al. 2004; King et al. 2006). Babcock and colleagues examined direct and indirect relations between physical assault, psychological abuse, and PTSD symptoms, and found that physical and psychological aggression were highly correlated. Interestingly, physical assault reliably predicted PTSD symptoms, but psychological abuse did not.

Hamby and Sugarman (1999) found that both men and women associated psychological aggressive acts with physical assault, and Murphy and O’Leary (1989) argues that psychological abuse predicts psychological abuse. In a study of college students’ experience of physical and psychological abuse, Avant et al. (2011) found that while men and women reported similar levels of abusive incidents, women college students reported a higher number of traumatic events. Physical abuse predicted trauma symptoms for women, but for men, neither physical nor psychological abusive experiences correlated with PTSD symptoms.

More recent research is looking at physical and psychological aggression as separate forms of violence. Findings suggest that psychological abuse has a negative impact on victims of intimate partner violence. Romito et al. (2005), in a study of couples in Italy, found psychological abuse unaccompanied by other forms of violence was associated with impaired health in abused women. PTSD symptomatology was found to be correlated with psychological (as well as physical) abuse (Babcock et al. 2008; Mechanic et al. 2008). Also, psychological victimization among couples was associated with changes in both anxiety and depression symptoms (Lawrence et al. 2009). As this research suggests, there do appear to be negative effects from psychological abuse in romantic relationships when separated from other forms of abuse. Yet, examining the research on the connection between physical and psychological abuse suggests that the combination of physical and psychological violence inflicted on battered women may be an especially traumatic experience. Psychological abuse experienced without physical aggression may be a different phenomenological experience, and may results in less serious outcomes.

The approach emphasizing poly-victimization challenges the silos we have constructed in our research on interpersonal violence, and also questions our conceptualizations (Hamby and Grych 2012). Should the field continue to conceptualize psychological abuse as a phenomenon separate from physical violence? Is psychological abuse experienced differently when it co-occurs with physical violence? Is physical violence experienced differently when it is preceded by or combined with psychological abuse? Or is psychological abuse remembered differently if we ask individuals about it after significant physical violence has occurred?

In considering the meaning and impact of psychological abuse as experienced by men, questions about physical violence and intimidation are raised. If women commit psychologically abusive behaviors against male partners, are those actions accompanied by physical violence or other forms of intimidation and threat? One suggestion made here is that the psychological abuse perpetrated by women not only differs in which behaviors are committed, and in how those behaviors are interpreted by their partners and others, but psychological abuse differs for men and women in terms of how behaviors are combined with other forms of violence or control. Others have noted, for example, that threats concerning children and child custody are often used by women as a means of controlling spouses (Hines et al. 2007).

Future Research Directions

Others have argued that in order to develop theoretical models of intimate abuse, it is necessary to understand the use of violence in the context of the relationship and within cultural and social systems (Dutton 1996; Edleson and Tolman 1992). Typically the research has not examined the reported acts of abuse in context, nor did investigators ask either the men or women if they felt they had been psychologically abused. Often individuals are classified as experiencing abuse if they experienced a given behavior once or twice. Yet, most people recognize abuse as referring to a pattern of behavior. Thus, even though men may be at higher risk for “psychological abuse” according to some studies, it is not clear if these men (or the women in the study) would characterize their experiences, especially single incidents of yelling or insults, as “abuse.”

The context of abuse would also include the age, cohort and historical era in which the abuse occurs. For differently-aged individuals, and in different historical eras, the behaviors committed may change even if the underlying phenomena do not. For example, existing scales do not include “sexting” or posting humiliating photographs on the Internet. Adding more contemporary behaviors or developing new scales does not solve the basic problem; psychological abuse is conceptualized in a cultural and a socio-historical context.

Among others, Randle and Graham (2011) have called for more research on the experience and effects of IPV in men. One of the key areas for future research is the development and validation of measures of IPV for male victims. In particular, Randle and Graham (2011) call for systematic studies on the effects of psychological abuse experienced by men, including men from ethnic minority and sexual minority groups. Focus groups with male victims could be used to help clarify definitional terms and aid in the development of measures of male experiences (Randle and Graham 2011). These authors also call for more qualitative research on men’s experiences of intimate abuse in order to reduce the confusion regarding IPV terms and definitions. In particular they suggest that approaches such as the interpretative phenomenological approach and grounded theory could be used to explore male experience of IPV. Randle and Graham (2011) note this type of research could also eventually lead to the development of more adequate, male-specific measures. One of the recommendations they make regarding qualitative research is the use of the interpretative phenomenological approach, to generate hypotheses and to develop an understanding of psychological abuse from a man’s perspective, alleviating the reliance on models developed for women. We concur with Randle and Graham on the importance of qualitative inquiries into the experiences of abused men.

McHugh and her colleagues (McHugh et al. 2005) argued that different conceptualizations of violence and abuse can contribute to a pluralistic, complex, and multi-layered conception of intimate partner abuse. Reliance on a single measure that oversimplifies, reduces or reifies our construction of violence can be seen as problematic. A similar perspective needs to be applied to psychological abuse. The lack of a single consistent definition may indicate the multidimensional and complex nature of psychological abuse. Although we have argued here for the value of an agreed-upon definition and conceptualization of psychological abuse, not agreeing on the definition or the dimensions of psychological abuse can be seen as positive in that it prevents reification, and allow us to remain open to new conceptualizations or revision.

Here we have argued that conceptualization of psychological abuse, especially abuse experienced by men, could benefit from a careful consideration of gender. Recognizing the ways in which gender impacts one’s identification, perception, evaluation, judgments, and reactions to violence is one important gender angle. We have suggested here that gender roles influence the use and experience of psychological abuse. Aggression and control are gendered in that they are consistent with the traditional male role, and are less expected and recognized when demonstrated by women. The forms or strategies employed by men and women are likely to be influenced by gender roles, and both men and women may be criticized for not adequately performing gender. Psychological abuse may be experienced differently when it is combined with physical violence, and coercive control may be a special form of intimate partner violence. A starting position in the reconceptualization of men’s experience of psychological violence is to take it seriously, as a distinct and potentially traumatizing experience, and to ask men about their experience.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  • Maureen C. McHugh
    • 1
  • Samantha Rakowski
    • 2
  • Catherine Swiderski
    • 1
  1. 1.Indiana University of PennsylvaniaIndianaUSA
  2. 2.University of KentuckyLexingtonUSA

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