Attachment and Domestic Violence

In case you have not seen it, I recommend you watch the YouTube video on Michael Stevens’ channel, VSauce, entitled, “Why Do We Kiss?” It is a delightful segment that explores the evolutionary need for human intimacy, rounded out by the concept of, you guessed it, kissing. While the video has a positive tone, framed around the beauty that we are instinctively wired to react to uncertainty with love and attachment, it raises some interesting questions in regards to attachment and abuse.

Stevens cites several ethically controversial but significant studies on attachment in animals, notably Harry Harlow’s baby monkeys and A. E. Fisher’s puppy experiments. In Harlow’s study, baby monkeys were separated from their mothers at birth, and provided with a wire “mother” that provided food, and a soft, cuddly “mother” that did nothing. To test which fostered greater attachment, the researchers introduced a frightening object to the monkeys to observe their reaction. The babies unanimously clung to the “useless,” soft mother, and when the monkeys were “rejected” or pushed away by the soft mothers through pressurized air, they clung even tighter.

In the puppy experiment, researchers divided puppies into three groups. In the first group, the puppies were always rewarded on contact with the researchers, in the second, they were punished when they approached the researcher, and in the third group, the puppies were randomly rewarded or punished, giving them a life of uncertainty. The group that showed the strongest attachment to the researchers was, surprisingly, the third group.

In nature, animals tackle uncertainty by increasing their level of attachment to their real or surrogate parents, even when the parents are the cause of the uncertainty. So how does this relate to domestic abuse? We all know that women often struggle leaving abusive relationships. They often cite reasons like low self-esteem, financial dependence, the stigma of a broken family, perceived remorse from the abuser etc. They also often cite another important reason: love. We can argue up and down that what these women are experiencing is not true love, that real love involves respect, a belief in one’s own self-worth, and so on. However, we cannot deny that what these women are feeling is attachment, possibly perceived as love. Abusers are rarely like the researchers with the second group of puppies: they are not consistently abusive, or else the woman would not have likely become involved with the man from the beginning. Instead, the relationships are defined by a seemingly random mish-mash of positive and negative interactions, more akin to the third group’s researchers.

While one must be careful comparing the reactions of juvenile animals to their surrogate mothers and adult women to their romantic partners, research seems to show that women’s own attachment issues from infancy can affect their romantic relationships later in life. A body of research has indicated that women who experienced physical and sexual abuse as a child were significantly more likely to both enter into abusive romantic relationships and be more likely to return to the abusive partner after separation. Even if a direct relationship does not exist between attachment difficulties with a girl’s mother and her likelihood to enter abusive relationships as an adult, the instinctive tendency to increase attachment when faced with uncertainty should not be ignored.

The importance of rethinking of the causes of attachment is important in how we work with battered women. It may be the case that women do return for their stated reasons (self-esteem, financial dependence, etc), but those may be rationalizations of something much deeper: an instinctive attachment to the abuser. When working with battered women and addressing issues of domestic violence, it is important to frame our thinking around this concept, that we, like puppies, form a closer bond as a coping mechanism to uncertainty. While this reframing poses more challenges, it perhaps will help us change how we address the issue of domestic violence, and approach the issue with more understanding.

by EM

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