Journal of Family Violence

, Volume 31, Issue 7, pp 885–896 | Cite as

The Words of Violence: Autobiographical Narratives of Abused Women

Original Article


Personal narratives tell the stories of people’s lives as well as provide insight into the meaning of those experiences. These narratives both reflect and are influenced by the relationships within which an individual is embedded. In this study, autobiographical narratives for two groups of women were compared: women who had experienced habitual gender-based domestic violence in their couple relationships and women who had not. The language of narratives was analyzed by LIWC (Language Inquiry and Word Count procedure). Results showed that the language and structure of narratives by women with a history of domestic violence indicated greater stress and trauma, more incoherent space-time organization, and poorer relationship quality. Women who experienced violence wrote longer narratives that contained proportionately more negative emotion words and more references to cognitions and physical/body issues, and indicated more disorganized structure by means of incoherent use of verbal tense, more impoverished use of connectives, and greater use of negative sentence syntax and discrepancy words. They also included proportionately more pronoun references to ‘I’,‘You’,’ and ‘He’, indicating self vs. partner conflictual relationships. However, women who had experienced relationship violence for longer decreased their references to the emotions of fear and anxiety, suggesting adaptation to violence over time.


Couple violence Autobiographical memories Narratives Romantic relationships Gender-based violence Intimate violence Violence against women Interpersonal violence 



This research was supported in part by a grant from the MURST-ex 60 % in 2013-2014. The authors are grateful to all of the women who participated in the study. They would also like to thank student researchers for their help with data insertion.


  1. Alvarez-Conrad, J., Zoellner, L. A., & Foa, E. B. (2001). Linguistic predictors of trauma pathology and physical health. Journal of Applied Cognitive Psychology, 15, 159–170. doi: 10.1002/acp.839.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Bohanek, J. G., Fivush, R., & Walker, C. (2005). Memories of positive and negative emotional events. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 19, 51–66. doi: 10.1002/acp.1064.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Bower, G. H., & Silvers, H. (1998). Cognitive impact of traumatic events. Development and Psychopathology, 10, 625–653. doi: 10.1017/S0954579498001795.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  4. Campbell, J., et al. (2002). Intimate partner violence and physical health consequences. Archives of Internal Medicine, 162, 1157–1163. doi: 10.1001/archinte.162.10.1157.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  5. Carpenter, G. L., & Stacks, A. M. (2009). Developmental effects of exposure to intimate partner violence in early childhood: a review of the literature. Children and Youth Services Review, 31, 831–839. doi: 10.1016/j.childyouth.2009.03.005.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Chung, C. K., & Pennebaker, J. W. (2008). Revealing dimensions of thinking in open-ended self-descriptions: An automated meaning extraction method for natural language. Journal of Research in Personality, 42, 96–132. doi: 10.1016/j.jrp.2007.04.006.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Cohen, A. S., St-Hilaire, A., Aakres, J. M., & Docherty, N. M. (2009). Understanding anhedonia in schizophrenia through lexical analysis of natural speech. Cognition and Emotion, 23, 569–586. doi: 10.1080/02699930802044651.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Conway, M. A. (2005). Memory and the self. Journal of Memory and Language, 53, 594–628. doi: 10.1016/j.jml.2005.08.005.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. DePrince, A. (2005). Social cognition and revictimization risk. Journal of Trauma & Dissociation, 6(1), 125–141. doi: 10.1300/J229v06n01_08.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Dutton, J., Roberts, L., & Bednar, J. (2011). Prosocial practices, positive identity, and flourishing at work. In S. Donaldson, M. Csikszentmihalyi, & J. Nakamura (Eds.), Applied positive psychology: Improving everyday life, schools, work, health, and society (pp. 155–170). New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  11. Eberhard-Gran, M., Schei, B., & Eskild, A. (2007). Somatic symptoms and diseases are more common in women exposed to violence. Journal of General Internal Medicine, 22, 1668–1673. doi: 10.1007/s11606-007-0389-8.CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  12. Ellsberg, M., et al. (2008). Intimate partner violence and women’s physical and mental health in the multi-country study on women’s health and domestic violence: an observational study. Lancet, 371, 1165–1172. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(08)60522-X.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  13. Fivush, R. (2010). Speaking silence: the social construction of silence in autobiographical and cultural narratives. Memory, 18, 88–98. doi: 10.1080/09658210903029404.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  14. Fivush, R. (2011). The development of autobiographical memory. Annual Review of Psychology, 62, 559–582. doi: 10.1146/annurev.psych.121208.131702.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  15. Fivush, R., & Haden, C. A. (2003). Autobiographical memory and the construction of narrative self: Developmental and cultural perspectives. Mahwah: Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  16. Fivush, R., Edwards, V. J., & Mennuti-Washburn, J. (2003). Narratives of 9/11: relations among personal involvement, narrative content and memory of the emotional impact over time. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 17, 1099–1111. doi: 10.1002/acp.988.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Fivush, R., Sales, J., & Bohanek, J. (2008). Meaning making in mothers’ and children’s narratives of emotional events. Memory, 16, 579–594. doi: 10.1080/09658210802150681.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  18. Fonagy, P., Gergely, G., Jurist, E., & Target, M. (2002). Affect regulation, mentalization and the development of the self. New York: Other Press.Google Scholar
  19. Freyd, J. J., DePrince, G. P., & Zurbriggen, L. Z. (2001). Self-reported memory for abuse depends upon victim-perpetrator relationship. Journal of Trauma & Dissociation, 2(3), 5–16. doi: 10.1300/J229v02n03_02.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Garcia-Moreno, C., Jansen, H. A., Ellsberg, M., Heise, L., & Watts, C. H. (2006). Prevalence of intimate partner violence: findings from the WHO multi-country study on women’s health and domestic violence. The Lancet, 368(9543), 1260–1269.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Gonzales, A. L., Hancock, J. T., & Pennebaker, J. W. (2010). Language indicators of social dynamics in small groups. Communication Research, 37, 3–19. doi: 10.1177/0093650209351468.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Haj-Yahia, M. M., & de Zoysa, P. (2008). Rates and psychological effects of exposure to family violence among Sri Lankan university students. Child Abuse and Neglect, 32(10), 994–1002. doi: 10.1016/j.chiabu.2008.05.001.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  23. Hausmann, R., Tyson, L. D., & Zahidi, S. (Eds.) (2009). The global gender gap report. Colony/Geneva: World Economic Forum.Google Scholar
  24. Hulette, A. C., Kaehler, L. A., & Freyd, J. J. (2011). Intergenerational associations between trauma and dissociation. Journal of Family Violence, 26, 217–225. doi: 10.1007/s10896-011-9357-5.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. International Institute for Population Sciences and Macro International (2007). National family health survey (NFHS-3) 2005–06. Mumbai: IIPS Press.Google Scholar
  26. Ireland, M. E., Slatcher, R. B., Eastwick, P. W., Scissors, L. E., Finkel, E. J., & Pennebaker, J. W. (2011). Language style matching predicts relationship initiation and stability. Psychological Science, 22(1), 39–44. doi: 10.1177/0956797610392928.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  27. Istituto Nazionale di Statistica (2007). Indagine multiscopo sulle famiglie “Sicurezza delle donne” Anno 2006. ISTAT: Roma.Google Scholar
  28. Jewkes, R. (2002). Intimate partner violence: Causes and prevention. The Lancet, 359(9315), 1423–1429.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Kaira, G., & Bhugra, D. D. (2013). Sexual violence against women: understanding cross-cultural intersections. Indian Journal of Psychiatry, 55(3), 244–249. doi: 10.4103/0019-5545.117139.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Labov, W., & Waletzky, J. (1967/1997). Narrative analysis: Oral versions of personal experience. In J. Helm (Ed.), Essays on the verbal and visual arts (pp. 12–44). Seattle: University of Washington Press. Reprinted in Journal of Narrative and Life History, 7, 3–38.Google Scholar
  31. Lorenz, T. A., & Meston, C. M. (2012). Associations among childhood sexual abuse, language use, and adult sexual functioning and satisfaction. Child Abuse and Neglect, 36, 190–199. doi: 10.1016/j.chiabu.2011.09.014.CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  32. McAdams, D. P. (2006). The role of narrative in personality psychology today. Narrative Inquiry, 16, 11–18. doi: 10.1075/ni.16.1.04mca.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. McAdams, D. P., Anyidoho, N. A., Brown, C., Huang, Y. T., Kaplan, B., & Machado, M. A. (2004). Traits and stories: links between dispositional and narrative features of personality. Journal of Personality, 72, 761–783. doi: 10.1111/j.0022-3506.2004.00279.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  34. McLean, K. C., Pasupathi, M., & Pals, J. L. (2007). Selves creating stories creating selves: a process model of self-development. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 11, 262–278. doi: 10.1177/1088868307301034.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  35. Nelson, K., & Fivush, R. (2004). The emergence of autobiographical memory: a social cultural developmental theory. Psychological Review, 111(2), 486–511. doi: 10.1037/0033-295X.111.2.486.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  36. Pasupathi, M. (2007). Telling and the remembered self: Linguistic differences in memories for previously disclosed and previously undisclosed events. Memory, 15, 258–270. doi: 10.1080/09658210701256456.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  37. Pennebaker, J. W. (1997). Writing about emotional experiences as a therapeutic process. Psychological Science, 8, 162–166. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.1997.tb00403.x.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Pennebaker, J. W., & Chung, C. K. (2007). Expressive writing, emotional upheavals, and health. In H. Friedman & R. Silver (Eds.), Handbook of health psychology (pp. 263–284). New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  39. Pennebaker, J. W., Francis, M. E., & Booth, R. J. (2001). Linguistic inquiry and word count: LIWC 2007. Austin: LIWC.Google Scholar
  40. Peterson, C., Bonechi, A., Smorti, A., & Tani, F. (2010). A distant mirror: memories of parents and friends across childhood and adolescence. British Journal of Psychology, 101, 601–620. doi: 10.1348/000712609X478835.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  41. Russel, B. (2010). Battered woman syndrome as a legal defense: History, effectiveness and implications. Jefferson: McFarland & Company.Google Scholar
  42. Seider, B. H., Hirschberger, G., Nelson, K. L., & Levenson, R. W. (2009). We can work it out: age differences in relational pronouns, physiology, and behavior in marital conflict. Psychology and Aging, 24, 604–613. doi: 10.1037/a0016950.CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  43. Sheikh, S., & Janoff-Bulman, R. (2010). Tracing the self-regulatory bases of moral emotions. Emotion Review, 2, 386–396. doi: 10.1177/1754073910374660.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Sillars, A. L., Shellen, W., McIntosh, A., & Pomegranate, M. A. (1997). Relational characteristics of language: elaboration and differentiation in marital conversations. Western Journal of Communication, 61, 403–422. doi: 10.1080/10570319709374587.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Simmons, R., Chambless, D., & Gordon, P. C. (2008). How do hostile and emotionally over-involved relatives view their relationships? What relatives’ pronoun use tells us. Family Process, 47, 405–419. doi: 10.1111/j.1545-5300.2008.00261.x.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  46. Slatcher, R. B., & Pennebaker, J. W. (2006). How do I love thee? Let me count the words: the social effects of expressive writing. Psychological Science, 17(8), 660–664. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2006.01762.x.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  47. Smith, S., Anderson-Hanley, C., Langrock, A., & Compas, B. (2005). The effects of journaling for women with newly diagnosed breast cancer. Psycho-Oncology, 14, 1075–1082. doi: 10.1002/pon.912.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  48. Smorti, A. (1998). Il Sé come testo: Costruzioni di storie e sviluppo della persona. Firenze: Giunti.Google Scholar
  49. Smorti, A. (2011). Autobiographical memory and autobiographical narrative: what is the relationship? Narrative Inquiry, 21, 303–310. doi: 10.1075/ni.21.2.08smo.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Smorti, A., Massetti, I., & Pasqualetti, E. (2009). Memories of stressful events: A narrative approach. In P. Heidenreich & I. Pruter (Eds.), Handbook of stress: Causes, effects and control (pp. 14–47). New York: Nova Publisher.Google Scholar
  51. Smorti, A., Panati, B., & Rizzo, A. (2010). Autobiography as tool to improve lifestyle, well-being, and self-narrative in patients with mental disorders. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 198, 564–571. doi: 10.1097/NMD.0b013e3181ea4e59.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  52. Spitzberg, B. H., & Cupach, W. R. (2007). The state of the art of stalking: taking stock of the emerging literature. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 12, 64–86. doi: 10.1016/j.avb.2006.05.001.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Tani, F., Bonechi, A., Peterson, C., & Smorti, A. (2010). Parental influences on memories of parents and friends. Journal of Genetic Psychology, 17(4), 300–329. doi: 10.1080/00221325.2010.503976.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Tani, F., Smorti, A., & Peterson, C. (2015). Is friendship quality reflected in memory narratives? Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 32(3), 281–303. doi: 10.1177/0265407515573601.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Tausczik, Y. R., & Pennebaker, J. W. (2010). The psychological meaning of words: LIWC and computerized text analysis methods. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 29(1), 24–54. doi: 10.1177/0261927X09351676.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Vos, T., et al. (2006). Measuring the impact of intimate partner violence on the health of women in Victoria, Australia. Bulletin of the World Health Organization, 84, 739–744. doi: 10.2471/BLT.06.030411.CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  57. Wang, Q. (2013). The autobiographical self and time and culture. New York: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Williams-Baucom, K. J., Atkins, D. C., Sevier, M., Eldridge, K. A., & Christensen, A. (2010). “You” and “I” need to talk about “us”: linguistic patterns in marital interactions. Personal Relationships, 17(1), 41–56. doi: 10.1111/j.1475-6811.2010.01251.x.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. World Health Organization (2002). World report on violence and health. Geneva: WHO Press.Google Scholar
  60. World Health Organization (2013). Global and regional estimates of violence against women: Prevalence and health effects of intimate partner violence and non-partner sexual violence. Geneva: WHO Press.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Health SciencesUniversity of FlorenceFlorenceItaly
  2. 2.Department of PsychologyMemorial University of NewfoundlandSt. John’sCanada
  3. 3.Faculty of Educational SciencesFree University of BozenBozenItaly

Personalised recommendations