caricato da erika fanti

the price of an anxious attachment in violent relationships

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Intervenção nos Sistemas Sexual e Conjugal- FPCEUP
the price of a anxious attachment in
violent relationships
Intervenção nos Sistemas Sexual e Conjugal
2017/2018 - 2°semester
Professor: Cidália Maria Neves Duarte
Student: Erika Fanti
Intervenção nos Sistemas Sexual e Conjugal- FPCEUP
"Beba isto, Psiquê, e seja imortal,
nem mesmo Cupido romperá o nó
em que ele está amarrado,
e estas núpcias serão para sempre."
- Apuleio, Contos de Amor e Psique
​This report has the aim to explore the correlation between a preoccupied attachment in the
victims and the partner's violence, trying to identify the reasons that may lead some women to be
entangled in dysfunctional relationships, having difficulty in getting out of it. Indeed, most of the
time is established a mechanism of dependency which imprisons them for a long time. It almost
seems that more than fight with the partner to get free from the relationship, they need to fight
with themselves to find the autonomy and the courage to conquer an individual identity, in a
dysfunctional dialectic between fusion and (lack of) independence.
Adult Attachment
​According to​ ​Bartholomew e Horowitz (1991), during childhood, through the continuous
mother-child interactions and the consolidation of the attachment, Internal Operative Models are
created, influencing necessarily the future conception of ourselves and the others. They will help
us to answer questions like: “Am I worthy of being loved? Is the other worthy to be trusted?”.
The MOI will then guide us in future relationships, but it is important to not forget that the
relationship does not take shape in a vacuum where attachment determines directly the result of
the relationship, but it arises in the real interchanges of the dyad. In the co-construction of the
relationship, there is a negotiation of meanings that depends on how they both manage the
dynamics between ​being in relationship and ​staying in relationship (Costa, 2005).
In this theoretical frame, the authors above mentioned conceptualized four outcome in the
adult attachment, that are supposed to be -more than static category- relational, dynamic,
changing styles: the first is the secure, with low level of anxiety and avoidance united to a
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conception of the self and the other positive, the second is the anxious-preoccupied, with high
level of anxiety and low of avoidance united to a conception of the self as negative and the other
as positive, the third is the dismissive-avoidant, with low level of anxiety and high of avoidance
united to a positive conception of the self and a negative of the other, the last is the
fearful-avoidant, with high level of both anxiety and avoidance and a negative conception of the
self and the other.
Considering this theoretical preamble, it seems logical that may be a link between attachment
styles and the search for a partner that is consistently coherent with our internal models,
reinforcing a vision of reality as already experienced and known. Mikulincer and Goodman
(2006, pag. 2) describes love as “a dynamic state involving both partners’ needs and capacities
for attachment, caregiving, and sex”. The reciprocal needs satisfied - or just potentially satisfiedtoward the relation are the key to understand the link between violence and the victim
attachment. The attachment satisfy the needs of the other with two different functions:
self-regulation (through the Internal Working Models and the trust toward the others), and
hetero-regulation, where each partner shapes and defines the ego of the other, in a bidirectional
process, giving a coherent and cohesive identity. Is the lack of the right proximity, the excessive
closeness or distance, that make the ego fragile, not emotionally regulated and in constantly
research for that need never satisfied before.
Costa (​Ibidem) undermarks how there are three possible way in which the individual
negotiates the synthesis between his internal constructs and the relationship, in a process of
continuous construction, co-costruction and re-construction: toward a manutention, looking for
people who elicit and confirm previously experienced relational models, toward negation,
stressing the independence and the non-necessity of the relationship, or toward compensation,
overturning the roles and taking revenge.
Anxious attachment and victimization in violent relationship
According to Finkel and Slotter (2007), two possible influencing processes have been
adduced in the explanation of the conjugal violence phenomenon. The first process is more
related to a cultural issue: some authors conceptualized the standard socialization practices as
teaching the predominance of men. Moreover, this process may make the men feel entitled to
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exert power and assertiveness over women, legitimizing them. This assumption doesn’t explain
why only few individuals act in a violent way, despite all are living in the “masculinist” society.
Furthermore, Social theory doesn’t explain as well why some people see violence without
perpetuate it, excluding the theory of Social Learning as the primary explanation. The second
process adduced in the explanation of violent couple’s dynamic is related to conception of the
violence as influenced both in a interindividual and in a intraindividual level: the sicure
relationship are characterized by higher levels of emotional and behavioral interdependence, that
elicit a conception of conflict as nonviolent, while in the couple where it is founded high level of
fusion and lack of borders, the violence seems more easily elicited. That is the case of a
preoccupied attachment.
The lack of borders and the insecurity of an anxious attachment may let the women be
imprisoned in violent relationship. Consequently their prime need to get free is to find the right
proximity and the right distance, being this their most challenging goal. Rationally, they are
often conscious of the necessity to end the relationship. Paradoxically, they cannot escape so
easily, and sometime seems that hey prefer to have a relationship, although dysfunctional and
destructive, rather than not having it. That is the price of love: being trapped in a destructive
relationship. If in the primary attachment with the mother we talk about physical
proximity/distance, when we talk about adult attachment we refer to emotional
proximity/distance: not every couple need the same optimal distance, and the attachment theory
stresses the role of the individual differences. Every couple finds a personal equilibrium that is
co-constructed considering both the needs of the two partners for proximity/distance. The place
in the​ continuum where the couple positions itself it is indicative and explanatory of the
interrelational and internal dynamics and of the health of it. Moreover, the violent partner seems
to fit consistently with the representations that the woman has built on herself, of the other and of
the interaction between them. Often the love that the women experienced until the moment of
violence is idealistic, utopist, based on the infatuation, as well as on the negation of the
imperfections. Women victims of violence often are anxious attached and tend to build a dyadic
fusional image, desperately clinging to even small gestures of affection that seem to give back
the hope of an happy-ending. They think to have finally found a ​secure base, and to renounce to
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that ideal of a serene and unit family is unbearable. Brunetti (2013) notices that on the other hand
also the violent partner has an attachment probably not secure that may elicit the dyadic cycle of
maltreatment. In this way the Internal Working Model maintain a relational coherence made by
victim and executioner, where the dysfunctional couple finds itself tied to a sick
In a study George (2015) analyzed the results of a sample made by 508 individual,
operationalizing three variables in a potential interaction: Core, justifying an abuser through
cognitive distortions; Damage, ongoing psychological effects of abuse; and Love, the belief that
one’s survival depends on the love of an abuser. In the study the author tried to explore the
moderating effects of insecure attachment on the links between the Stockholm syndrome and
intimate partner violence. Is it possible that the acceptance of the partner's violence was
conveyed by an insecure attachment, that ​did not allow the women to feel like an integral
identity, on the contrary forced them through a cognitive dissonance to deny violence, in a
fusional desire? The main effects showed that anxiety was positively correlated with the variable
Love and the violence in the relationship, displaying that the anxious attachment was related to
the vulnerability to violence, phenomenon not displayed in people with low level of anxiety. The
anxious attachment in the relationship modulated the extent to which the partner was at the
center of the construction of the identity, being critical related to their survival. Anxiety was
related to love dependency that made the abuse justified, because of the unbearable price in
admitting the violence. These women showed to constantly seek reassurance and to excessively
monitor the relation due to insecurities; these factors may elicit aggressive responses in the
parter. Also avoidant attachment was found as related to the link between violence and
Stockholm syndrome, but for different reasons: the withdrawal and the distant of the women may
elicit anger in the partner, as a desperate way to take control of the situation and make a
dysfunctional contact. This result is coherent with a ​study of Babcock and colleagues (2000) that
demonstrate how wife withdrawal was a significant predictor of preoccupied husband violence,
while wife defensiveness was a significant precursor to dismissing husband violence.
The​ hypothesis that connect attachment and violence has been explored by previous
researches.​ For example Godbout and colleagues (2009) showed that the anxious attachment of
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the woman united to an avoidant attachment in violent men was related to the use of violence,
displaying how intimate partner violence was a distancing strategy for a intrusive partner. Seems
that this strategy was used when nonviolent efforts failed. The dyadic negative circle that was
established was based​ ​on an anxiously attached female partner, who typically require and
demand more physical and emotional proximity, and avoidant male partner, who typically reject
the partner and look for a cold and distant relation. This result is coherent with the bidirectional
perspective of the escalation or negative reciprocity, in which is theorized how is important to
teach the partners the importance of the management of the conflict in a proactive and positive
way: it is possible that the anxious women were not able to stop themselves from the continuous
requests and accusations due to their insecurity, eliciting negative circles of violence.
Another study found out the same results: in a sample of 70 couples (Doumas ​et alii, 2008) it
has been demonstrated that the “mispairing” dyad of an avoidant male partner with an anxious
female partner was associated with both male and female violence, being a significant predictor
of aggression.
According to the study of Bond and Bond (2004) an anxious attachment style was a
significant predictor of females being victims of violence and of men not being victims, in a
sample made by 41 couples. On the other hand, dismissing men were more likely victims. The
combination of anxious female and dismissive males was a potent predictor of violence. Some
influencing variables were founded: length of marriage and poor problem-solving
communication enhance the probability of violence. Finally it was founded that marital
interaction, based on attachment styles and problem solving communication, was crucial to
understand the dynamic of the violence.
Rodriguez and colleagues (2015) explore the relation between trust and attachment anxiety as
influencing not only different types of jealousy, but also physical and psychological abuse in a
sample of 261 individuals. The anxiety in the women was correlated to the jealousy, both
cognitive both behavioral, and to the violence of the partner. The anxious attachment in fact
moderated the relationship between trust and level of jealousy, and also between trust and
psychologically abuse/violence, showing the cascading effects of the insecurity and the price of
the distrust.
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Accordly with these studies, it seems that the anxious attachment in women, especially when
paired with an avoidant partner, is able to create a bug in the system of communication and
regulation of the couple, that after breaking the homeostasis doesn’t appear able to find the
equilibrium again, showing a weak problem solving skills. The increasing rage in the circuit is
elicit and maintained by a dynamic explained by Simpson and Rholes (1994): the anxious partner
start feeling a threat or a danger in the relationship, experiencing a strong feeling of discomfort
and distress. This event evokes in the individual the necessity to search for confirm in the other,
her attachment figure, in order to regulate emotionally her own functioning. The partner, in
particular when evitant, feel the requests of the partner as excessive, unjustified, unbalanced,
dramatic. The needs of the anxious individual are undervalued and rejected, provoking a cycle of
requesting-rejecting. In this escalation, the anxious partner will answer asking for more
proximity, in order to calm his emotional hyperactivation, and the partener will feel everytime
more suffocated by the irrational requests. In this vicious circle, the rage and the anxiety in both
the side grows and grows, until the breakdown and the collaple. Therefore the anxious
attachment has different role in the violence: first of all the excessive unsatisfied requests can
elicit increasing anger cycles, also for an intrusive style of interaction and the continuous needs
for reassurance and approval; moreover, once the violence is established the anxious ones find
difficult to interrupt the bond due the fact that they are strongly frightened by the idea of losing
the symbiosis with the partner. As previously referred, they have a negative model of the self and
a positive of the other and they usually experience separation anxiety, making difficult the
possibility to feel enough. The negative model of the self and the positive of the other will elicit
them to intensify the condition necessary for the relationship and the attachment: if the condition
is the violence, unconsciously they will accept and maybe facilitate it. Furthermore, these dual
model of self-other can make the victim think that she doesn’t deserve the other, or that she
doesn’t deserve anything better. That’s why they are more likely to tolerate the physical and
psychological abuse. Dutton and Painter (1993) undermark the role of the anxious attachment
and the traumatic bonding: the more the violence is intermittent and it is accompanied by good
treatment, the more the attachment will be more activated, even if the person it attached to an
abusive partner. This process looks similar to an infant who becomes even clingier when faced
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with parental rejection to maintain proximity. As in the clingier infant, the violence will
hyperactivate the attachment system in the woman, and will make the victim ask for more
proximity, focusing on the moment when the partner treated her good. Finally, the anxiety in the
attachment is usually connected to a justification and an idealization of the partner, that may
make the women accept and ignore the violence, creating unrealistic and irrational changing
A study by Christman (2009) found out that in a sample of 121 women residing in both urban
and rural emergency domestic violence shelters the attachment had a fundamental role in the
understanding the victim dynamics: forgiveness was found to partially mediate the relationship
between traumatic bond and intention to return, and traumatic bond mediated the relationship
between preoccupied attachment to the abusive partner and intention to return to the abusive
relationship. Summarizing, the study found out that having an anxious attachment enanches the
possibility to get involved in a violent relationship and forming a traumatizing bond, while
having a traumatizing bond was associated to the higher probability to forgive the partner.
Henderson and colleagues (2005) showed that a preoccupied attachment style was predictive
of both perpetrating violence and being victimized, concerning physical and psychological
abuse, due to the fact that the fear of abandonment and the need for closeness elicit anger and a
demanding style. The victims anxiously attached where more engaged in the relationship and
found problems in break it even when it was an abusive bond, creating a mutually reinforcing
Also Pietromonaco and Feldman Barrett (1997) showed similar results: found that
preoccupied individual are more likely to break up and return to the partner, and accept a abusive
relationship. They undermark the cognitive level in which the attachment influence the
relationship: preoccupied individuals are more likely to have low self-esteem and to interpret
negative ambiguous stimuli and for that reason they are more likely to get in conflicts.
Even if violence is increasing, not all the preoccupied female are involved in violence, and
that’s why is important to consider not only the individual system of attachment, but also the
dyadic process that elapses in the couple. There are several evidence that both partners contribute
to the quality of their relationship, in a bidirectional process: Allison and colleagues (2007)
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displayed that the most dangerous mispairing seems to be the preoccupied-dismissing, with style
of demand-withdraw as previously referred, and the preoccupied-preoccupied, where the mutual
anger, frustration and trying to control the other usually elicit cycles of negative reciprocity that
may escalate until violence, calling these patterns “mutual attack and
Consequences for the intervention
The consequences in considering the attachment theory, namely the role of the anxious
attachment, in the explanation of the dynamic of abuse and domestic violence are several:
firstable, in my opinion this theoretical framework gives to the women an active role, not
passive, in the perpetuation and also in the resolution of the violence. Clinical interventions
oriented in make the victims less anxiously attached can help them to take the decision to quit
the relationship and to consider themselves as individual worth to be loved, united to conflict
resolution strategies. Godbout and colleagues (2009) explain how the intervention is at the level
of right intimacy/proximity, exploring the fears, the distortions related and so on. It is important
not only give new resources to the women, but heal the dysfunctional thought to the base that
make them trapped in the relationship, going deep inside their fears and their needs. This thought
is mostly related to the belief that they are not enough to be loved. Furthermore we, as clinician,
need to give more importance to the inner psychological meaning of the relationship, promoting
a positive model of the self, the other and their interaction.
For the clinician (​Ibidem) is important to establish a secure attachment, toward a therapeutic
alliance, in order to modify the dysfunctional relational patterns. The power of the attachment
theory is to consider both the part as mutual co-constructor and actor of the relationship and
eventually of the violence, giving power and hope to that women that need to change. In the
treatment it is important not only consider the man, but also the woman in a dyadic tailoring of
the treatment.
Furthermore besides a intervention, it’s important to promote a preventive attendance, in
particular with that couple “mispaired”, that are in risk. Hamel (2005) undermarks how this
preventive intervention need to be ajudical, in order to get an alliance with both the individuals,
and how it is important to responsibilize individually the partners. According to the author the
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therapy has to be a new safe base, where the couple can feel less distressed, and implement a
psychoeducational intervention in order to stress the importance of a predictable attachment
figure. It is important to help the couple to build their new homeostasis with a new consciousness
about their needs. The consciousness is reached through an exploration of both partners
strategies to achieve the equilibrium in the relationship, and the finding of new ways to stay in
relationship and negotiate their needs of proximity and distance. Moreover it is fundamental to
develop new skills in communication and negotiation, united with a more rational and
introspective reacting to the other, overcoming the automatical level. Finally heal the past
wounds through a secure attachment, also with the therapist, and help the individual to
experience new ways to stay in relationship, in order to make the potential victim transfer this
new secure attachment also in the relationships besides the therapy.
Finally, consider only the abuser as needing for a intervention is a bias that may not decrease
or interrupt the negative dyadic cycles, but seems to solve the dysfunctional relationship only
partially. Only a consideration of the violence as somehow functional to the needs of both can
really make the differences in tailoring the treatment. In particular with the anxious attached
women is important to give an active role in the development and maintenance of abusive
dynamics in order to make them empowered and secure enough to quit the relationship and learn
new ways to manage the anxiety. That’s why the intervention, preventive or not, needs to sussist
in both the parts, in a systemic framework. Not considering the reciprocal interactions has nefast
consequences: Babcock and colleagues (2004) found out in a meta-analysis that the common
treatment programs for domestic abuser was really low, with effect from .34 to .09. When was
incorporated a more relational perspective the effect increased to .85.
In particular concerning anxious attached women, it results critical work on the deep fears of
them, usually related to fusional needs and idealization of the other. To empower the victim,
teaching them how to manage the conflicts and the insecurity of their attachment is the base to
build a new safe and secure relationship.
​This paper has the topic to explore the possible correlation between an anxious attachment
and the victimization in violent relationship, showing as not only external variable are
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responsible for the instauration of abusing bond, but also psychological variables, namely
attachment and Internal Working Model, as well as the dyadic equilibrium reached by the
couple. Having this theoretical framework has some important consequences in considering the
intervention strategies. A more active role of the victim has to be taken in order to promote
active strategies of changing, not only at a superficial level, but deep in the psychological
functioning. Moreover the base of the changing has to be related to the promotion of the
individuality and the independence, in order to interrupt destructive cycles and promote the
development of a secure attachment.
“​Odi et amo. Quare id faciam, fortasse requiris.
Nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior”
- Catullo, Odi et amo
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