Domestic Violence and Attachment Theory

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I’m currently writing an article with the support of the FHL Foundation which includes a section on mobilizing attachment processes in treating domestic violence. Here is a small draft sample:

Are the persons in intimate dyads where violence has occurred or is occurring, capable of healthy attachment, altruistic behavior, and hope? These are powerful psychological and emotional capacities and strengths that when tapped into can aid in substantial positive change and transformation. These strengths are particularly important in promoting healthy, respectful, and functional intimate relationships. The clinical, theoretical and etiological relevance of attachment disruption in domestic violence perpetration has been explored by numerous authors (see Corvo, Dutton, & Chen, 2008 and elsewhere). Much of this analysis comes from a deficits perspective (e.g., how early separation and loss interferes with healthy adult relationships). Can attachment processes be utilized to diminish violence and promote healthier relationships?

Unlike the family preservation orientation that underlies child welfare policy and practice with maltreated children, the assumption that underlies current domestic violence policy and practice is one of relationship dissolution. Perpetrators who want to preserve or return to their relationships are viewed as manipulative, insincere in engaging treatment, interested only in getting back to their partners, as if wanting to maintain a relationship is a suspect or devious motivation. To guard against this suspect motivation, agencies are often discouraged from providing services to perpetrators that are not court-ordered to attend (Corvo, Dutton, & Chen, 2009). Victims who want to maintain or return to their relationships are viewed as not sufficiently aware of their true interests. Yet in the area of child welfare, it is explicitly acknowledged and made part of treatment that abusive parents legitimately want to be reconnected with their children: “The primary motivation for parents to seek and complete treatment is to be reunified with their children” (Larsen-Rife & Brooks, 2009). That motivation, grounded in powerful attachment processes, is harnessed to pursue important treatment outcomes (e.g., substance abuse recovery, parenting skills, self-control). If the motivation for positive change that flows from bonding and attachment processes between parent and child can be incorporated into the treatments for child abuse, why can’t those same processes be used to motivate positive change in intimate partner violence? Of course, just as in cases of severe child abuse, the safety of persons is paramount. But also as in child abuse cases, lethality should be assessed not assumed. Powerful attachment bonds exist not only between parents and children, but between adult intimates as well. Since it appears that more victims return or stay in relationships where violence has been present, than leave, it is not unreasonable to consider utilizing those attachments in interventions rather than presumptively trying to sunder them. Insecure marital attachment is associated with a host of factors that may be associated with or, be precursors of, intimate partner violence: greater reactivity to partner behavior, monitoring of partner behavior, and strict expectations for reciprocity (Feeney, 2002). Rather than only denying the psychological, emotional, and phenomenological importance of these attachment bonds by pathologizing them, if we accept them as potential strengths they can be built upon.

The full manuscript will be completed and submitted for publication within several weeks. Please see the final manuscript for the references cited.