Aggression in the Context of Partner Threat: The Role of Trauma Exposure

Alexandra C. Mattern, Amy D. Marshall

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract

Trauma-related biased perception of threat, typically defined in terms of physical danger or harm, is associated with intimate partner aggression perpetration. Yet, it is unclear if such threat (a) functionally motivates aggression and (b) includes diverse forms of threat. Theory and limited research suggest that threats of rejection/abandonment and social dominance may be two distinct functional precipitants of aggression among trauma-exposed individuals. Sixty-four heterosexual couples (N = 128 individuals) selected for elevated symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder in either partner were observed during conflict discussions. Small correlations between men's and women's engagement in threats of rejection/abandonment and social dominance suggest that they reflect distinct types of threat. Partners' rejection/abandonment threats and social dominance threats were more strongly associated with engagement in aggression among men with a relatively high frequency of trauma exposure, compared to men with a low frequency of trauma exposure and all women. Women with a high, relative to low, frequency of trauma exposure behaved more aggressively in the context of their partners' social dominance threats; women's aggression was not associated with the severity of their partners' rejection/abandonment threats. Results align with research suggesting that highly traumatized men's misperceptions of threat may motivate their aggression, and indicate that aggression may also be used in the context of accurately detected threat. Integration of methods to alter contextual and individual factors influencing aggression perpetration may improve intervention outcomes. Compared to individually-based interventions, conjoint couple interventions may be better poised to address maladaptive contextual processes that contribute to relationship aggression perpetration.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)140-157
Number of pages18
JournalPartner Abuse
Volume11
Issue number2
DOIs
StatePublished - 2020

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Gender Studies
  • Social Psychology
  • Health(social science)
  • Clinical Psychology
  • Law

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