Childhood Abuse and Later Marital Outcomes: Do Partner Characteristics Moderate the Association?

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Abstract

Although people with a history of child abuse are known to be at elevated risk for later difficulties in relationships, there is debate over whether these effects are enduring and relatively immutable or are moderated by characteristics and behaviors of the partner. To reconcile these competing perspectives, we conducted a longitudinal study of 414 newlywed couples living in low-income neighborhoods, testing whether the association between abuse history and relationship satisfaction is dependent on the partners’ aggression, depression, substance abuse, observed communication, and other demographic risk factors. Spouses who had been abused as children (25% of husbands, 31% of wives) reported more symptoms of depression and substance abuse and, among husbands, displayed more negative communication. Spouses with a history of child abuse were also less satisfied with their marriage, even as newlyweds; abused wives also declined in satisfaction over time compared to those without this history. However, interactions between abuse history and all of the proposed moderators were not significant, indicating that partner and relationship characteristics failed to strengthen or weaken the association between abuse history and relationship satisfaction. Childhood experiences of abuse appear to have lasting and broad effects on individual and relational outcomes, and these effects are neither heightened nor mitigated by the partner’s characteristics or behaviors.

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