Intimate relationship abuse can be understood by considering two critical tenets of attachment. First, attachment fulfills a basic need for survival. Thus, the tenacity of the attachment bond is independent of relationship quality. Second, individuals whose attachment needs have been frustrated may strike out violently to regain proximity to the perceived loss of an intimate partner. We examined how individual differences in attachment were associated with women's and men's relationship abuse. A telephone survey assessed levels of psychological and physical abuse in 1249 Vancouver residents. Of these, 128 completed an attachment interview exploring their interpersonal relationships. Hierarchical regressions revealed that attachment variables contributed significant variance to prediction of both receipt and perpetration of psychological and physical abuse, with preoccupied attachment acting as an independent predictor. There was no evidence that gender moderated these associations. The findings suggest that attachment preoccupation in either partner may increase likelihood of abuse in couples.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Archer, J. (2000). Gender differences in aggression between heterosexual partners: A meta-analytic review. Psychol. Bull. 126: 651–680.
Babcock, J., Jacobson, N., Gottman, J., and Yerington, T. (2000). Attachment, emotion regulation, and the function of marital violence: Differences between secure, preoccupied, and dismissing violent and non-violent husbands. J. Fam. Violence 15: 391–409.
Bartholomew, K. (1990). Avoidance of intimacy: An attachment perspective. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 7: 147–178.
Bartholomew, K., and Horowitz, L. (1991). Attachment styles among young adults: A test of a four-category model. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 61: 226–244.
Bartholomew, K., Henderson, A. J. Z., and Dutton, D. G. (2001). Insecure attachment and abusive intimate relationships. In Clulow, C. (ed.), Adult Attachment and Couple Work: Applying the ‘Secure Base’ Concept in Research and Practise, Routledge, London, pp. 43–61.
Bartholomew, K., Henderson, A. J. Z., and Marcia, J. (2000). Coded semi-structured interviews in social psychological research. In Reis, H. T., and C. M. Judd (eds.), Handbook of Research Methods in Social and Personality Psychology, Cambridge University Press, London.
Bookwala, J., and Zdaniuk, B. (1998). Adult attachment styles and aggressive behavior within dating relationships. J. Soc. Pers. Relation. 15: 175–190.
Bowlby, J. (1973). Attachment and Loss: Vol. 2. Separation, Basic, New York.
Bowlby, J. (1982). Attachment and Loss: Vol. 1. Attachment (2nd edn.), Basic, New York. (Originally published in 1969.).
Bowlby, J. (1988). A Secure Base, Basic, New York.
Browne, A. (1993). Violence against women by male partners: Prevalence, outcomes, and policy implications. Am. Psychol. 48: 1077–1087.
Cappell, C., and Heiner, R. B. (1990). The intergenerational transmission of family aggression. J. Fam. Violence 5: 135–151.
Crittenden, P. M. (1988). Relationships at risk. In Belsky, J., and Nezworski, T. (eds.), Clinical Implications of Attachment, Erlbaum, Hillsdale, NJ.
Crittenden, P. M. (1992). Children's strategies for coping with adverse home environments: An interpretation using attachment theory. Child Abuse Neglect 16: 329–343.
Dobash, R. P., Dobash, R. E., Wilson, M., and Daly, M. (1992). The myth of sexual symmetry in marital violence. Soc. Problems 39: 71–91.
Downey, G., and Feldman, S. I. (1996). Implications of rejection sensitivity for intimate relationships. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 70: 1327–1343.
Downey, G., Feldman, S., and Ayduk, O. (2000). Rejection sensitivity and male violence in romantic relationships. Pers. Relation. 7: 45–61.
Dutton, D. G., and Painter, S. L. (1981). Traumatic bonding: The development of emotional attachments in battered women and other relationships of intermittent abuse. Victimol.: Int. J. 6: 139–155.
Dutton, D. G., and Painter, S. L. (1993). Emotional attachments in abusive relationships: A test of traumatic bonding theory. Violence Victims 8: 105–120.
Dutton, D. G., Saunders, K., Starzomski, A., and Bartholomew, K. (1994). Intimacy-anger and insecure attachment as precursors of abuse in intimate relationships. J. Appl. Soc. Psychol. 24: 1367–1386.
Follingstad, D. R., Rutledge, L. L., Berg, B. J., Hause, E. S., and Polek, D. S. (1990). The role of emotional abuse in physically abusive relationships. J. Fam. Violence 5: 107–120.
Griffin, D. W., and Bartholomew, K. (1994). Models of the self and other: Fundamental dimensions underlying measures of adult attachment. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 67: 430–445.
Hazan, C., and Shaver, P. (1987). Conceptualizing romantic love as an attachment process. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 52: 511–524.
Hazan, C., and Zeifman, D. (1994). Pair bonds as attachments. In Cassidy, J., and Shaver, P. (eds.), Handbook of Attachment: Theory, Research, and Clinical Applications, Guilford, New York, pp. 336–354.
Henderson, A. Z., Bartholomew, K., and Dutton, D. G. (1997). He loves me; He loves me not: Attachment and separation resolution of abused women. J. Fam. Violence 12: 169–191.
Holtzworth-Munroe, A., Stuart, G. L., and Hutchinson, G. (1997). Violent versus nonviolent husbands: Differences in attachment patterns, dependency, and jealousy. J. Fam. Psychol. 11: 314–331.
Kesner, J. E., Julian, T., and McKenry, P. C. (1997). Application of attachment theory to male violence toward female intimates. J. Fam. Violence 12: 211–228.
Kirkpatrick, L. A., and Davis, K. E. (1994). Attachment style, gender, and relationship stability: A longitudinal analysis. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 66: 502–512.
Kwong, M. J., Bartholomew, K., Henderson, A. J. Z., and Trinke, S. (2003). The intergenerational transmission of relationship violence. J. Fam. Psychol. 17: 288–301.
Landolt, M. A., and Dutton, D. G. (1997). Power and personality: An analysis of gay male intimate abuse. Sex Roles 37: 335–358.
Magdol, L., Moffit, T. E., Caspi, A., Newman, D. L., Fagan, J., and Silva, P. A. (1997). Gender differences in partner violence in a birth cohort of 21-year-olds: Bridging the gap between clinical and epidemiological approaches. J. Consult. Clin. Psychol. 65: 68–78.
Moffit, T. E., Caspi, A., Krueger, R. F., Magdol, L., Margolin, G., Silva, P. A., and Sydney, R. (1997). Do partners agree about abuse in their relationship? A psychometric evaluation of interpartner agreement. Psychol. Assess. 9: 47–56
Morgan, H. J., and Pietromonaco, P. R. (1994). Disorganization of the Attachment System in Abusive Romantic Relationships. Paper presented at the 102nd Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association, August, 1994, Los Angeles, California.
Morse, B. J. (1995). Beyond the Conflict Tactics Scale: Assessing gender differences in partner violence. Violence Victims 10: 251–272.
Murphy, C. M., and O'Leary, K. D. (1989). Physical aggression predicts physical aggression in early marriage. J. Consult. Clin. Psychol. 53: 419–421.
O'Hearn, R., and Davis, K. E. (1997). Women's experience of giving and receiving emotional abuse: An attachment perspective. J. Interpers. Violence 12: 375–391.
O'Leary, K. D., Malone, J., and Tyree, A. (1994). Physical aggression in early marriage: Prerelationship and relationship effects. J. Consult. Clin. Psychol. 62: 594–602.
Pietromonaco, P. R., and Feldman Barrett, L. F. (1997). Working models of attachment and daily social interactions. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 73: 1409–1423.
Roberts, N., and Noller, P. (1998). The associations between adult attachment and couple violence: The role of communication patterns and relationship satisfaction. In Simpson, J., and Rholes, W. (eds.), Attachment Theory and Close Relationships, Guilford, New York.
Scharfe, E., and Bartholomew, K., (1994). Reliability and stability of adult attachment patterns. Pers. Relation. 1: 23–43.
Stets, J. E., and Straus, M. A. (1990). Gender differences in reporting marital violence and its medical and psychological consequences. In Straus, M. A., and Gelles, R. J. (eds.), Physical Violence in American Families: Risk Factors and Adaptations to Violence in 8,145 Families, Transaction, New Brunswick, NJ, pp. 227–244.
Straus, M. A., Hamby, S. L., Boney-McCoy, S., and Sugarman, D. B. (1996). The Revised Conflict Tactics Scales (CTS2).J. Fam. Issues 17: 283–316.
Tolman, R. M. (1989). The development of a measure of psychological maltreatment of women by their male partners. Violence Victims 4: 159–177.
About this article
Cite this article
Henderson, A.J.Z., Bartholomew, K., Trinke, S.J. et al. When Loving Means Hurting: An Exploration of Attachment and Intimate Abuse In a Community Sample. J Fam Viol 20, 219 (2005). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10896-005-5985-y
- intimate abuse
- relationship abuse
- adult attachment
- attachment behavior