Emotional Abuse in Military Families

Jay Morse & Heidi Radunovich, PhD

According to recent research by Foran, Heyman & Slep (2014) and the United States Air Force Family Advocacy Research Program [1], emotional abuse can be an early warning sign of future physical abuse. While most people can engage in some negative behavior towards their partners, this study focused on clinically significant emotional abuse (CS-EA), which the authors defined as “emotional abuse that results in significant and impairing fear, stress, or sadness/depression” [1]. The authors wanted to determine what environmental factors were associated with CS-EA.

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[Flickr, Blitz Build 2012 Miami Habitat for Humanity Day 1 by EL Gringo, CC BY-ND-NC 2.0]
The study used a sample of 42,744 active duty military (34,713 men and 8,031 women) and 17,226 civilian spouses (879 men and 16,347 women) who completed web-based surveys measuring environmental factors across four levels:

  • Individual level: Self-efficacy (ability to cope with stress, manage work and family demands), perceived financial stress, physical well-being, alcohol problems, and years in the military
  • Family level: Support from spouse, relationship satisfaction, family income, marriage length, and number of children, spousal deployment support
  • Work level: Support from leadership, workgroup cohesion, work relationships, weeks deployed, hours worked, and satisfaction with the Air Force
  • Community level: Community cohesion, support from neighbors, formal agencies, social support, community safety, and community stressors.

As expected, individual and family factors were closely related to CS-EA. In addition, other important factors to consider in clinical practice and further research are a subset of work and community factors:

  • Greater community cohesion and support from neighbors was related to reduced risk of CS-EA for active duty military men
  • Fewer hours worked was related to a reduced risk of CS-EA for women
  • Across all levels, more support from leadership was related to lower levels of risk for CS-EA in civilian women.

When developing treatment plans for victims of emotional abuse, the environment of the victim and the perpetrator play an important role in the risk of continued emotional abuse and the risk of future physical abuse. Pay special attention to neighborhood relationships, perceived community cohesion, workload, and the perceived level of support from military leadership.


[1] Foran, H., Heyman, R., Slep, A., & US Air Force Family Advocacy Res. (2014). Emotional abuse and its unique ecological correlates among military personnel and spouses. Psychology of Violence, 4(2), 128-142. doi:10.1037/a0034536

This post was written by Jay Morse & Heidi Radunovich, PhD, members of the MFLN Family Development (FD) team which aims to support the development of professionals working with military families. Find out more about the Military Families Learning Network FD concentration on our website, on Facebook, on Twitter, YouTube, and on LinkedIn.

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