9. Attachment - RonaldMah

Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist,
Go to content

Main menu:

9. Attachment

Therapist Resources > Therapy Books > Conflict Control-Cple

Attachment style and experiences are often critical areas to explore in couples' relationships.  Problematic dynamics including aggression and violence may be evaluated from looking at attachment issues in each partner.  "…the cluster of attachment-related variables was significantly related to male violence in interpersonal relationships. Specifically, violence in males was related to: (a) a perceived deficiency in love and caring from their mother while growing up; (b) lower self-esteem; (c) perception of less relationship support; (d) perceptions of low relationship autonomy and (e) number of recent life stressors" (Kesner et al., 1997, page 223).  The emotional and psychological dynamics of the perpetrator and the victim in the domestic violence dyad are often both tied to attachment issues.  "According to attachment theory, individuals who received insensitive and inappropriate caregiving from their primary attachment figure in childhood are more likely to have expectations for similar treatment in adult attachment relationships.  That is, insecure attachments in childhood create models about intimate relationships that may persist into adulthood.  The aggression that served a functional purpose in childhood by communicating attachment needs may become distorted into violence by the male who perceives the same insensitivity in his attachment relationship in adulthood even though it may not exist (Mayseless, 1991)" (Kesner et al., 1997, page 224).  Understanding the attachment styles of each partner aids assessment and has implications for treatment.

"To assess individual differences in adult attachment orientations, Bartholomew incorporated Bowlby's conception of self and other representations in a two dimensional model of adult attachment (Bartholomew, 1990; Bartholomew & Horowitz, 1991; Griffin & Bartholomew, 1994).  Bartholomew identified four prototypic attachment patterns in terms of the intersection of Bowlby's two dimensions of self and other (see Fig. 1). The positivity of the self-dimension, or one's sense of internalized self-worth, is reflected in an individual's tendency to be self-confident rather than anxious in close relationships. The positivity of the other dimension, or the perceived supportiveness of close others, is reflected in a tendency to seek out others for support, rather than avoid intimacy. The secure pattern (positive view of self and others) is characterized by high self-esteem, and an ability to establish and maintain close intimate bonds with others without losing a sense of self. The fearful pattern (negative view of self and others) is characterized by low self-esteem and active avoidance of intimacy due to fear of rejection. This fear, however, is coupled with a desire for social contact and approval, resulting in conflicting attachment needs of closeness and distance. The preoccupied pattern (negative view of self and positive view of others) is characterized by low self-worth, excessive dependency on others' love and approval in close relationships, and an overinvolved, demanding interpersonal style. The dismissing pattern (positive view of self and negative view of others) is characterized by a compulsive self-reliance and a defensive downplaying of the importance of intimate relationships" (Henderson et al., 2005, page 220).

An immediate assumption is that two partners both with secure attachment styles are unlikely to degenerate in to domestic violence.  While there would be differences of opinions and arguments, low fear of abandonment and rejection, and confidence with both intimacy and autonomy tend to mitigate emotional and psychological assertion.  If either partner becomes aggressive, one or both partners are often able to invoke and enforce boundaries to avoid descending into abusive language and behaviors.  Each partner is relatively able to tolerate "losing" or not getting his or her way.  Although winning an argument or prevailing is important, it does not confirm or disconfirm a sense of basic worth or relationship safety.  Working through conflict together and supporting one another when there are demands from the outside world successfully confirms their fundamental security with each other.  "In adult relationships, stress can be alleviated by various coping mechanisms (e.g., including obtaining support from a secure attachment relationship).  However, if coping resources are limited due to adverse childhood experiences, and if the source of stress is the attachment relationship, an intense conflict can result.  Thus, individuals and families who find themselves in situations where they are unable to successfully cope with the demands of stress find that their frustrations are likely to increase, and this frustration may result in violent behavior (Dollard et al, 1939).  Individuals operating with an insecure attachment model may perceive ambiguous behaviors by the intimate other as rejecting and unsupportive.  Thus, life stress may be compounded when one is predisposed to expect rejection from the intimate partner, and yet the intimate partner may be the only source of support an individual has to alleviate stress" (Kesner et al., 1997, page 213-14).

The dismissing style anticipates rejection and may avoid relationships in general and thus, may not experience abandonment or rejection anxiety.  Propensity for psychological abuse would depend on whether deeper needs for intimacy can surface and how intensely.  On the other hand, ignoring and dismissing a partner can be considered an ultimate form of emotional violence in lieu of physical violence.  The two other attachment styles hold greater risks for psychological aggression, abuse, and domestic violence.  "Dutton and associates found that assaultive men were more likely to be fearful and preoccupied and less likely to be secure than a matched comparison group (Dutton et al., 1994).  Further, fearfulness and preoccupation were positively correlated with the perpetration of psychological abuse and a constellation of dysfunctional personality traits (anger, jealousy, Borderline Personality Organization, and trauma).  Dutton and colleagues explain these findings in terms of 'intimacy anger,' suggesting that a violent man's assaultive episodes represent an adult parallel to the angry protest behavior exhibited by an infant when separated from an attachment figure.  They suggest that a man's violence is often precipitated by the perceived loss of an attachment partner and demonstrates an active effort to bring the attachment figure back.  Thus, both fearful and preoccupied individuals, characterized by attachment anxiety, are at risk for high levels of intimacy-anger" (Henderson et al., 2005, page 221).  Abusive men compared to nonviolent men are more anxiously attached to their partners.  They need more nurturing from their partners and are more jealous.  Less secure, violent men's attachment is more fearful and preoccupied.

Someone with preoccupied attachment has conflicting emotional drives.  There is a profound to desperate need for love and support from intimates, along with great fear that the need will not be met.  As a result, the individual can get more and more demanding and progressively aggressive if the need is unsatisfied.  "Violence-prone individuals still may be dealing with attachment issues that remain from their own childhoods.  Individual and family therapy may be the means of providing couples with appropriate interpersonal expectations, insight into their own behavior, individual behavioral responsibility, and new behaviors associated with appropriate attachment-related behaviors and nonviolence" (Kesner et al., 1997, page 225-26).  Careful dissection of the process leading up to Dirk's aggressive or abusive action may uncover the cycle of needs, anxiety, disappointment, anger, and aggression or abuse.

On the other side, "preoccupied individuals may be more willing than others to tolerate sustained abuse from intimate partners.  In a study of undergraduates, Pietromonaco and Feldman Barrett (1997) found that in high conflict situations preoccupied individuals tended to disclose more, to judge the interaction as more intimate, and to feel more satisfied after the interaction than did secure, fearful, or dismissing individuals.  These authors suggest that preoccupied individuals appear to gain psychological benefit from interactions that most people would find unpleasant.  Even when a partner's response is negative, preoccupied individuals may perceive this as evidence that their partner is engaged and, in a perverse sense, more intimately involved.  Thus, preoccupied individuals could be at increased risk for tolerating, and (at an unconscious level) even soliciting, abuse from a partner" (Henderson et al., 2005, page 226-27).  Careful examination of Madeline's process may uncover distorted perceptions of their interactions characteristic of preoccupied attachment.  The possibility of any interaction being fulfilling rather than Madeline demanding positive experiences would affect her tolerance of the quality of their relationship.  Finding any interaction fulfilling no matter its quality would preclude Madeline from setting boundaries for quality engagements.  In the moment and over sustained periods, she would be satisfied with any engagement no matter how negative or abusive.  Her further and continued engagement gives permission for the relationship to continue without behavioral change by Dirk.  Functionally, Madeline may increase her complaints without actually withdrawing.

The individual with preoccupied attachment fits the description of rejection-sensitive individual.  "The rejection-sensitive are hypervigilant to rejection, exaggerate their partners' dissatisfaction and lack of commitment, and behave in ways that are counterproductive to healthy relationship functioning.  In a study of undergraduates, these researchers found that rejection sensitive women reacted to perceived partner rejection with hostility and withdrawal of emotional support, whereas rejection sensitive men reacted with jealousy and controlling behaviors.  Such social construals and reactions may facilitate and maintain mutually destructive interpersonal dynamics.  Consistent with this hypothesis, rejection sensitive men who were highly invested in intimate relationships showed an increased risk of partner violence (Downey et al., 2000)" (Henderson et al., 2005, page 227). Lafontaine and Lussier (2005, page 157) concur that about male and female differences in how insecure attachment and intimate partner is expressed.  Male avoidance of intimacy is directly related to psychological violence.  Their partners use violence to reject attempts for closeness.  For females, abandonment anxiety predicts use of psychological and physical violence in dysfunctional ways to keep partners close.  With these and other factors, there remains complexity in how they manifest in a couple.

Both Madeline and Dirk may be rejection-sensitive.  Their stories of the other partner's negative attitudes may be exaggerated.  The therapist can ask what a partner what he or she does in response to perceived negativity.  Specifically, the therapist can ask what he or she does to make it better and what he or she does to make it worse.  Although the partners may claim that negative retaliatory behaviors are justified and compelled, the therapist can emphasize that they are functionally counterproductive nevertheless.  Therefore, such negative "counter-attacks" must stop.  Therapy can address this boundary and each partner's hypersensitivity to rejection.  The therapist may explore and identify gender-based or stereotypical responses to rejection.  Neither partner may be aware the connection between rejection-sensitivity and their responses.  Therapy may benefit from some psychoeducation about these dynamics.  Madeline's hostility and emotional withdrawal can be challenged and directed towards more overt positive behaviors.  Dirk's jealous reactions and controlling behaviors can also be challenged and redirected.

The therapist might challenge Madeline that she seems to tolerate and accept Dirk's verbal aggression even as it crosses over to emotional abuse.  Madeline might respond by professing love for Dirk and defend his actions.  The therapist can challenge her that she effectively defends and justifies his psychological abuse and physical aggression.  She may not have yet acknowledged that the physical aggression has become abusive.  It is counter-intuitive and illogical for her to accept and justify Dirk's behavior and her remaining.  By the same token, when the therapist challenges Dirk that purposely hurts Madeline despite caring for her, Dirk claims that he also loves her and cannot imagine a life without her.  Yet, he can still be emotionally if not also physically abusive.  "These apparent paradoxes can be understood by looking at two critical tenets of attachment. First, attachment fulfills a basic need for survival (Bowlby, 1988).  Thus, the tenacity of the attachment bond is dependent more on maintaining a link to the perceived safety of the attachment figure than to the quality of the attachment relationship.  Second, individuals whose attachment needs have been frustrated throughout their relationship history and who feel particularly vulnerable to the potential loss of an attachment figure may strike out violently in order to regain proximity to an intimate partner (Bartholomew et al., 2001)" (Henderson et al., 2005, page 219).  The relationship may be crappy at times… even psychically destructive and scary, but it is a "secure" predictable crappy relationship for Madeline.  At times, Dirk despises Madeline or is hurt by her, so intimidating her to keep her around and in control is necessary to him.  Throughout the therapy and in conjunction with their rendition of problematic to abusive interactions, they profess love for each other.

The therapist, along with many laypeople can have difficulty understanding how the battered partner remains committed to the abuser.  There may be comparable dynamics in the bond between an abused child and his or her abusive parent.  Although, it may occur frequently, abuse is not consistent and there can be positive interactions or good times.  "Dutton and Painter (1981) proposed a theory of traumatic bonding, which suggests that the power imbalance and intermittency of abuse typical of abusive relationships enhances the strength of emotional bonds to abusive partners.  This theory was validated in a study by Dutton and Painter (1993), which showed that women were more strongly attached to their assaultive partners when there was more abuse and the abuse was inconsistent.  Dutton and Painter's theory incorporates the concept of attachment processes, but does not address individual differences in attachment which may be associated with the receipt of relationship abuse.  In a sample of women who had recently left an abusive relationship, Henderson et al. (1997) found that 88% of the women had a predominant attachment pattern associated with a negative self-model (fearful or preoccupied), at least double that of a typical nonclinical sample (e.g., Scharfe & Bartholomew, 1994).  Further, findings suggested that preoccupied women may be at increased risk for returning to abusive partners (based on their ratings of intentions and feelings), whereas fearful women may have more difficulty disengaging initially (based on abusive relationships of longer duration)" (Henderson et al., 2005, page 221).

Langhinrichsen-Rohling et al. (1998, page 208-09) looked at differences between Distressed Non-Aggressive- (D/NA) and Distressed Husband to Wife Aggression- (D/H-to-W) couples and partners.  The motivations for staying in the marriage varied in compelling ways.  In Distressed Non-Aggressive couples, "D/NA husbands stayed married because of children or family responsibilities.  D/NA wives stayed married because of hope that the marriage would improve in the future."  In contrast, the main reason that both wives and husbands in Distressed Husband to Wife Aggression couples "gave for remaining married was love."  Staying for love contradicts the common assumption that that most battered women stay in the relationship from fear or because of economic vulnerabilities or family issues (children).  However, "this result appears to be consistent with theorists who describe strong but insecure attachments between spouses in physically aggressive marriages (Dutton et al, 1994), and with previous research conducted on dating relationships that indicates that, paradoxically, love and violence frequently coexist (Arias et al, 1987).

Spouses in happy marriages were also highly likely to cite love as their main reason for staying married.  "However, happily married spouses were as likely to cite say joy or happiness kept them in relationships as they were to name love as a reason.  On the other hand, Distressed Husband to Wife Aggression spouses tended infrequently to give "other positive emotions as reasons for staying married."  The word or concept of "love" may have different meanings for the two groups of spouses.  It may be that the Distressed Husband to Wife aggression spouses "use the word love to signify a strong and inexplicable attachment to their partner, rather than a positive partner-focused feeling state.  This is consistent with prior research that has found that women remain in abusive marriages because they are psychologically trapped (e.g., their high commitment level is related to their deep level of failed investment in the marriage; Bauserman and Arias, 1992). Another possibility is that spouses in H-to-W aggressive marriages really do not know why they stay in a physically aggressive marriage. They may say 'love' since it is a socially desirable reason that most people will accept without hesitation or further questioning (Brandon, 1980)."  For the lack of language and conceptualization for attachment desperation, many individuals name the emotional/psychological compulsion as love when it is not love as is felt and expressed in a healthy mutually fulfilling intimate relationship.

The therapist should attend to the qualitative expression of Madeline and Dirk's description of each other and the relationship.  Expressions of love for one another would be expected given social norms and attachment needs.  However, the therapist should note if and how they may give "other positive emotions as reasons" for being together.  Failure to give such reasons may be indicative of insecure attachment "love" and possible psychological aggression or abuse and violence.  The direction of therapy would need to adjust to dealing with these attachment issues.  Another perspective related to attachment would be dependency traits or dependent personality.  Gender roles can encourage or facilitate more or less dependency or dependent behavior.  Social standards may discourage males from admitting or owning dependence issues.  "…dependency in men (and some women) may take less obvious forms, just as depression may masquerade as alcoholism or abusive violence.  Men who do not acknowledge dependence may show their need in other ways.  Some students of dependent personality separate the symptoms defined by the American Psychiatric Association… into two categories…five symptoms reflect problems in assuming responsibility, making decisions, and showing disagreement. …three involve fears of being abandoned and helpless.  These fears may rule men who do not have difficulty asserting themselves and therefore do not receive a diagnosis of dependent personality.  This kind of dependency is compatible with a surprising degree of aggression.  The need for care and support can lead to abusive behavior, intimidation, and violence.  A jealous man who abuses his wife or partner may be displaying this kind of dependency.  Dependent men are especially at risk of becoming abusers when they fear that the partner is about to leave or getting too close to another person. Some think that therapists treating abusive men need to confront the issue of dependency more often" (Harvard Mental Health Letter, 2007, page 3).

The intensity of attachment anxiety, fear, and desperation may be overwhelming to some individuals and lead to reactive behaviors.  "…in explaining the link between insecure attachment and intimate violence, it is equally important to examine the experience and expression of anger (i.e., to what extent men and women experience anger in their relationship and how they express their anger toward their partners).  Moreover, the current investigation provides evidence that dysfunctional anger must be necessarily included in an explanation of the association between attachment and intimate violence" (Lafontaine and Lussier, 2005, page 359).  However, insecure attachment, dependency, and anger do not fully explain the spectrum of domestic violence behavior.  Research and clinical observations add significant variations to the attachment-anger hypothesis.  "For a greater level of dysfunctional anger, a significant relationship would be found between insecure attachment and couple violence.  Two unexpected findings were made.  First, men who measured low on anxiety over abandonment and high in trait anger indicated the highest likelihood of intimate physical violence.  Second, men with low anxiety and low anger control were more likely to be physically violent towards their partner.  These moderator findings contribute to our understanding of why some men with low anxiety over abandonment responded violently and others did not.  As we mentioned earlier, anxiety, when isolated, was not a significant predictor of intimate violence for men.  Thus, the moderator analyses that include anger in couples clarify the role that anxiety over abandonment in men plays in their physical violence towards their partners.  Our findings that high trait anger and low anger control play a moderating role in the relationship between lower anxiety and greater physical violence for men contradict previous studies, in which male high anxiety was linked to intimate violence (e.g., Roberts & Noller, 1997).  Low anxiety in men may lead to security in attachment, but may also indicate that they are overly independent vis-à-vis their partner, do not worry enough about being alone and even, to some degree, are indifferent towards their romantic partner.  Our moderator results improve on existing literature by showing that dysfunctional anger influences both the strength and direction of the relationship between attachment and intimate violence" (Lafontaine and Lussier, 2005, page 358).  Lafontaine and Lussier may well be referring to men with sociopathic tendencies- individuals with antisocial personality disorder.  The dismissing attachment style, the profile of men with low anxiety over abandonment, and antisocial personality disorder may have significant overlap or prove synonymous.

3056 Castro Valley Blvd., #82
Castro Valley, CA 94546
Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, MFT32136
office: (510) 582-5788
fax: (510) 889-6553
Back to content | Back to main menu