Emotional Attachments in Abusive Relationships: A Test of Traumatic Bonding Theory

Article excerpt

An empirical test of traumatic bonding theory, the notion that strong emotional attachments are formed by intermittent abuse, is reported. In-depth assessments (interviews plus questionnaires) were conducted on 75 women who had recently left abusive relationships (50 where physical violence had occurred). The study found support for the effect of relationship dynamic factors such as extremity of intermittent maltreatment and power differentials on long-term felt attachment for a former partner, experienced trauma symptoms, and self-esteem, immediately after separation from an abusive partner and again after a six month interim. All three of these measures were significantly intercorrelated within each time period. Each measure at Time 1 correlated significantly with each corresponding measure at Time 2. After six months attachment had decreased by about 27%. Relationship variables (total abuse, intermittency of abuse and power differentials) accounted for 55% of the variance in the attachment measure at Time 2 indicating prolonged effects of abuse suffered in the relationship.

Dutton and Painter (1981) have elaborated a theory of "traumatic bonding," whereby powerful emotional attachments are seen to develop from two specific features of abusive relationships: power imbalances and intermittent good-bad treatment. This notion that attachment is strengthened by intermittent abuse appears, at first glance, to be somewhat at odds with classic attachment theory, which proposes that attachment increases with consistent positive treatment. Bowlby (1969,1973,1977,1980) argued that the human need for secure attachment was the result of a long term evolutionary development which rivaled feeding and mating in importance. Bowlby defined infant attachment as a bond developed with "some other differentiated and preferred individual who is conceived as stronger and/ or wiser" (1977, p. 203). Proportional to this sense of the other having absolute and unrestricted power over the infant, however, was the corollary that in times of threat, disruption or separation to that secure attachment would produce emotional responses that are extremely strong, and which serve to generate proximity to the caregiver. Hence, even in Bowlby's original work on attachment, the notion existed that strong emotions produced by intermittent behavior of the caregiver could enhance attachment. This notion is not limited to infant attachment; an intriguing series of studies have likened attachment in infant relationships to adult romantic attachment (Hazan & Shaver, 1987; Shaver, Hazan, & Bradshaw, 1988; Shaver & Hazan, 1988; Collins & Read, 1990). Hazan and Shaver (1987), for example, developed a self-report measure to differentiate adult analogues of infant attachment patterns designated as secure, anxious-avoidant, and ambivalent. These adult patterns are viewed as enduring characteristics, like personality traits. This research focus, however, has not yet examined the role of adult relationship dynamics in enhancing attachment.

To demonstrate that "paradoxical attachment" was a general learning phenomenon, Dutton and Painter (1981) cited animal experiments and human case studies which demonstrated that attachment could be strengthened when such alternating good-bad treatment was applied. For example, people taken hostage have been found subsequently to show positive regard for their captors (Bettleheim, 1943; Strentz, 1979), abused children have been found to have strong attachments to their abusing parents (e.g., Kempe & Kempe, 1978), and former cult members are frequently loyal to malevolent cult leaders (Conway & Seigelman, 1978).


Dutton and Painter (1981) point out how the pathway into an abusive relationship constitutes a form of social trap. The first abusive incident appears to be an anomaly, occurring at a time of relationship novelty and optimism. This, coupled with its relative lack of severity and post-incident contrition by the man, operates to strengthen the affective attachment at a time when the belief has not yet formed that the abuse will be repetitive and inescapable. …