February may be the month of hearts, flowers and romance. But it is also Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month. With that in mind, it seems an appropriate time to consider the core beliefs and behaviors that go into fostering healthy, loving relationships in contrast to those that create turmoil, unhappiness and sometimes violence.

At Evergreen Psychotherapy Center, we work with dozens of couples every year to strengthen their connections by first asking them to look back at their childhood experiences. We challenge them to recognize the attachment patterns they have developed as a result and to understand how those patterns influence their behaviors toward their loved one today.

Relationships and Attachment

Four general styles of attachment that most adults fit into are:

  • Secure – The individual experienced love and nurturing and had caregivers who were attuned to their needs. Later in life, they are able to foster secure attachments and embrace warm and loving relationships.

The absence of a nurturing caregiver, neglect, abuse and maltreatment contribute to insecure attachment patterns. These include:

  • Avoidant – The individual is not comfortable with intimacy and closeness and tends to be emotionally distant.
  • Anxious – The individual feels needy and insecure in their relationships.
  • Disorganized – The individual both avoids intimacy and is needy. Their relationships are in constant turmoil.

Attachment theory gives us a way of understanding the intricacies of intimate adult relationships including issues such as trust, support, loss, emotional reactions, patterns of interacting and core beliefs. Insecure attachment styles can cause couples to get stuck in ongoing, repetitive patterns that can be extremely damaging to the relationship. Not surprisingly, the anger and dysfunction also leads to higher incidents of separation and divorce.

Intimate Partner Violence

Research suggests that individuals with compromised attachment may be more vulnerable to intimate partner violence as teens and adults. They also may be more prone to becoming perpetrators of intimate partner violence (IPV).

A 2009 study published in the journal Personal Relationships sampled 644 Canadian adults, who were in long-term romantic relationships, and had experienced childhood trauma. The researchers found fear of abandonment or intimacy played a role in episodes of violence. Individuals with avoidant attachment, according to the study, may resort to violent behaviors if they feel smothered by their partner. Resorting to physical abuse is a way for them “to [both physically and metaphorically] push their partner away, maintain greater distance or escape when they perceive their partner as being too close or intrusive.” Meanwhile, anxiously attached partners may use violence “to force their partner to focus on them and to obtain greater physical or emotional proximity.” Moreover, the study showed that certain combinations of attachment styles led to more volatility, for example, a relationship where one partner is anxiously attached, and the other avoidant.

This type of research illustrates how important it is to include attachment-focused intervention and appropriate conflict resolution strategies in domestic violence prevention and treatment efforts. Assessing and attending to unresolved childhood trauma is key to this work.

In fact, a recent study, in the journal Partner Abuse, suggests that using attachment-focused strategies in the treatment of perpetrators of IPV could be more effective and less costly than other treatment approaches. “Considering the extent to which insecurity, attachment anxiety, negative expectations, and a self-absorbed sense of grievance can be attenuated by attachment security priming, it is expected that better treatment outcomes are possible [for perpetrators].” [Corvo, et. al.]

We couldn’t agree more. Through Corrective Attachment Therapy, the clinicians at Evergreen Psychotherapy Center help individuals and couples become aware of past losses, incompletions and repetitive destructive patterns. We then provide opportunities to integrate and heal these roadblocks to growth and happiness. Our treatment goal is positive change — helping couples make new choices, gain news perspectives, discover new options, engage in new behaviors, and use new coping strategies.

If are in an abusive relationship and need help, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1.800.799.SAFE.