Findings revealed significant associations between abuse-related factors, social coping resources, childhood trauma variables, and engagement and disengagement coping. Consistent with one previous study (Mitchell & Hodson, 1983
), relationship abuse frequency was more strongly associated with disengagement coping than engagement coping. Higher levels of each form of abuse were associated with disengagement coping behaviors, and psychological aggression was the strongest unique predictor of disengagement coping A growing literature shows psychological aggression to be a particularly robust predictor of PTSD symptoms among battered women (Arias & Pape, 1999
; Dutton et al., 1999
; Taft, Murphy, King, DeDeyn, & Musser, 2005
). The stronger relationship between psychological aggression and disengagement coping in this study may reflect the particularly damaging effects of this form of abuse on mental health.
Peritraumatic dissociation represented the only other abuse-related factor that was associated with coping. This variable was positively associated with disengagement coping across analyses, suggesting that dissociative experiences during and immediately following incidents of relationship abuse were related to a pattern of escapist coping thoughts and behaviors. These findings are consistent with a prior study by Marmar, Weiss, Metzler, and Delucchi (1996)
, who found a strong positive association between peritraumatic dissociation and disengagement forms of coping among a sample of rescue workers. Further, prior research across a range of trauma groups has shown peritraumatic dissociation to be strongly associated with higher levels of PTSD (see Ozer, Best, Lipsey, & Weiss, 2003
). It is possible that PTSD, which is typically characterized by behavioral avoidance and emotional numbing symptoms, serves as a mechanism whereby peritraumatic dissociation leads to disengagement coping.
Coping resource variables were the strongest predictors of engagement coping. Tangible support, appraisals of support, and a greater sense of belonging were all associated with this outcome at the bivariate level, and belonging remained associated with engagement coping when accounting for the other coping resource variables. Prior work suggests that battered women with a responsive support network display more active, engagement forms of coping (Goodman et al, 1999
). Such social networks may foster a sense of empowerment and greater access to resources that assist with engagement coping (Dutton et al., 1994
). Interestingly, the tangible and emotional support that these women received from others were more important determinants of their use of engagement coping strategies than were personal socioeconomic resource variables.
Childhood physical abuse and sexual abuse were negatively associated with engagement coping at the bivariate level, and childhood physical abuse was also predictive of less engagement coping in a regression analysis. Interparental domestic violence was positively associated with disengagement coping at the bivariate level and in light of the other childhood trauma variables. Disengagement strategies may be particularly adaptive during childhood to escape from the violence but may be ineffective in responding to trauma in adulthood (Leitenberg et al., 2004
). It is also possible that PTSD and other mental health problems resulting from childhood trauma increase the use of disengagement coping (Gibson & Leitenberg, 2001
Kraemer et al.’s (1997)
risk factor typology that distinguishes fixed markers
from variable risk factors
may be particularly useful in considering the potential clinical implications of current study findings. Fixed markers are factors that do not vary over time among individuals and assist in identifying populations at risk. In this study, interparental domestic violence and peritraumatic dissociation represented fixed marker variables that may serve to identify those who are more likely to use disengagement coping methods in response to abuse. Variable risk factors change over time, either naturally or through manipulation, and represent potential points of intervention. For example, findings involving the social coping resource variables suggest efforts to enhance social and tangible support may be associated with increased engagement coping and less use of disengagement coping. Since engagement coping is associated with more positive psychological outcomes and disengagement coping is associated with negative psychological outcomes (Waldrop & Resick, 2004
), results highlight the importance of interventions that target these factors. Findings also suggest that eliminating the relationship abuse may serve to decrease disengagement coping in particular.
Future studies should investigate a number of other potentially relevant correlates of coping. Cognitive appraisal variables, such as perceptions of threat and the controllability of the stressor, have been highlighted in general coping research and theory (Folkman, Lazarus, Dunkel-Schetter, DeLongis, & Gruen, 1986
; Lazarus & Folkman, 1984
) and are likely to be relevant for battered women’s choice of coping strategies. Mental and physical health functioning and other life stressors may play also play important roles with respect to coping. Problems in these areas may diminish both social and economic resources necessary to use engagement coping strategies (Aldwin & Revenson, 1987
). It is also important to consider prior coping efforts and societal factors such as criminal and legal system responsiveness since more positive institutional responses may lead to feelings of empowerment and increased use of engagement coping (Mitchell & Hodson, 1986
; Waldrop & Resick, 2004
The use of retrospective reports mandates caution when interpreting study results because encoding and memory alterations have been linked with the presence of dissociation and trauma symptoms (Bremner, Vermetten, Southwick, Krystal, & Charney, 1998
; Zoellner, Sacks, & Foa, 2003
). The emotional or psychological state of participants may also have influenced retrospective reports. Further, childhood sexual abuse was assessed using a two-item composite, and interparental domestic violence was assessed with a one-item indicator. It is possible that these measures did not fully capture important aspects of these forms of childhood trauma. Future investigations should more comprehensively assess these trauma variables to better understand their relationships with different forms of coping. Finally, the coping behavior of the women in this study may not be representative of the larger population of battered women because participants were selected in part on the basis of their help-seeking behavior (e.g., seeking shelter). However, it is important to note that study participants reported higher levels of both engagement and disengagement forms of coping relative to prior research in this area. Regardless, current study findings should be replicated among community samples of battered women to minimize this threat to external validity.
With these cautions in mind, this study represents an initial attempt to document factors associated with the use of engagement and disengagement coping strategies among a sample of battered women. Results suggest that battered women’s use of different coping strategies is multidetermined and associated with a variety of proximal and distal factors. Additional research is needed to more fully explicate the coping process among battered women to inform prevention and intervention efforts for this population.