Violence as attachment gone wrong: three case vignettes

What are attachment theory and dynamics?

Attachment theory may be understood as a theory of trauma – the trauma of separation and loss in the face of overwhelming fear and helplessness. Under such conditions of threat, children’s attachment and fear behavioural systems are activated and they urgently seek proximity to their attachment figure. If the attachment figure is available and successful in providing a sense of security, the child’s attachment behaviour is terminated.

This is the safe haven function of attachment relationships. In addition, attachment relationships provide a secure base - an ongoing sense of emotional security that facilitates exploration of both the environment and the inner world of effect.

These attachment dynamics are not outgrown with childhood but characterise intimate relationships in adulthood throughout the life-cycle. However, unlike parent-child relationships, adult partners function as attachment figures for one another. Under optimal circumstances, the couple provides a safe haven and secure base functions on a reciprocal ‘as needs’ basis.

From an attachment theory perspective, the key to understanding violence and aggression is the evolutionary function of anger. Angry protest is an instinctive biological response to separation from the preferred attachment figure whose physical presence and emotional availability afford the child safety, protection and psychobiological regulation. The adaptive function of anger is to increase the intensity of the communication to the lost person with the set goal of achieving reunion.

Attachment theory, then, emphasises that anger serves to maintain vitally important relationships. Given this, relational violence is understood as the distorted and exaggerated version of potentially functional attachment behaviour – as ‘attachment gone wrong’. In this sense, violence may be seen as representing the extreme of behaviours that are all too human.

Following John Bowlby, I propose that the particular quality of love and security provided by the main caregivers helps the child to regulate the basic conflict between love and hate. Aggression and destructiveness are the results of traumatic disturbance of the infant-caregiver relationship.

I contend that effective violence, in particular, has its aetiology in the disruption of processes of attachment and constitutes a disorganized maladaptive reaction to a perceived threat or sense of endangerment to the self. I argue that the meaning of a destructive act is to be discovered in the subject’s particular relational matrix and that an understanding of such maladaptive behaviour is to be gained by attending to the person’s phenomenological experience of unmourned loss and unresolved psychological trauma.

Case vignette-Peter*

Peter is the oldest of four children, having a younger brother and two younger half-siblings. His mother had immigrated to Britain from the West Indies when she was 17. Peter has only a skimpy recollection of his biological father, who deserted the family when he was just three years of age, leaving the mother to cope as best she could with little social or emotional support in a new country. Shortly after this, she sent the two brothers to Barbados to be raised by her parents. Some five years later, when she had established herself in a career and a new relationship, she arranged for the children to be returned to her.

Peter had developed a close, loving relationship with his grandmother during his five-year stay in Barbados, and had felt intense distress at having to leave her to return to England. This transition was particularly fraught because of the mother’s routine emotional and physical abuse of Peter and his brother on their reunion.

Peter responded to this traumatic situation by manifesting emotional and behavioural problems at home and at school, where he was bullied and subjected to racist taunts, a situation not helped by his being separated from his brother, who was educated at a different school. Peter became confused, withdrawn and socially isolated, and took to carrying a knife because he feared for his personal safety.

At the age of 12, he began to refuse to attend school and was referred to a child psychologist. He refused to talk with her and so the therapy was discontinued. In his teens, he developed a serious drink problem and was soon appearing before the courts. Peter’s relationships with women were short-lived and often violent. He has numerous criminal convictions for assaulting his female partners, which have resulted in his being imprisoned on several occasions.

From an attachment theory perspective, I see the roots of Peter’s violence as residing in his unresolved traumatic experience of separation, loss and abuse within a disorganized care-giving-attachment system. Despite the early loss of the father and separation from the mother, had he received appropriate help to securely re-attach to his mother, and thus to use her as a secure base to mourn the separation from the grandmother, his development may well have taken a different pathway. As it was, his sadness, fear and distress were cruelly dealt with and he was forced to adapt to a harsh reality and alien culture as best he could.

This fraught situation was further complicated by his experience of the mother as being not only powerful, dominant and abusive, but also loving, caring and concerned that he should make a success of his life. Thus, Peter both loved her and feared and hated her. These ambivalent, conflicting feelings led to the development of a multiple, incompatible internal working model and to a concomitant disorganized pattern of attachment. As a consequence, his capacity to regulate negative feeling states and reflect on, organize and resolve traumatic experiences was seriously compromised.

As it was, Peter displayed a pronounced tendency to react violently to even relatively insignificant personal slights, losses and rejections. Such minor injuries to the sense of self seemed to activate the original separation trauma, together with unintegrated affective states of shame, hate and rage associated with racism and physical and emotional abuse, and thus to elicit a response that was disproportionate to the current mortification.

Moreover, because of persisting states of insecurity and lack of trust Peter was unable to enter into a committed, emotionally mature relationship. It would seem that the prospect of becoming attached to another person elicited expectations that oscillated between fear of engulfment and fear of abandonment, as expressed in his catastrophic narratives. As a result, emotionally meaningful relationships were avoided and intimacy was defended against.

Stalking or harassment may similarly be understood in terms of attachment pathology deriving from acute separation anxiety and fear of abandonment. In such cases, the perpetrator is ineluctably drawn to follow and seek proximity to the real or fantasised attachment figure to assuage overwhelming feelings of loss and isolation.

Case vignette – Hardeep

Hardeep embarked on a campaign of violence and harassment when his partner, Jaswinder, ended their relationship. His violent behaviour in relation to Jaswinder had brought him before the courts on several occasions and culminated in his breaking into her home one night armed with a knife and assaulting her when she phoned the police.

Hardeep was 25 at the time of the assault, and is the second oldest of six children. He was born and raised in India, but the family moved to Britain when he was aged 14. Prior to leaving India, Hardeep’s favourite uncle died, as did his father soon after the family had settled in this country.

Hardeep’s mother was an anxious, fearful woman who related to him in an overly protective way. This took the form of a morbid preoccupation with his physical health, diet and personal safety, fearing, for no apparent rational reason, that he would die. Because of this fear, Hardeep’s mother discouraged him from leading an independent life outside of the family home; instead, she kept him firmly tied to her, seemingly as a means of quelling her fear and anxiety.

This merged, non-contingent style of relating intensified following the death of her husband. In her grief, she increasingly turned to Hardeep for comfort and emotional support, and he became her confidante and constant companion. Although he resented this imposed role, he felt trapped in it by a sense of duty and obligation and, thus, was unable to express the anger and frustration he felt towards his mother for what he saw as her failure to “give me my freedom”.

Hardeep’s relationship with Jaswinder was his first intimate, sexual encounter with a woman. He continued to live with his mother throughout their turbulent two-year relationship, and was unable to accept that Jaswinder wanted to lead an independent life whilst they were together, or that she eventually wanted to end their relationship because of his coercive and controlling behaviour. He spoke of feeling lonely, distressed, frightened and angry because of her wish to leave him, and of responding by becoming ever-more dependent on her.

Hardeep denied the reality of the loss and, instead, perceived his affiliation with Jaswinder and her parents as “close”, despite all evidence to the contrary. He made frequent intrusive telephone calls to Jaswinder, visited her and her parents’ respective homes uninvited and unannounced, and kept Jaswinder under regular surveillance, frequently following her every movement. He resorted to violence in an attempt to frighten her and, thereby, bring her under his power and control. Prior to this situation, Hardeep was a conscientious, passive and law abiding citizen, who worked in the family business and saved assiduously to fulfil his mother’s wish to go on holiday to India with him.

The clinical evidence, combined with Hardeep’s recent forensic history, indicated that he had developed a disorganized pattern of attachment in respect of loss and trauma. As a consequence, his capacity to mourn loss and regulate negative affective states of anger, shame and rage when under stress was deficient. Abandonment by Jaswinder was experienced in traumatic terms, activating Hardeep’s fear and attachment behavioural systems, and an associated disorganized internal working model. This, in turn, caused him to seek proximity to Jaswinder in a clinging, tearful and dependent way. When she failed to respond to his pleas and provide the comfort and security he needed to alleviate his stress, his coping strategies and mental defences were overwhelmed by dysregulated negative affect.

Lacking the capacity to represent, modulate and organize feeling states of despair, shame, hate and rage, Hardeep acted out his emotional distress in an escalating pattern of stalking that culminated in a violent assault on Jaswinder. By his own admission, this maladaptive behaviour was, in part, a frantic attempt to control Jaswinder to ensure her continuing emotional availability, thereby protecting him against disturbing feelings of loss and fear of self-annihilation. Her understandable reluctance to respond to him kept Hardeep in a protracted state of stress, thus his fear and attachment behavioural systems remained in a state of chronic activation. Being unable to self-soothe and self-comfort, he desperately sought proximity to Jaswinder, since she had become his main attachment figure.

As a result of this unhappy situation, Hardeep was faced with an exquisitely painful and irresolvable problem: as Jaswinder was his primary attachment figure it was to her that he instinctively turned for comfort at times of stress; however, her rejecting and abandoning behaviour was the unwitting cause of his distress. Lacking a coherent strategy to deal with separation and loss, and thus the capacity to reflect on and regulate his traumatic states of mind, Hardeep’s behaviour became increasingly obsessive and disorganized. He denied the loss and distorted his perception of the relationship, rationalizing his coercive, stalking and violent behaviour, which he cast in terms of protecting Jaswinder from others and from the excesses of her own self-destructive behaviour.

At root, Hardeep’s terrified reaction to the loss of Jaswinder may be seen as a recapitulation of implicitly encoded state-dependent emotional memories associated with early unresolved loss and trauma: the breakdown that had already happened. In this relational context, Hardeep’s anger, stalking and violence may be understood as motivated by fear and an urgent need to protect the self from being re-traumatized. His violence and desperate attempts to maintain proximity to Jaswinder may, therefore, be viewed as a pathological form of attachment behaviour - as ‘attachment gone wrong’.

From an attachment perspective, I argue that serious affective violence in intimate relationships is rooted in disorganized attachment linked to unresolved abuse and trauma and to a dissociated representational system characterised by dysregulated effect and pathological mourning. The violent male feels trapped and helpless in the traumatizing situation: fearing both abandonment and intimacy he lacks the freedom to act as an agentic self and the capacity to reflect on and organize traumatic effect. Thus, at the moment of violent assault, his over-controlled attachment system and tenuous capacity for mentalization are overwhelmed and disorganised by unregulated bio-chemical changes, negative affect and distorted perceptions deriving from his personal trauma.

Case vignette- Michael

Michael killed his estranged wife, Anna, hitting her head repeatedly with a claw hammer in an explosive rage after confronting her about ‘the accusations she was making about me to the children’. He was 49 at the time, married to Anna for 20 years with four children aged 10 to 18 years.

Michael’s parents separated when he was aged four. He soon lost contact with his father after his mother re-married. He became estranged from his mother when she and his stepfather became preoccupied with running a small business and he developed a substitute attachment with his maternal grandmother, since she was now chiefly responsible for his upbringing.

Michael had nothing in common with his stepfather and their relationship was distant and strained. His relationships with his parents deteriorated further when his half-sister was born because he felt they favoured her over him. This situation seemed to reinforce Michael’s sense of rejection and foster a nascent misogynistic attitude. At about that time his grandfather’s friend sexually abused him. He frequently ran away from home and suffered from persistent enuresis. He had six months therapy with a child psychiatrist.

In early adulthood, Michael became engaged to Clare, who precipitously broke off the engagement. On subsequently meeting Clare by chance they argued and Michael stabbed her in the chest. He was convicted of grievous bodily harm (GBH) and imprisoned. On his release a spate of offending behaviour occurred, culminating in a four-year sentence of imprisonment for offences of robbery, possession of a firearm and GBH with intent.

Michael’s criminal activity ceased following his marriage to Anna. In the four years prior to his killing her tension mounted in the marriage. He was working long, unsocial hours and Anna suspected him of having an extra-marital affair. They led increasingly separate lives, rarely having sex and frequently arguing. Their problems were exacerbated by Anna’s excessive drinking and his controlling behaviour. Michael’s grandmother and mother both died at that time causing him intense distress. He was reluctant to share the money he inherited with Anna because he suspected that she would use it to ‘leave me’.

The couple tried but failed to reconcile their differences. Michael was hospitalised with depression after a suicide attempt. Within two weeks of being discharged, Anna accused him of raping her and he was arrested and remanded in custody for three months. During his time on remand, Anna filed for divorce. Four days after his release he went to see Anna and killed her when she refused to talk to him, attempted to phone the police and flee from the house. Afterwards, Michael explained that ‘all my anger and frustration suddenly burst out’. The police were called and found Michael sitting in his car outside the family home. He was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment.

Michael spoke of loving Anna and of not wanting them to separate and divorce. However, he felt she provoked him by alleging rape, by tarnishing his name with their children, by withdrawing sexually from him and by planning to divorce him, leaving him shamed and humiliated in her and the children’s eyes. Michael seemed emotionally detached and unable to empathise with Anna but he was deeply distressed by ‘the grief I’ve caused my children’ when he had wanted to give them the ‘perfect childhood I didn’t have’.

Setting aside his abuse and cumulative relational trauma, and the effect of this on his neurological development, Michael’s formative experiences consisted of overt trauma in the form of loss, broken attachments and sexual abuse. In the absence of appropriate help to process these experiences, he developed a disorganised pattern of attachment and concomitant difficulty in regulating negative emotional states associated with rejection and abandonment. In childhood, he expressed his anger and distress by running away from home and bed-wetting, whereas in adulthood it was enacted in violent crime.

His secure-enough attachment to Anna enabled Michael to contain his fear and anxiety and his offending behaviour ceased. However, it appears that he defended against unresolved childhood trauma by controlling Anna and idealising the relationships with his children. Whilst Anna was emotionally available to him such defences and coping strategies kept his fear and anxiety within manageable proportions. However, perceiving that Anna was intent on leaving him activated Michael’s fear and attachment systems.

His behaviour became increasingly disorganised and his coping strategies and mental defences were overwhelmed by dysregulated negative effect, resulting in an explosive murderous rage. His attack on Clare, when she rejected and abandoned him, may also be seen as indicating that loss triggered multiple incoherent internal working models, deriving from disorganised attachment to his early caregivers.

Given Michael’s lack of a coherent strategy to deal with separation and loss, I considered it probable that any woman with whom he developed an intimate relationship would be at risk of harm when the relationship was breaking up. Michael moved to a different area on his release from prison. Later I heard that he had become intimately involved with a woman and battered her to death when she wanted to end the relationship. He went on the run after leaving a note admitting to killing her and directing the police to where he had left her body.

In this brief paper, I have presented an attachment theory perspective to understanding male affective violence. In developing my argument, I have emphasised the links between trauma, pathological mourning, disorganized attachment, affect regulation, reflective function and interpersonal violence.

I have proposed that vulnerability to stress derives, in large part, from explicit abuse and cumulative relational trauma in early development within a disorganized caregiving-attachment system. I have argued that fear and intense interpersonal stress overwhelms the individual’s conscious coping strategies and unconscious defensive structure, together with their capacity to reflect on and organize traumatic experience involving abuse, separation and loss. I have illustrated theoretical points with three clinical case assessments.

*Names and some details have been changed to disguise identities.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Twickenham TW2 & London WC1X
Written by Paul Renn
Twickenham TW2 & London WC1X

I am a relational psychoanalytic psychotherapist and author in private practice in central and southwest London (see below in 'Extra Information' for details of my practice addresses). I am accredited by the United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP). I work with individuals, offer couples coun...


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