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Unpublished paper March 2012 Page 1 of 11

A Psychodynamic Approach to Couple Therapy

Domestic violence revisited: the application of attachment theory


towards understanding domestic violence

By Kevin Standish
B.Soc.Sci (Social Work); Hons (Psychology); MA (Clinical Psychology); PGDip (Psychology); PGDip (Counselling Relationship); PGCert
in HE

Contents

Introduction ................................................................................................................................ 2
Traditional explanations of domestic violence .......................................................................... 2
Adult attachment theory............................................................................................................. 4
Attachment theory, couple fit and domestic violence ................................................................ 6
Implications for practice ............................................................................................................ 7
Conclusion ................................................................................................................................. 9
Bibliography ............................................................................................................................ 10
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Introduction
The various theories that attempt to explain domestic violence have no agreement in common
about the underlying causes and factors that contribute towards the development of domestic
violence (Chornesky, 2000). A brief description of traditional theoretical explanations for
domestic violence will be given. Using attachment theory to examine domestic violence this
assignment will attempt to explain why abusive relationships persist in terms of the couple
fit. Attachment theory provides an alternative perspective on domestic violence that gives a
deeper explanation and enriching previous traditional explanations.

This analysis of domestic violence was chosen as it remains an area of interest and
development identified from my reflective review. Understanding domestic violence is
important as it is pervasive and subtle in its effects upon a couple. The Relate policy is based
on the understanding that domestic violence needs to be seen in the context of gender and
societal norms (Relate, 2006). Generally in initially working with domestic violence the
individuals rather than the couple are seen within a Relate context. Whilst this is
understandable in terms of safety it does not allow for effective working with the couple to
resolve the nature of the couple fit that plays a role in the dynamics of domestic violence
(DV).

Traditional explanations of domestic violence


Traditional theoretical explanations of DV fall into three broad categories: 1. psychological
theories; 2.sociological perspectives; 3.feminist perspectives (Fonagy, 1999; Chornesky,
2000; Bartholomew, Henderson, & Dutton, 2005). The effect of these explanations has been
an oversimplification of a complex problem with an individual rather than a relational
perspective on DV. As a result of this interventions have tended to focus on the treatment of
perpetrators rather than the relationship dynamics (Lawson, 2003).

Psychological theories have focused on various psychopathologies within the perpetrator,


including low self-esteem, the lack of impulse control, antisocial tendencies, and the effects
of substance abuse (Fonagy, 1999; Chornesky, 2000; Lawson, 2003; Levy & Orlans, 2004).
The recipients of DV had been thought to manifest psychological deficits, learned
helplessness, psychic numbing, and identification with the aggressor, as various explanations
for why they remain in the relationship (Fonagy, 1999; Chornesky, 2000; Lawson, 2003;
Levy & Orlans, 2004). The effect has been to place the blame on the recipients’ personal
maladjustment rather than a relationship dynamic.
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The sociological perspective assumes that social structures and various social roles provide
explanations for DV with women being seen as economically dependent and subordinate,
poor education, and the lack of employment skills prevent woman from leaving abusive
relationships. Other barriers such as religious and cultural beliefs, and the belief by victims
that they have a responsibility towards the abuser, keep them trapped in an abusive
relationship (Fonagy, 1999; Chornesky, 2000; Lawson, 2003; Levy & Orlans, 2004).
Economic explanation is less relevant today as more woman work, which should allow them
to leave more easily than in the past. However, despite this many woman continue to remain
in abusive relationships.

The sociological perspective focuses on external stress factors as explanations for DV.
Poverty and unemployment are viewed as engendering rage in abusive men with alcohol
serving as a disinhibitor, increasing the possibility that aggressive behaviour will occur
towards woman (Chornesky, 2000; Lawson, 2003). However this explanation is insufficient
as DV occurs across all social classes and cultural groups.

The feminist perspective explains DV in terms gender role expectations and historical power
imbalances between men and women in a patriarchal society. DV is seen as a political issue
rather than a relationship problem (Fonagy, 1999; Chornesky, 2000; Lawson, 2003).
Feminist theories reject the psychological theories that blame the victim for the abuse,
placing the blame for violence squarely on the male perpetrator and the socioeconomic power
imbalances of control and domination that keep women trapped in abusive relationships.
However, the feminist position does not explain why some woman failed to terminate DV
relationships when they are able to. With its focus on social and political structures rather
than individual factors the feminist position has been criticised as an oversimplification of a
complex problem (Chornesky, 2000;Lawson, 2003). Feminist perspective however has been
instrumental in the development of treatment programs for domestic violence (Lawson,
2003). These programmes have tended to be cognitive behavioural therapy with social
political overtones regarding the position of women in society.

The shortcomings of the traditional perspectives on DV is that they have tended to treat the
violence as a problem belonging to the individual rather than the couple. The dynamics of
the couple relationship are not taken into account regarding the development and perpetuation
of the violence. This is reflected in the Relate policy (Relate, 2006) on domestic violence
where the couple are often separated in order for treatment to continue. While safety regards
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are paramount in all treatment, the effect of the separation is a blaming process on both the
perpetrator and victim. As a result the nature of the couple fit within the domestic violence
situation cannot be analysed and understood by the couple, who tend to blame each other for
this situation.

Attachment theory can provide an alternative explanation for the development and
persistence of a domestic violence relationship in terms of the couple fit.

Adult attachment theory


Johnson (2006A) outlines the core tenants of attachment theory based on the work of Bowlby
(1985, 1988, 1997, 2005): Attachment is an innate motivating force, allowing for secure
dependency which complement autonomy. Secure attachment offers a safe haven and a
secure base (Bowlby,1988). The accessibility and responsiveness of the attachment figure
secure the bonds through emotional engagement, and development of trust (Sable, 2008).
Fear and uncertainty activate the attachment behavioural system (Bowlby, 1988;
Bartholomew, et al, 2005). When attachment behaviour fails, separation distress is
predictable. Bowlby's (1988, 1997, 2005) internal working models about self, close others,
and self in relation to others play a role in the development of relationships in adulthood.
Insecure models tend to lead individuals to recreate insecure patterns in their adult
relationships (Bartholomew, et al, 2005; Henderson, Bartholomew, Trinke, & Kwong, 2005;
Sable, 2008). Perpetrators of DV commonly present with a history of attachment disorders
caused by abuse, neglect and domestic violence in childhood (Fonagy, 1999;
Chornesky,2000; Lawson, 2003; Levy & Orlans,2004; Bartholomew et al, 2005; Henderson
et al, 2005).This links to Fonagy’s (1999) concept of poor mentalizing capacity.

Bartholomew, et al, (2005) developed a four category, two-dimensional model of adult


attachment:
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Four Category Model of Adult Internal Working model of Self (Dependence)


Attachment
(Bartholomew et al, 2005) Positive Negative
(Low dependence) (high dependence)

Internal working of Others (Avoidance) Secure Preoccupied (Anxious)

Positive Comfortable with Preoccupied with


intimacy and autonomy, relationships, high
(Low avoidance) emotionally available. emotional reactivity
especially anger
Dismissing (Avoidant) Fearful (Disorganised)
Dismissive of Afraid of intimacy and
Negative attachment, counter- rejection; believes self to
dependent; pseudo- be worthy of rejection;
(High Avoidance) independent high emotional reactivity.

This model is based on Bowlby's internal working models of self and others and provides
framework for exploring the range of adult attachment patterns. These are not seen as static
styles but involve a developmental process that is lifelong (Bowlby, 1988, 1997, 2005;
Lawson, 2003; Sable, 2008). Although focusing primarily on the characteristics of
individuals, adult attachment theory is also a theory of individual - couple dynamics
(Schacner, Shaver, & Mikulincer, 2006). Johnson (2006B) states that most significant
relationship problems are about the security of the bond between partners and the struggle to
define the relationship as a safe haven and a secure base. The patterns of distress in
relationships are quite finite and predictable, reflecting the process of separation distress
(Johnson, 2006B; Schacner, et al, 2006).

Fonagy’s (1999) concept of mentalizing is a process by which we implicitly and explicitly


interpret the actions of oneself and others as meaningful on the basis of intentional mental
states. According to Fonagy (1999) individuals with fearful (disorganised) attachment have
poor mentalizing capacities, resulting in a moral disengagement from their own behaviour,
allowing attachment anger to become violent.
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Attachment theory, couple fit and domestic violence


Bowlby (1988) addressed the issue of domestic violence in terms of emotional bonding and
attachment. Relationships tend to become abusive and each partner is “deeply but anxiously
attached to the other and had developed a strategy designed to control the other and keep him
or her from departing” (p.106). Threats to intimate emotional bonds trigger anxiety, rage, and
fear of one's ability to survive, which come from childhood, occur in adulthood.

Bartholomew et al (2005) identified three attachment patterns as part of the couple fit in DV:
firstly two preoccupied partners locked in highly volatile and conflictual relationships which
are mutually abusive; secondly fearful (disorganised) woman with preoccupied men; thirdly
preoccupied females with fearful (disorganised) males. Attachment preoccupation in either
partner increases the likelihood of abuse (Henderson, et al, 2005). The most common pattern
are preoccupied men who use coercive techniques to ensure their partners will never abandon
them (Bartholomew, et al, 2005; Bowlby, 1988; Kesner, Julian & McKenry, 1997;
Chornesky, 2000; Fonagy, 1999; Lawson, 2003; Henderson, et al, 2005; Gromley, 2005;
Schacner,et al, 2006). These coercive techniques are those described by the feminist theorists,
of power and control, economic disempowerment, social isolation, and specific gender roles.

The above research shows that preoccupied and fearful (disorganised) attachment patterns are
most common in DV. Doumass, Pearson, & Elgin, (2008) have confirmed the above results
and Gormely’s (2005) conceptulisation by adding a fourth category in identifying the
“mispairing” of an avoidant (dismissing) male partner with an anxious preoccupied female
partner as being associated with significant high levels of violence. The discrepancy between
the female’s preoccupied need for closeness and reassurance and the avoidant male’s need for
distance and separateness result in violent behaviour. The reciprocal nature of the violence
was shown in that female preoccupied attachment predicted male of violence. The avoidant
males respond to anxious females with violence due to poor mentalizing (Fongany, 1999) and
anger (Lafontaine & Lussier, 2005). The females respond with violence and self-protective
behaviour as they may experience the violence as an act of rejection which activate the
attachment behavioural system. This keeps the couple locked in an abusive relationship.

Bartholomew et al (2005) note that the strength of the attachment bond in the abusive
relationship is not linked to the quality of that relationship. This helps to explain why
recipients of abuse experience high levels of anxiety when separated from an attachment
figure, particularly if they have a preoccupied attachment style. The perpetrator of violence
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can be understood as an angry protest in order to regain proximity to the attachment figure
when attachment needs are not satisfied. For the dismissive its about achieving distance and
safety from the attachment figure.

Implications for practice


The ethical issues involved in working with domestic violence need to be considered in order
to make practice safe and effective. Relate (2006) is very clear in its policy in working with
domestic violence. Butler & Joyce (1998) highlight the first priority is to end the violence
and that violence is not an acceptable way of dealing with problems. While some question
whether working as a couple could ever be appropriate, the fact that they had presented as a
couple without coercion and wish to tackle the problem makes offering couple therapy a
possible response.

Approaching DV from attachment theory perspective it is suggested that modifying


attachment styles and internal working models of the relationships is necessary to bring about
change (Chornesky, 2000; Lawson, 2003). The primary emphasis is on a secure base and
assessing the client's attachment style and regulating the therapeutic approach accordingly.

Johnson (2006B) model of intervention, based on Bowlby’s five therapeutic tasks, is


characterised by a focus on attachment needs and fears, the promotion of safe haven,
addressing attachment vulnerabilities so as to foster emotional attunement and
responsiveness, the creation of a collaborative alliance, to explicitly shape the responsiveness
and accessibility of partners to allow re-engagement and a softening so that bonding events
can occur, and a focus on how the self is defined and redefined within the attachment style,
thereby redefining the relationship. The process of change occurs in three stages: stage one is
deescalation of negative cycles, stage two the shaping of new cycles of responsiveness and
accessibility, stage three the consolidation and integration of change into the couple's model
of the relationship and each partner’s sense of self. The development of internal working
models and attachment strategies is an ongoing process with each subsequent relationship
serving to maintain, enhance or change establish patterns (Chornesky, 2000; Lawson, 2003;
Bartholomew et al, 2005; Johnson, 2006B; Schacner et al, 2006; Sable, 2008).

Relate clients tend to be seen for the first phase: deescalation of negative cycles. In a case
example of “mispairing” (Doumass et al, 2008): a dismissing man and a preoccupied
woman presented following an incident of violence in which they had attacked each other
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following months of bickering. This was the first episode of physical violence between the
couple.The first eight sessions had been focused upon containment and safety as required by
the Relate policy on DV. The preoccupied woman came from a background of severe
childhood neglect and abuse, with abandonment by parents at critical developmental stages.
The dismissing man’s background was of attending boarding schools from a young age,
which he very much enjoyed. He particularly liked the structure, rules and routine a boarding
school provided. It is around these strict structures and rules, which he has imposed within
the marriage, that the conflict occurs. When he enforces what he feels is an agreed upon
“rule”, she feels misunderstood, hurt and abandoned. She reacts in an angry attacking
manner. This has now become a vicious cycle in which the couple caught.

This couple fit is consistent with the description of Doumass et al (2008), with a discrepancy
between the anxious woman’s need for closeness and reassurance and the avoidant man’s
need for distance and separateness, resulting in reciprocal violent behaviour. This
relationship is highly conflictual with the preoccupied woman expressing the most discontent
while the dismissing man believes the only problem with the relationship is her discontent.
What is hidden to this couple is the dismissing man has to deny his dependency needs, hidden
behind a wall of rules and routines, and so he also attacks any expression of dependency
needs by the woman. He continually tries to make her behave more independently, and be
less needy upon him which she experiences as emotional abandonment and deprivation: “
he's just so cruel and mean. He doesn’t show me any love any more. His work and his
exercise is more important to him than I am. I hate him”. As she escalates and intensifies the
appeal to have her dependency needs met, the dismissing man's defensive response is
escalated with more distance and stricter enforcment of the “rules”.

Much of the work in these initial sessions had been to descalate the intensity of expression by
the woman for nurturance, so that her true needs can be heard by the dismissing man. This
has allowed him to understand what she needs from him in terms of support which he is able
to give in a pragmatic manner at this stage. The woman had come to understand he is unable
to respond in an emphatic manner when she is extremely angry and upset. He has come to
understand her extreme emotional response is the result of childhood abuse and neglect, and
is not a direct attack upon him per se but a fear of abandonment. This mutual understanding
has reduced the risk of violence, and the feeling of containment has been achieved between
sessions.
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Adult attachment theory has helped in the understanding of this case as well as setting a
roadmap for the future treatment. The couple are only beginning to understand the reciprocal
nature of their attachment styles and how this impacts upon their relationship. The demand
on me as a therapist has been to ensure a safe haven where the intensity of feelings has been
contained (Symington & Symington, 1996), as well as having to be emotional attuned and
responsive to each, building a collaborative alliance, that has begun to shape their
responsiveness to each other in a more soothing manner. The modelling of healthier
responses for each has played an important role in establishing a secure base within the
therapy session. This trust is shown in the couple's commitment to a long term therapy
process.

Conclusion
The traditional approaches to DV argue that looking at the psychological factors implicitly
blames victims and excuses perpetrators. However looking at DV from an attachment
perspective allows a deeper understanding of a “mispairing” of the couple attachment fit.
Particular combinations of attachment are higher at risk for DV than others. The risk
assessment of domestic violence can be enhanced through understanding the high risk couple
fit. Prevention of violence towards women remains a priority, and punishment/treatment of
perpetrators a necessity. This does not preclude a focus to help the couple understand the
dynamics of their relationship, to understand the reasons for their actions and to take steps to
end the violence. Attachment couple therapy may provide couples with the chance to
develop appropriate interpersonal expectations, understanding of their own behaviour, to
develop appropriate attachment related behaviours and nonviolence. As many perpetrators
come from backgrounds of violence and neglect, the prevention of future violence begins in
childhood by enabling parents to provide secure nurturing and caregiving critical to the
child’s attachment development. By providing a secure base with their children they may
help prevent future domestic violence.
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