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Attachment Styles and Violence in Domestic Relationships

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            Attachment has been a term used in child rearing since John Bowlby coined the term for his attachment theory in the 1960’s.  More recently it has bee studied to help determine the effects of attachment styles on adult intimate relationships.  The results show that people with dismissive, preoccupied or fearful attachment styles have more tendency to have failed or aggressive relationships.

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Attachment and Violence in Domestic Relationships

         Attachment in a very literal sense indicates that one object is connected to another object.

  The term has been used by psychiatrists and psychologists to refer to the connection or bond developed between people.  The study of attachment known as attachment theory has been most commonly studied in describing the bond between parents and children. There have been years of studies conducted to determine the effects of attachment on relationships, health, and basic human survival.  One well known study in this area was conducted by taking infant monkeys away from their mothers to see how they would react without the maternal relationship.

  The infant monkeys did not develop and had a very poor survival rate without a nurturing relationship.  Another critical study was made by accident in Russian orphanages many years ago.  These orphanages were overcrowded and had few care givers.  Infants were placed in cribs and handled only when fed or changed.  These interactions were minimal and rushed, leaving no opportunity for attachment to form between any of the infants and adults.  These infants were found to have very poor development in all areas (cognitive, motor, and language).  The infant mortality rate was quite high in these orphanages as well indicating that attachment is an essential need for normal growth, development and in some cases survival.  The study of attachment theory has become invaluable in parenting education and child development since the 1960’s.  Attachment begins at birth and needs to develop in the early years of life in order for the child to feel safe and loved.

Attachment theory is attributed to John Bowlby, who was the first to coin many of the phrases used when discussing attachment today including the styles of attachment.  He developed attachment theory after observing the reaction that normal infants have when separated from the primary caregiver.  The term “Separation anxiety” is used to describe this crying and distressed reaction.  This reaction usually begins at about the age of eight months and is in response to the relationship with the primary (most important) caregiver in the child’s life. A primary caregiver is usually the child’s mother, but can be a father, a child care provider, a grandparent or foster parent.

Bowlby identified three main types or styles of attachment in parent-child relationships secure, avoidant, and anxious-ambivalent (Fraley, 2004).  A secure attachment is indicative of a healthy parent child relationship in which the child feels safe and secure within the relationship.  The parent in this relationship is sensitive and responsive to the child’s needs (Collins, Cooper, Albino and Allard, 2002).  These children express some degree of distress when the primary caregiver leaves the room and are happy and easily comforted upon the caregiver’s return. Anxious-ambivalent children show distress when the parent leaves but demonstrate little comfort by their return and may continue to cry (Wagner, 2007).  In this attachment style, the parent is inconsistent with the child and not always responsive to the child’s needs (Collins, Cooper, Albino and Allard, 2002). Avoidant children show little distress when the caregiver leaves and may avoid them when they return and does not seek comfort from the parent (Wagner, 2007).  These parents are rejecting or unsupportive with the child and unresponsive to his needs (Collins, Cooper, Albino and Allard, 2002).  Secure children will develop more quickly.  They show the attachment by exploring the environment while returning frequently for reinforcement from the caregiver.

Bowlby also noticed that if a secure attachment was not formed within the first three years of life, a lasting effect was created on the child’s ability to maintain healthy relationships later in life.  This is called “attachment disorder” and is identified in young people who have come from traumatic childhoods.  This occurs due to the child having no primary caregiver, a distant caregiver, or an abusive one. It causes the child to be unable to form the needed attachment with the primary caregiver and thus has difficulty developing attachments to other people.  This can cause problems developing and maintaining healthy relationships in adolescence and adulthood. It is exhibited by an angry, distant and often unresponsive young person.  These young people sometimes act out aggressively.

The recent research into attachment styles has been on the effects of childhood attachment styles on adult relationships.  Researchers have taken the information derived from the parent and child attachment theory to determine if the attachment styles developed in childhood are carried into adulthood.  In these studies, adult attachment styles are identified for people in relationships and compared with the styles of their partners.  The studies have focused on how relationships are developed, what attachment styles are attracted to each other and if domestic violence is the result of conflicting attachment styles.

Adult attachment theory consists of four attachment styles which compare to the three styles in child attachment theory and are believed to be developed by the attachment style the person developed as an infant.  Secure style is when the person has a positive view of self and others (Bookwala, 2002).  These people are autonomous (self sufficient) but, are comfortable seeking and accepting help, support and love from others (Ells, 2001). Dismissing style means the individual has a positive view of self and a negative view of others (Bookwala, 2002).  These people have a tendency to distance themselves from others.  They see themselves as self reliant, do not need others and do not feel rejection from others (Ells, 2001).  They need to be in control of a relationship. Preoccupied style happens when a person has a negative view of self and a positive view of others (Bookwala, 2002). These people are overly dependent on attachment and need the approval of others to feel validated (Ells, 2001).  They will get involved in a relationship with anyone who will pay attention to them and will cling to them.  Fearful style consists of a person who has a negative view of self and others (Bookwala, 2002).  These people see others as distant and unavailable.  They do not think others would love them, because they are unlovable (Ells, 2001).  They do not develop relationships easily and have difficulty maintaining them.  These attachment styles are used to describe how adults view their relationships with other adults. The studies have questioned what combinations of styles lead to healthy relationships and what causes relationships to lead to aggression or failure.

One test was conducted on couples to determine what they perceived as their own and their partner’s attachment styles.  The results were based on how participants responded to a questionnaire (Bookwala, 2002).  The study concluded that the majority of participants viewed themselves to have a secure attachment style (Bookwala, 2002).  Participants primarily reported their partner as having a secure attachment style (Bookwala, 2002).  This indicates that people seek secure attachment and that those who have a secure attachment style tend to develop a relationship with others who have a secure attachment style (Bookwala, 2002).  Participants who described themselves as dismissive or fearful often described partners who were dismissive or fearful indicating that people tend to be drawn to people with similar styles (Bookwala, 2002).  This study was limited by the way the participants interpreted the questionnaire and how they viewed their relationship.  Many people want to view a relationship as secure therefore some that reported as secure attachment styles could actually be in one of the other categories.

When people who are secure develop relationships with other securely attached people, the relationship is usually successful.  When however the other attachment styles pair up, the relationships are affected in varying ways.  One example of this is when two people with avoidant or dismissing attachment form a relationship they may avoid open communication and affection (Collins, Cooper, Albino and Allard, 2002).  This kind of relationship may lead to cold and distant partners with little communication. These relationships may lead to failed relationship.  Two preoccupied people developing a relationship would both tend to be insecure, jealous and suspicious of the other.  This kind of relationship often fails because of the suspicion and jealousy involved.  Fearful people would have difficulty developing relationships, but if paired with a secure person could have a successful relationship.

When determining if these types of pairings can lead to aggression and domestic violence, the types of pairings have to be considered again.  The questionnaire study indicated that approximately half of all participants in the study indicated some kind of aggression at least once during the relationship (Bookwala, 2002).  Those who reported that both they and their partner were secure were less likely to report aggression.  Fearful and preoccupied paired with either similar types or one of each could have some aggressive incidents, but were more likely to end in failed relationships than aggression. The combination that proved to be the most likely to create aggression or violence in a relationship, was an anxious, or preoccupied female partnered with a dismissive male (Bond and Bond, 2004).  In this relationship, the female would be insecure and would cling to the male for support.  The male in this relationship feels he does not need a partner and finds the neediness of the female annoying, leading to violent behavior.  The female fearful of rejection from others would not leave the abusive male.

In addition to these studies abnormal, aggressive or criminal behavior patterns were then studied to determine if it could be defined by attachment styles.  Stalking behavior was added to this theory in an attempt to find what kind of attachment style causes this type of behavior.  The study conducted on this subject determined that stalking seemed to involve more than one type of attachment.  The attachment types involved included dismissive (which was combined with narcissism a type of self absorbed personality), and some degree of preoccupied and fearful styles (Wilson, Ermshar, and Welsh, 2006).  The person who becomes a stalker has a need to be loved and becomes obsessed with someone.  They have to however, also have an over active sense of self to be sure that the stalking victim needs them as well.  This creates an entirely new type of attachment, which could correlate with the childhood version of attachment disorder. In a study to determine what kind of attachment style led to men becoming sex offenders, it was determined that the majority of sex offenders had a tendency to be more insecure or fearful attachment (Lyn and Burton, 2005).  This study also determined that non-sexual offenders (assault) were more on the side of dismissive attachment (Lyn and Burton, 2005).  Although there are other factors that can be involved in criminal or abnormal behavior such as psychosis or other personality disorders, studying attachment styles can provide some insight into ways to prevent these behaviors.

Attachment has been determined to be a vital to life.  It needs to be formed in the early years of life.  This has been an argument for a reason for mothers to stay at home with children instead of working outside of the home during the first few years of the child’s life.  A primary caregiver attachment can be formed, however with people other than the mother.  A regular daycare provider, father or grandparent can help a child form a secure attachment.  The one fact that is certain is that the attachment has to provide the child with security, safety, and support.  The child needs to develop a sense of worth and value in order to begin the development of personality. The studies have been used for years to show the need for healthy speech, motor, cognitive and social development. Parents of newborns are encouraged to provide learning opportunities, chances for success and exploration of environment and safety.  The infants need to know their needs are being met adequately and the caregiver provides love and support.

More recently the value of these early attachments has become even more vital.  It has been determined that the attachments formed during these early years determine the attachment style the person develops as an adult.  These attachment styles play a significant role in the success or failure of the relationships they form in adolescence and adulthood.  These studies determine that if a child begins life in a loving supportive home with at least one adult who provides him safety and encouragement during the first few years of life, he will have a much better chance of forming and maintaining healthy and

Secure relationships as an adult.  Once the attachment styles are formed, the person needs to be made aware of the type of style he has in order find an effective mate.  An adequate pairing of attachment styles can lead to a happy healthy adult relationship.  These relationships can be formed even if the child did not have a secure attachment.  People who are preoccupied or fearful as adults need to develop a relationship with a caring, supportive person who validates them.

Although not all criminal behavior can be avoided, knowing the backgrounds of individuals and providing the proper kinds of counseling for those who need it can minimize stalking, aggressive and sexual deviation types of behavior.

These studies are vital to help people cope more effectively and to help relationship counselors find ways to assist people when they have conflicts in relationships.  This could reduce the divorce rate and increase the likelihood of people being able to maintain mutually beneficial, satisfying adult relationships.  By having knowledge of these results, people can have happier healthier lives and raise happier healthier children.


Bond, Sharon, and Bond, M. (2004) Attachment Styles and Violence Within Couples

            The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease. Lippincott, Williams and Wilkins.

Bookwala, Jamila. (2002). The Role of Own and Perceived Partner Attachment

            In Relationship Aggression. Journal of Interpersonal Violence Sage Publications

Collins, Nancy, Cooper, L. Albino, A. Allard, L. (2002). Psychosocial Vulnerability from

            Adolescence to Adulthood: A Prospective Study of Attachment Style Differences

            In Relationship Functioning and Partner Choice. Journal of Personality

            Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing

Eells, Tracy. (2001) Attachment Theory and Psychotherapy Research.

Attachment Theory and Psychotherapy Research — Eells 10 (2): 132 — Journal of Psychotherapy Practice and Research

Fraley, Chris. (June 12, 2004). A Brief Overview of Adult Attachment Theory and

 Research. Retrieved September 13, 2007 from:

A Brief Overview of Adult Attachment Theory and Research | R. Chris Fraley

Lyn, Tamera. Burton, D. (May, 2005) Attachment, Anger and Anxiety of Male

Sexual Offenders. Journal of Sexual Aggression. University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Wilson, John, Ermsharr, A. and Welsh, R. (June, 2006) Stalking as Paranoid Attachment:

            A Typological and Dynamic Model. Southwestern Virginia Mental Health

            Institute. Marion VA.

Van Wagner, Kendra. (2007) Attachment Styles About.com. Retrieved

September 13, 2007 from: Attachment Styles – Types of Attachment

Cite this Attachment Styles and Violence in Domestic Relationships

Attachment Styles and Violence in Domestic Relationships. (2016, Aug 05). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/attachment-styles-and-violence-in-domestic-relationships/

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