The difficulties of leaving an abusive relationship
There is often surprise and lack of understanding for individuals who are staying in relationships where they are at the receiving end of abuse. Abuse in this context can take many forms, for example being controlled by the partner, belittled, shouted down or physically assaulted. Friends may repeatedly suggest to the abused partner to leave the relationship; they may then get frustrated with the abused friend if the advice is not acted on.
Attachment theory offers a useful explanation for the dynamics in abusive relationships. Attachment theory was developed by John Bowlby to describe human beings’ strong need to develop close relationships and to attach to particular others in their life. Bowlby described attachment as an innate behavioural system that promotes the survival of human beings. He observed different behaviour patterns in babies when they were under threat as well as the responses by the babies’ primary caregivers. Infants whose caregivers respond to their distress are soothed and develop an understanding of the world that others are there to make them feel safe and secure in the world. Infants whose caregivers regularly ignore their distress will either crank up their crying until there finally is a response or they will give up. In both instances, these infants will develop a very insecure sense of themselves in the world. Insecure attachment finds expression either through an anxious preoccupation with getting attention from the caregiver or an avoidant dismissive stance of not needing any attention at all.
In 1987 Hazan and Shaver applied the principles of attachment theory to adult relationships. They observed that both partners in a relationship regard the other as the principle source for providing security and safety. If their partner is consistently responsive to their needs the other partner will feel largely secure and reassured. A partner who has had consistent experiences of insecure attachments as a child and young adult is likely to form very strong attachment bonds with others even if the quality of these relationships is very poor. Perversely anxiety and fear can lead to an even stronger attachment even if the source of the threat is the very person the partner seeks refuge in. Insecurely attached adults usually have an internalised notion of themselves as being somehow to blame for the lack of love from their partner. They are therefore likely to try very hard to gain approval. This sense of unworthiness leads to a deep-seated sense of shame. In a young child the threat of abandonment by a parent evokes terror; in the insecure adult, this sense of dependency and vulnerability gets fused into shame. As insecurely adults lack a sense of self-worth they are very reliant on validation through their partner which makes them feel less ashamed of themselves.
Bowlby distinguished between secure and insecure attachment styles. Individuals with a secure attachment style and a strong sense of self-worth are not likely to stay in abusive relationships. Insecure attachment styles lead to anxious or dismissive behaviour patterns. Individuals with a dismissive attachment style (‘I don’t need anybody’) tend to avoid intimate relationships altogether and are therefore not likely to persevere with an abusive relationship either. It is mainly individuals with an anxious-preoccupied attachment style whose need for constant reassurance and validation keep them bound to their abusive partner. Partners with this attachment style are more likely to respond very strongly to any kind of positive validation by their partner, for example, if abuse is followed by contrition and regret.
In abusive relationships, both partners tend to have an insecure attachment style. Thus abusers usually display a similar fear as their abused partners in terms of abandonment and rejection. Abusive partners tend to be overly dependent on their partners and respond with anger or rage when their fear of abandonment gets triggered. Abusive partners often display a fourth attachment style, a fearful attachment. Like anxious-preoccupied individuals, they don’t expect adults to be responsive to their needs which in turn gives rise to anxiety. However, instead of expressing this fear through attempts at connecting with the other they tend to lash out in anger. Abusive partners tend to deflect their own dependency needs onto their partner who they expect to be completely devoted to them. As soon as this devotion is under threat their fearful attachment gets activated; the partners gets abused so the abuser’s dependency are not exposed. The abused partner, in turn, takes on the shame and the sense of inadequacy.
Anxious-preoccupied adults at the receiving end of abuse struggle to leave the relationship because of their strong attachment and their dependency to get validation from their partner. Particularly in the beginning stages abusers often shower their partners with love in order to win them over and to ensure that they will never abandon them. In the course of the relationship, the abused partner starts to believe that they somehow deserve the abuse and need to work extra hard to make things better. The only sense of power abused partners often have is that of being indispensable to their abusive partner, if only as a container for their frustration and anger. In addition to their own shame abused individuals take on that of their partner too.
Leaving an abusive relationship therefore requires help with building a sense of self-worth and self-belief and understanding the patterns that have kept the individual in the relationship for so long. Feelings of shame need to be handled with care and delicacy. Often abused individuals feel complicit in the abuse and tend to blame themselves thereby attacking themselves rather than their partner.
Bartholomew, K., Henderson & A., Dutton, D. Intimate attachment and abusive intimate relationships in Clulow, Christopher (ed.) (2001) Adult Attachment and Couple Psychotherapy. The ‘secure base’ in practice and research. London and New York: Routledge.
Hazan, C., & Shaver, P. (1987). Romantic love conceptualized as an attachment process. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52, 511-524.
Sanderson, C. (2015). Counselling Skills for Working with Shame. London and Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.