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Like Father Like Son:
UC Researcher Finds Abusers Influenced by Dads

Date: April 5, 2000
By: Marianne Kunnen-Jones
Phone: (513) 556-1826
Archive: Research News

A researcher in University of Cincinnati's School of Social Work has found that abusers' relationships with their fathers play a key role in their violent tendencies.

For 10 years, Gary Dick, UC adjunct assistant professor, had worked as a social worker to men who batter women and noticed that the batterers frequently talked about their fathers.

Gary Dick

For his recently completed dissertation, Dick studied 145 men. This number includes men in the YWCA's Amend program for batterers in Cincinnati as well as a control group of men who had children attending Cincinnati Public Schools or men who worked for the Hamilton County Department of Human Services. Of all those involved in the study, 95 said they physically assaulted their partners, while 50 reported they were not violent. His dissertation contains findings that could be crucial in developing effective therapy, treatment and rehabilitation programs for abusive men.

Dick's research found that three factors can predict violence in men with 88 percent accuracy: Men who have witnessed their fathers abuse their mothers, men who are victims of a father's abuse themselves and men who have low self-esteem are the most likely to be violent themselves.

In two of those factors, the father's role is obvious. Social workers like Dick call it "negative paternal engagement." Said Dick: "The negative relationship with the father was a direct predictor of intimate violence against a female partner."

In the third factor, Dick had to look a little deeper to find a connection to fathers, but there was one. He found that fathers' relationships with the males in his study played a significant role in the men's self-esteem. "The lack of a positive relationship with the father led to low self-esteem, which is a contributing factor to becoming violent. Men who had the highest self-esteem had the highest positive and loving relationships with their fathers. This study shows how important it is for the fathers to have a loving relationship with their sons," Dick said.

The importance of this kind of research, Dick argues, should reach far beyond fathers and sons or those who work with victims of abuse or abusers. "Physical abuse is a problem that affects all of us, even if we may never be a target ourselves," he said, adding that violence against women carries high costs, not just to the individual wife, girlfriend or daughter who suffers physical/emotional injury and oftentimes death. "The costs really have not been accurately estimated because the problem has been viewed as a private family matter for so long," said Dick, who worked with the YWCA of Cincinnati's Amend Program from 1984 to 1994. Witnessing marital violence has a devastating impact on children. Dick found that 79 percent of the men who had witnessed their fathers abusing their mothers were later violent in an intimate relationship.

"There are health care costs, criminal justice costs, shelter costs, loss of income for women who work and are too injured to go to work. Domestic disputes are also the most frequent reason for police calls," Dick said. According to one 1996 study, wife assault is the single most common reason women enter hospital emergency rooms. Another study showed 2.5 million women in the United States are battered each year by a spouse or intimate partner.

Dick's dissertation also found:

  • 44 percent of the violent group of men had experienced a parental divorce. Of the men whose parents were divorced, 79 percent were later violent in an intimate relationship.

  • College-educated men were less likely to be violent, although it's not clear if they are really less violent or just say they are (72 percent of the nonviolent men had a college degree or higher, while 28 percent of the violent group had a college degree or higher).

  • A significant portion of the violent men grew up being raised by someone other than their biological father (84 percent of the nonviolent men indicated their primary adult male caretaker was their father, while 68 percent of the violent men did so).