Research Day

Partner Abuse Changes with Pregnancy and Postpartum: A Mixed Methods Analysis

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INTRODUCTION: Partner violence varies across the lifespan, with the highest rates in young adulthood, during peak childbearing years. A large body of research examines violence during pregnancy, but less data is available regarding the ebb and flow of violence from pregnancy to postpartum. STUDY OBJECTIVE: The goals of the current investigation were to describe whether partner violence (emotional, physical and sexual) changes during pregnancy or postpartum (the perinatal period), and how women explain changes that may occur. METHODS: This mixed methods analysis combined quantitative results from a community-based survey study of 326 postpartum women, supplemented by semi-structured interviews with 40 survey participants who disclosed partner violence. Survey participants were recruited from the hospital during their postpartum stay. Phone surveys were completed eight weeks later. Sixty-four women screened positive for abuse and 60 of them agreed to be contacted for an extended interview about their abuse experiences, and 40 interviews were subsequently completed. These were audio-taped and transcribed. Inductive thematic analysis of these interview transcripts was conducted. RESULTS: Emotional abuse was universal, reported by all sixty abused women. It took a variety of forms (threats, insults, social isolation, financial abuse), was the first method of abuse and, among the sixteen women reporting perinatal abuse, escalated during this period. Physical abuse was common (47 of 60 abused women, 78.3%), taking the form of slaps or kicks more often than beatings. It was rare for physical abuse to begin in pregnancy (only 2 women) among this sample. Instead, most experienced a reprieve during pregnancy; with physical assaults stopping (7 of 16 perinatally-abused-women) or becoming milder. Women provided multiple explanations for the reduced violence, including increased placating of abusers to forestall violence. Others reported their partners weren’t as worried about infidelity, a primary trigger for assault. Still others said their partners abstained for the sake of having a health newborn. After delivery, emotional abuse continued, often involving the new child: threats to call CPS, threats to take custody, parenting insults, etc. For some women (5 of 16), physical (2) and sexual (3) abuse resumed, for the same reasons the abuse existed in initially (controlling, intoxication, etc), only now with the added stressor of caring for a newborn. CONCLUSION: As with non-violent couples, a community-based sample of abused women report that pregnancy and birth often produce relationship changes, including the nature of abuse.

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