Abusive Relationships 

  Intimate partner abuse is a perplexing situation in that people will stay in an abusive relationship despite feeling controlled and emotionally dissatisfied.   In an abusive relationship both the abused and the abusive partner feels anxiety and a desire to increase intimacy while simultaneously desiring to distance themselves.  There are a variety of reasons that people will stay in the abusive relationship and it often has to do with the way in which the personality of the abused and abusive partner fit together.

Profile of the Abused Partner

            The profile of the individual, that abusive partners seek, is that of a person who frequently identifies as having a low self-esteem (Frish & MacKenszie, 1991).  The abused partner tends to have a high tolerance for stressful relationships, or has the ability to “check out,” mentally separate, and otherwise disassociate in a relationship (Alexander, 2009). The abused partner also has a higher ability to take care of the partner than the partner has to take care of themselves (Anglin & Holtzworth-Munroe, 1997).  This can include, among other things, a higher ability to reason, organize, earn money, or navigate the welfare system.  The abused partner also shows a willingness to be helpful in relationships where reciprocality of helpfulness is not present (Frish & MacKenzie, 1991).

Abused Partner’s Feelings of Low Self Esteem

            Frish and MacKenszie, (1991), found that chronically abused partners experience a significantly lower self esteem than formally abused partners.  It was also found that the abused partner has an external locus of control, which may account for the low self esteem (Frish & MacKenzie, 1991).  The abused partner has a higher incidence of depression than the national average (Cascardi, O’Leary, Lawrence, & Schlee, 1995).   One of the criteria for depression is that the person identifies “feelings of worthlessness” (DSM-IV-TR, 2000).

            Another finding is that the abused partner experienced the onset of depression before entering marriage (Cascardi et al., 1995).  This finding indicates that the depressive partner may have had a low self esteem, before the marriage occurred and was an attribute that the abusive partner was looking for.  It may also be that the low self esteem occurred as a result of emotional abuse from parents, since the abused partners have a significantly higher incidence of childhood emotional abuse than people in non-abusive relationships (Cascardi et al., 1995).  This finding substantiates the claim that emotional abuse is the most severe and long lasting type of abuse (Follingstad, Rutledge, Berg, Hause & Polek 1990).

Ability of Abused Partner to Emotionally Distance Themselves

            The abused partner will emotionally distance themselves from the abusive partner (Liotti, 1992).  If the ability to tolerate a stressful relationship through emotionally distancing oneself is an attribute that is desirable when an abusive partner is looking for a mate, then one can only assume that the non-abusive partner learned the technique of becoming distant in their previous relationship with their family of origin (Liotti, 1992).  This technique could have been developed in a variety of ways (Launius & Lindquist,1988).  It could be the personality of the person to withdraw when confronted, it could be learned helplessness, or it could be a conditioned response (Follingstad, 1980; Launius & Lindquist 1988). 

            Dissociation is one of the criteria of PTSD (DSM-IV-TR, 2000).  Disassociation is characterized by mentally and often physically checking out in response to stimuli that reminds the victim of the events that brought about the PTSD in the first place (DSM-IV-TR, 2000).  Research shows that the women who reported multiple abuse also reported significantly more dissociation symptoms (Alexander, 2009).  These same women continue to experience multiple forms of trauma and victimization as adults (Alexander, 2009).  PTSD has been found to occur as a result of psychological abuse, more than physical abuse (Arias & Pape, 1999; Taft, Murphy, King, Dedeyn, & Musser, 2005).  PTSD has been found to correlate positively with physical and psychological abuse (Babcock, Roseman, Green & Ross, 2008).  Some women report that they will disassociate when being victimized (Sandberg, Matorin, & Lynn, 1999).  This may lessen their ability to resist the victimization and increase PTSD perpetuation (Sandberg, Matorin, & Lynn, 1999).       

            Researchers have found that in many cases, people have shown a heightened sense of arousal when confronted with fear provoking stimuli (Orr, 1994).  In the case of intimate partner abuse, it has been found that the abused partner will show a lowered emotional response to stimuli that reminds them of spouse abuse (Bobcock, Roseman, Green, & Ross, 2008). 

Abused as a Child

            Kwong, Bartholomew, Henderson, and Trinke, (2003), found that 33% of people who witnessed violent parental relationships entered into violent relationships as adults.  It has been also found that when all types of childhood abuse are grouped together it correlates with a person’s tendency to stay in an abusive relationship (Alexander, 2009; Kuong, Bartholomew, Henderson, & Trinke, 2003).  However, when childhood abuse is looked upon as independent types, (e.g. emotional, physical, and sexual), a correlation may or may not be present (Alexander, 2009; Cascardi et al., 1995; Orduff et al., 2001; Ornduff, Kelsey and O’Leary, 2001). 

Inequality in Self Care and Care of Others

            It was found that couples in violent discordant relationships have lower relationship and general problem solving skills than couples in discordant relationships (Anglin & Holtzworth-Munroe, 1997). Couples in discordant relationships have lower relationship and general problem solving skills than couples in non-violent non-discordant relationships (Anglin & Holtzworth-Munroe, 1997).  It was also found that the violent partner in a violent relationship has less relationship and general problem solving skills than the non-violent partner (Anglin & Holtzworth-Munroe, 1997).  This is consistent with the findings of Babcock, Waltz, Jacobson, and Gottman, (1993), in that abused partners were found to have more actual control in the relationship in regards to decision making.  This does not mean that the abused partners were found to have a perception of control (Gottman, 1993).  On the contrary, the abused partner had a perception of being in less control of the relationship than the abusive partner (Gottman, 1993).

            The perception of the abused partner is that they do not have the ability to financially support and care for themselves or their children (Frish & MacKenzie, 1991).  It was found that a significant difference between the chronically abused partner and the formally abused partner was the perception that the abused partner could not take care of themselves or their children and that the formally abused partner now believed they have the ability to care for their needs (Frish & MacKenzie, 1991). 

Helpful Personality of Abused Partner

            The abused partner has a very helpful personality, that may be attributed to role-reversal during childhood (Alexander, Teti, & Anderson, 2000).  They can stay in a relationship where reciprocality of helpfulness is not present (Chase, 1999).  This type of personality is appealing to the abuser who does not want the focus of relational problems to be on themselves and will use various types of abuse to put the focus of solving relational problems on the abused partner (Bowlby, 1973).  The abused partner will then, in turn, blame themselves and attempt, even more, to meet the needs of the abuser (Buchbinder & Eisikovits, 2003). 

            The helpful personality is also desired due to the abuser desiring to have a mate that is higher functioning and can take care of their needs (Alexander, 2009; Anglin & Holtzworth-Munroe, 1997; Murphy  & Blumenthal, 2000).  Compared with formally abused partners, chronically abused partners have a higher belief that it is their responsibility to maintain the relationship and family functioning (Frish & MacKenzie, 1991).

Reasons for Leaving

            It was discovered that abused partners that have left the abusive relationships, had higher instances of severe abuse than abused partners that stayed in the relationship (Frish & MacKenzie, 1991). It is assumed that the abused partner believed that the benefit of leaving the relationship outweighed the benefit of staying in the relationship (Frish & MacKenzie, 1991). The abused partner can maintain stress of the relationship as long as it is within his/her threshold of tolerable stress. Once the threshold of tolerable stressed has been surpassed then the abused partner leaves the relationship. The next relationship that the abused partner gets into may also be an abused relationship but one that has a lower stress level and is within the boundaries of the internal threshold of tolerable stress.  Cascardi, O’Leary, Lawrence, & Schlee, (1995) found that physically abused partners are more likely to seek therapy than couples experiencing marital discord. This may influence their ability to leave the relationship, whereas verbally abused partners may stay in the relationship longer.   

Profile of the Abusive Partner

            There are some common personality characteristics of individuals who are abusive.  Some of the personality traits mimic those with borderline personalities. They also mimic those with insecure attachments.  Some abusive partners exhibit cyclical feelings of underlying relational anxiety that exhibits itself through abuse.

Borderline Characteristics

            Individuals who are abusive report personalities that are representative of borderline personality disorder (Beasley & Stoltenberg, 1992).  Although the two issues are seen as being separate, both issues mimic each other in various ways.  Batterers have been found to score higher on the MCMI-II subscale of borderline personality than non-batterers (Beasley & Stoltenberg, 1992).

            Relationship of abandonment and violence.

            A person suffering from borderline personality disorder, (BPD), will make “frantic efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment” (DSM-IV-TR, 2000).   People who exhibit abusive behavior will often report feeling an underlying fear of abandonment (Dutton, 1998). This feeling often manifests itself in a pervasive feeling of anxiety, which increases as feelings of abandonment increases and decreases with aggressive outbursts (Beasley & Stolenberg, 1992; Murphy, Meyer, & O’Leary, 1994; Bowlby, 1973).

            Dukes and Morrow, (2000), found that people with high BPD traits exhibit verbal aggressions and intentions if they are placed in a situation where they witness a depiction of abandonment.  It was found that the more BPD traits a person had the greater the violent intentions that were exhibited (Dukes & Marrow, 2000).

            Idealization and devaluation.

            A person suffering from BPD will also exhibit “a pattern of unstable and intense interpersonal relationships characterized by alternating between extremes of idealization and devaluation” (DSM-IV-TR, 2000).  This pattern often occurs in the relationships that an abuser maintains.  With the abuser, this pattern of relational interaction began at birth and continues into adult relationships (Kuong & Barthologmew, 2003).  Sometimes the relationship will take a respite during courtship and will continue again as the relationship progresses in time and seriousness (Mason & Blakenship, 1987; Fincham, Cui, Braithwaite, & Pasley, 2008).  This pattern often fits hand in hand with the abuser’s fear of abandonment (Dukes & Marrow, 2000).  The abuser will feel anxious, not know the origin of the feelings, identify the partner as the origin of the feelings, exhibit abusive bx., and then will idealize the partner as the partner threatens to leave and fears of loneliness surface (Bowlby, 1973; Walker, 1979). Intense anxiety is also an indicator of BPD, except that in BPD it rarely lasts “more than a few days” (DSM-IV-TR, 2000).

            Low self-image.

            The BPD client will also “identify disturbance: markedly and persistently unstable self-image or sense of self” (DSM-IV-TR, 2000).  The abuser looks upon themselves with trepidation while reporting and exhibiting a pseudo self of someone with a solid self esteem (Holtzworth-Munroe & Hutchinson, 1993).  This persistent low self-image makes it difficult for the abuser to examine their self and focus on the self as the problem when the pervasive feeling of low self esteem once again begins to take hold (Goldstein & Rosenbaum, 1985).  Instead it is easier, and less painful, to look toward the partner in the relationship as the cause of the anxiety (Holtzworth-Munroe & Hutchinson, 1993).


            The person suffering from BPD will exhibit “impulsivity in at least two areas that are potentially self-damaging (e.g., spending, sex, substance abuse, reckless driving, binge eating)” (DSM-IV-TR, 2000).  The abuser will also exhibit high degrees of  impulsivity (Barnett & Hamberger, 1992; Murphy & Eckhardt, 2005).  It could be that the abuser exhibits impulsivity as a means to masks feelings of low self esteem. “Chronic feelings of emptiness” is also an indicator of BPD, (DSM-IV-TR, 2000), and is high in abusers (Holtzworth-Munroe & Hutchinson, 1993). 

            Suicidal gestures.

            “Recurrent suicidal behavior, gestures, or threats, or self-mutilating behavior, (DSM-IV-TR, 2000), is indicative of both BPD and abusers, except that abusers are not known for self-mutilating behavior (Murphy & Eckhardt, 2005).  They are known for exhibiting suicidal behavior when confronted with a partner who is threatening to leave the relationship (Murphy & Eckhardt, 2005).  This behavior is believed to be a real feeling of depression and not merely an act to scare the partner into returning to the relationship (Murphy et al, 1994).  It is believed to be real, because the abuser does identify strong fears of abandonment (Dutton, 1998).


            Both the BPD and abuser will exhibit paranoid ideation (Barnett, Martinez, & Bluestien, 1995; DSM-IV-TR, 2000).  Not only will the abuser exhibit anxiety due to a feeling that abandonment will occur, the abuser will also experience a paranoia that is oversensitive to the partners behaviors (Barnett et al., 1995).  The partner may be giving off appropriate indications that something is wrong in the relationship and the abuser will pick up on the indications and exasperate them by believing they are an indication that the partner will leave or that the partner is unfaithful (Barnett, et al., 1995). 

            Exhibition of anger.

            Lastly, both the person suffering from BPD and the abuser will exhibit “inappropriate, intense anger or difficulty controlling anger (e.g., frequent displays of temper, constant anger, recurrent physical fights)” (Babcock, Green, Webb, & Yerington, 2005; DSM-IV-TR, 2000).  It was found that men who exhibit low levels of violence and high levels of relationship violence are equally as quick to anger (Babcock, 2005).  However, men who exhibit high levels of violence continue to increase in anger after a conflict discussion and men who exhibit low levels of violence do not (Babcock, 2005).  Anger is often used to gain power in a relationship. The more the male abuser desires to have power in a relationship the higher the incidences of abuse were found to be (Mason & Blankenship, 1987). 

Poor Attachment

            Attachment was the life’s work of Mary Ainsworth and John Bowlby (Ainsworth, 1991).  Attachment theory is based on the idea that children need a secure base (Bowlby, 1973). Insecure attachment has shown to be a correlate, if not a predictor, of aggressive behavior in a relationship.  Bowlby, (1973) described the insecure adult relationship as one that provides a context where abusive behavior can reside. 

            Angry coercive behavior, acting in the service of an affectional bond, is not uncommon.  It is seen whenever a sexual partner berates the other for being or seeming to be disloyal.  It is seen again, in some families, when a member becomes angry whenever his  approaches to another member are met by an unresponsive silence…not only may angry  discontented behavior alienate the attachment figure but, within the attached, a shift can  occur in the balance of feeling. Instead of strongly rooted affection…there grows a deep-  running resentment, held in check only partially by an anxious uncertain affection.   (Bowlby, 1973, p.138)

            Four attachment patterns of the child have been identified and matched with caregiver patterns in responses (Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters, & Wall, 1978).  These patterns are secure, avoidant, ambivalent/resistant, and disorganized (Ainsworth, et al., 1978).  Different forms of attachment occur as the corresponding form of care is given from the mother (Ainsworth & Bell, 1970).


            A secure attachment occurs when the caregiver is quick to come to the child’s attention as the child is experiencing anxiety or fear toward the environment (Ainsworth, et al., 1978; Bowlby, 1973).  In this manner, the caregiver provides a safe haven for the child to explore the environment (Ainsworth, et al., 1978).  The more secure the child is in the knowledge that the parent will always provide a safe haven, the more the child feels safe in exploring the environment and learning new things (Bowlby, 1973).


            An avoidant attachment is said to occur when the parent does not respond quickly to the child, is neglectful of the child, and ambivalent to the child’s fears (Ainsworth, et al., 1978).  When a child experiences this, they will exhibit ambivalence toward the caregiver in return (Ainsworth, et al., 1978).  This child exhibited only mild concern toward a strange situation and would not demonstrate a desire to learn and explore (Ainsworth, et al., 1978).  Ainsworth reasoned that the child’s ambivalence toward caregiver’s, exploration, and strange situations, must be a defense mechanism that he child has developed (Ainsworth & Bell, 1970).


            Ambivalent/Resistant attachment is established when the parent exhibits alternating or unreliable responses that are both neglectful and appropriate (Ainsworth, et al., 1978).  The child with an ambivalent/resistant attachment will respond to the environment by exhibiting distress (Ainsworth, 1978).  This child is not easily comforted by strangers (Ainsworth, 1978). If the parent leaves the child and then attempts to comfort the child upon return, the child will seek close proximity at first, but then retaliate against the mother by use of aggression (Ainsworth, 1978).


            A disorganized attachment is formed when the caregiver exhibits active withdrawal from the child, exhibits role reversal, mixed messages of fear and reassurance in the presence of the child, and negativity toward the child (Main & Solomon, 1986).  The child with a disorganized attachment will respond by appearing confused, exhibit contradictory behaviors, exhibit role reversal responses, and may exhibit rocking behavior (Main & Solomon, 1986). 

            Continuity of attachment.

            Attachment is believed to be something that continues to influence relationships throughout the lifetime (Ainsworth, 1982; Bowlby 1977).  It appears that 70-80% of attachment styles continue from child and into adult relationships (Waters, Merrick, Treboux, Crowell, & Albershiem, 2000; Scharfe & Bartholomew, 1994).


            Infants appear to have a desire to attach to anyone who is giving care (Bowlby, 1973).  The attachment is formed through the infant’s ability to expect the caregiver to come to the rescue (Bowlby, 1973).  This is accomplished though the caregiver coming repeatedly to the infants aid (Weinfield, Sroufe, Egeland, & Carlson, 2008).  Infants who do not have a secure attachment are found to have difficulty establishing trust with caregivers and carefully watch for change in their interaction.  They do not quickly receive comfort from caregivers or go to them easily (Weinfield, et al., 2008).  Insecure infants show a higher rate of anger toward caregivers than secure infants (Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters & Wall, 1978).


            As children move through childhood they will have many adverse experiences.  When these adverse experiences are not met with appropriate responses it facilitates a feeling of insecurity and the child will move from a secure to a less secure attachment (Waters, Weinfield, & Hamilton, 2000).  The attachment will also become less secure in the face of abuse or neglect (Weinfield, N. S., Stroufe, L. A., & Egelund, B. (2000).


            As children move into adolescents, the children with insecure attachments begin exhibiting inconsistent patterns in their relationships (Berlin, Cassidy, & Appleyard, 2008).  These patterns will mimic those of their childhood attachments (Berline, et al, 2008).   They will also have a higher tendency to suffer from mental disorders (Berline, et al., 2008).  Children with ambivalent/resistant attachments will have a tendency to develop disorders such as anxiety and depression (Berlin, et al, 2008).  Children with avoidant attachment will have a tendency to exhibit aggressive behaviors (Berlin, et al., 2008).      


            Hazan and Shaver looked at the relationships of adults through attachment theory and established patterns that mimic that of childhood attachment (1987).  They found that the insecure groups reported poor relationships as children and as adults (Hazan & Shaver, 1987).  They also found that adults with secure attachments tended to report relationships that were more satisfactory (Hazan & Shaver, 1987).  Feeney and Noller found that adults with securely attached styles reported less self-doubt and a feeling that they were accepted by others, when compared to adults with insecure attachment styles (1990).  The relationship between attachment and self-doubt was described by Bowlby (1973).

            Confidence that an attachment figure is, apart from being accessible, likely to be   responsive can be seen to turn on at least two variables: (a) whether or not the attachment  figure is judged to be the sort of person who in general responds to calls for support and  protection; (b) whether or not the self is judged to be the sort of person towards whom   anyone, and the attachment figure in particular, is likely to respond in a helpful way.  Logically, these two variables are independent.  In practice they are apt to be confounded.  As a result, the model of the attachment figure and the model of the self are likely to  develop so as to be complementary and mutually confirming. (Bowlby, 1973, p. 238)

            Adult attachment styles.

            Hazan and Sahver describe adults as having four attachment styles (1987).  These styles are described as secure, anxious-preoccupied, dismissive avoidant, and fearful avoidant.  Each adult attachment style is thought to be derived from an attachment style that was started at infancy.  The adult anxious-preoccupied style is thought to have derived from the child ambivalent/resistant attachment style.  The adult dismissive avoidant and fearful avoidant was thought to derive from the childhood avoidant attachment style.  The secure style is derived from the secure attachment of the childhood experiences (Hazan & Shaver, 1987).


            Secure adults are found to value intimate relationships, have the ability to maintain close relationships, and to be able to discussion relational and other issues (Bartholomew & Harowitz, 1991).  Securely attached adults have less anxiety about loosing or their intimate partner (Bowlby, 1973).  This underlying anxiety is not as present in their relationship and results in longer and happier relationships than non-securely attached adults (Simpson, 1990).  


            The preoccupied adult is demonstrated to desire an over-involvement in close relationships, depend on other people’s perception of themselves for their self esteem, idealize other people, exhibit a lack of continuity in describing relationships, and use exaggerated emotions when discussing the relationships (Bartholomew & Harowitz, 1991).  These adults carry with them an underlying resentment toward their caregiver which manifests itself toward a weaker spouse or child (Bowlby, 1973).  Adults with anxious-preoccupied attachments were found to experience difficulty in coming up with resolutions in situations that produce anger (Mikulincer, 1998).  They also found that these adults also have more difficulty controlling their anger than securely attached adults (Mikulincer, 1998).  This group was also found to be hypervigilant about their partner’s expressions and demonstrated anxiety that that their partner was not committed to the relationship (Simpson, Ickes, & Grish, 1999).

            Dismissive avoidant.

            Dismissive adults are shown to downplay the importance of close relationships, restrict emotions, desire independence and self-reliance, and exhibit ambiguity in discussion regarding relationships (Bartholomew & Harowitz, 1991).  The married adults with dismissive-avoidant attachments were also found to have romantic relationships that experienced higher levels of negative affect than married adults with secure attachments (Kobak & Hazan, 1991).

            Fearful avoidant.       

            The fearful avoidant personality exhibited a fear of rejection, personal insecurity, distrust, and a desire to avoid close relationships (Bartholomew & Harowitz, 1991).  Adults that are avoidant are found to be seen as being more hostile than non-avoidant adults (Collins & Read, 1990).  These adults were also found to exhibit difficulty in finding resolutions in anger provoking situations (Mikulincer, 1998).  They exhibit greater hostility than securely attached adults, and are less aware of the degree to which they are exhibiting the hostility than securely attached adults (Mikulincer, 1998).  This group demonstrated anger during stressful periods when partner’s desired comfort (Rhodes, Simpson, & Orina, 1999).  They also exhibited anger when they received little support and comfort from their spouse in anxiety provoking situations (Rhodes, et. al., 1999).  Even after the anxiety provoking situation have ended, the avoidant couples will demonstrate negative effect in the relationship, if they had attempted to receive support and received anger instead (Rhodes, et. al., 1999).

            Reactive attachment.

            Reactive attachment is considered to be a mental disorder, resulting from insecure attachment (Zilberstein, 2006).  It is a childhood disorder and children suffering from it are thought to have the following diagnostic criteria, (DSM-IV-TR, 2000), that will persist into adult hood and influence adult relationships (Ainsworth, 1982; Bowlby, 1977; Waters, et. al., 2000; Scharfe & Bartholomew, 1994).  The adult is believed to interact with his/her intimate partner in much the same way he/she learned to interact with the childhood caregiver (Ainsworth, 1982; Bowlby, 1977).

            A. Markedly disturbed and developmentally inappropriate social relatedness in most

            contexts, beginning before age 5 years, as evidenced by either (1) or (2):

            (1) persistent failure to initiate or respond in a developmentally appropriate fashion to  

           most social interactions, as manifest by excessively  inhibited, hypervigilant, or highly

            ambivalent and contradictory responses (e.g., the child may respond to caregivers

            with a mixture of approach, avoidance, and resistance to comforting, or may exhibit

            frozen watchfulness)

            (2) diffuse attachments as manifest by indiscriminate sociability with marked inability

            to exhibit appropriate selective attachments (e.g., excessive familiarity with relative

            strangers or lack of selectivity in choice of attachment figures)

            B. The disturbance in Criterion A is not accounted for solely by developmental delay

            (as in Mental Retardation) and does not meet criteria for a Pervasive Developmental


            C. Pathogenic care as evidenced by at least one of the following:

            (1) persistent disregard of the child's basic emotional needs for comfort, stimulation,

            and affection

            (2) persistent disregard of the child's basic physical needs

            (3) repeated changes of primary caregiver that prevent formation of stable

            attachments (e.g., frequent changes in foster care)

            D. There is a presumption that the care in Criterion C is responsible for the disturbed

            behavior in Criterion A (e.g., the disturbances in Criterion A began following the

            pathogenic care in Criterion C). (DSM-IV-TR, 2000)

            Reactive attachment disorder is believed by many clinicians to be a condition that influences the attainment of a violent personality (Greenberg & Speltz, 1988).  The reactive attachment parental relationship is one that mimics that of an adult abusive relationship (Scharfe & Bartholomew, 1994).  The adult in the relationship will exhibit real abandonment or ambivalence to their child, thus creating a feeling of abandonment (Ainsworth, 1978).  The reactive attachment child will react to the feelings of eventual abandonment by both wanting proximity to the parent but also exhibiting avoidance and aggression toward the parent (Ainsworth, 1970).  The child never appears to be able to establish a bond where he/she is free to relax, explore surrounding, and know that the parent will always be present (Ainsworth, 1970).  The child, upon reaching an adult relationship, is reasoned to continue to have an unconscious feeling that their partner will also leave the relationship (Bowlby, 1973).  This fear exhibits itself through the self fulfilling prophesy as the abusers abusive behavior pushes the partner away from forming a stable relationship with the abuser (Bowlby, 1973). 

            It was found that adults with violent tendencies, would increase threats of violence when viewing tapes depicting the abandonment of a child (Dukes & Morrow, 2000).  Interestingly, in the study conducted by Dukes and Morrow, (2000), the violent threats were not made toward the person who was abandoning the child, but toward their own intimate partner.  The degree of intimate partner abuse is also shown to increase as the length and seriousness of the relationship increases (Mason & Blakenship, 1987).  People with abusive personalities also exhibit a high rate of disassociation when introduced to abandonment issues (Dukes & Marrow, 2000).

Childhood Abuse

            Dukes and Marrow, (2000), found that people suffering from BPD have experienced a higher rate of physical and sexual abuse than non-BPD participants.  The participants in this study also exhibited a higher rate of willingness to exhibit violence (Dukes & Marrow, 2000). Batterers were found to have witnessed a higher degree of parental violence than non-batterers (Beasley & Stoltenberg, 1992).  Kwong and Barthologmew surveyed 1,165 participants and found that there was a significant positive correlation for witnessing psychological and physical abuse as a child and exhibiting violence as an adult (2003).

Styles of Abuse

            In order for the abusive partner to maintain a hold in an unequal relationship, the abusive partner uses a form of spousal abuse.  Spousal abuse can be categorized into four main categories (Murphy & Eckhardt, 2005). These categories are dominance/intimidation, denigration, restrictive engulfment, and hostile withdrawal (Murphy & Eckhardt, 2005).  


            Denigration is defined as “belittling, critical, and humiliating acts intended to attack or damage the partner’s sense of self-worth.  Examples include calling the partner stupid, ugly, or worthless, humiliating or belittling the partner in front of friends or relatives, and calling the partner crazy” (Murphy & Eckhardt, 2005, p. 15).

            Denigration is used to maintain the low self esteem of the abused partner (Murphy & Eckhardt, 2005).  The low self esteem must be maintained by the abusive partner so that the abused partner stays in the submissive role, does not believe in the ability to find a better partner, and for the abusive partner to delegate the responsibility of the relationship problems to the abused partner (Alexander, 2009; Frish & MacKenzie, 1991).  The low self esteem of the abused partner plays a role in the desire to stay in the abusive relationship (Buchbinder & Eisikovits, 2003).  In my experience, formally abused clients often identify that they wished to maintain a relationship with someone that has lower functioning abilities because of their belief that the partner will not leave them.  They also identify that it increases their feeling of self worth to know that they have a higher functioning ability than their partner.

            Communication is only one form of intelligence and can be rated differently from their overall FSIQ (Kaufman & Lichtenberger, 2006).  It is not uncommon for people to have a verbal intelligence score that is higher than their FSIQ (Kaufman & Lichtenberger, 2006).  It is easily possible for the abuser to have a higher level of communication than the abused partner, but have a lower FSIQ.  Denigration is often used when the abuser has greater communication skills than the abused partner (Babcok, Waltz, Jacobson, & Gotman, 1993).  It was found that when the abusive partner had greater communication skills than the non-abusive partner, the abusive partner would be the one to bring up a problem in a relationship, berate and belittle the non-abusive partner, and then allow the non-abusive partner to withdraw and avoid countering the argument (Babcock, Waltz, Jacobson, & Gottman, 1993).  Through this type of behavior, the abuser can establish perceived control in the relationship (Ehrensaft, Langhinrichsen-Rohling, Heyman, O’Leary, Lawrence, 1999).

Restrictive Engulfment

            Restrictive engulfment is defined as “efforts to track and monitor the partner’s whereabouts and isolate the partner from important social contacts or self-enhancing activities.  Examples include checking up or spying on the partner, searching through the partner’s personal belongings, listening in on the partner’s phone conversations, trying to force the partner not to see friends or family members, undermining the partner’s personal relationships, and negating the partner’s efforts to obtain work or education” (Murphy & Eckhardt, 2005, p. 15). Restrictive engulfment is used to lower awareness that there are better partners out there, limit the partner’s ability to increase income, and to lower the ability of the abused partner to form social support groups that might encourage the partner to leave or raise the partners self esteem (Murphy & Eckhardt, 2005).

            Ehrensaft et al, (1991), found that abused partners felt significantly more controlled in their ability to visit friends, see family members, and make other social decisions than partners in a non-abusive relationship.   Although the abused partner felt controlled in the ability to make social decisions, the abuser also reported that same perception of being controlled.  This finding may also be an indicator of the non-abusive partner realistically having more power in a relationship while the perception of power is maintained by the abusive partner through abusive actions (Ehrensaft et al.,1999).  The abusive partner was also found to use dominance/intimidation, hostile withdrawal, and denigration in order to enforce a restrictive engulfment form of abuse (Ehrensaft et al.,1999).  It is interesting to that partners in non-abusive relationships also identified feelings of control over social choices but the feelings of control were not seen as intrusive or demanding (Ehrensaft et al.,1999).

Hostile Withdrawal

            Hostile withdrawal is defined as “aversive escape or avoidance behaviors intended to help the abuser ignore the partner’s concerns and punish the partner through withdrawal of attention or affection….Examples include acting cold and distant when angry, refusing to discuss things that are important to the partner, spending long periods of time away from the partner in a spiteful fashion, or otherwise withdrawing attention and contact and ignoring the partner’s concerns” (Murphy & Eckhardt, 2005, p. 15).

            Hostile withdrawal creates a feeling that the relationship has a problem (Murphy & Eckhardt, 2005).  It also is used to create the illusion that the problem in the relationship is with the abused partner not with the abusive partner (Murphy & Eckhardt, 2005).  In this type of abuse, the abused partner, with the helping personality, often feels the need to step-up to fix the problem and assumes that the relationship is bad because of his/her inability to do their part.

            Cascardit et al., (1995), found that significantly more abused partners were afraid that their partner would leave them, do something unpredictable, or lose control, than partners in a non-abusive relationship. Berns, Jacobson and Gotman found that violent partners also exhibit higher levels of withdrawal than discordant or non-discordant partner (1999).  It was also found that the non-violent couple in the relationship would attempt to withdrawal but that the withdrawal was met with violence (Berns et al., 1999).  It was observed that the violent partner would exhibit withdrawal whenever the non-violent partner demanded change in the violent partner (Berns et al., 1999).  The abused partner reported feeling that the abuser uses behavior that would indicate the abuser leaving the relationship in order to establish control over decisions made by the abused partner (Ehrensaft et al.,1999).

Dominance Intimidation

            Dominance/intimidation is defined as “behaviors that share similarities to physical assault and appear intended to produce fear or submission in the partner.  These include threats of violence or harm (e.g., threatening to hurt or kill the partner, one’s self, or others), violence toward objects (e.g., punching walls, throwing things, or breaking objects that are highly valued by the partner, and intimidating looks or gestures (e.g., hovering over the partner in an ominous fashion during a conflict or disagreement)” (Murphy & Eckhardt, 2005, p. 14). 

            Dominance/intimidation is used to physically scare the partner into being submissive (Murphy & Eckhardt, 2005).  It is used by the abusive partner when the abusive partner is unable to compete with the higher functioning spouse and desires to feel in control of the relationship.  It is also used to send a message to the abused partner that they have a submissive role in the relationship.

            It was found that high incidences of dominance/intimidation correlated with high incidences of attempts of the abusive partner to dominate and control the abused partner (Cascardi et al., 1995).  The severity of abuse also correlated with the severity of fear that the abusive partner would exhibit fear provoking behavior and fear that the abused partner might upset the abusive partner (Cascardi et al., 1995).  

            It was speculated that the violent partner was insecure in his relationship and would exhibit violence whenever a loss of control was felt (Berns et al., 1999).  It was found that when the abusive partner had less communication skills than the non-abusive partner, then the abusive partner was more prone to act out in violent and threatening gestures.  It is assumed that since the abuser could not gain perceived control over the relationship by use of denigration, the abuser would use dominance/intimidation to gain perceived control (Berns et al., 1999).  The threatening gestures were also positively correlated with the amount of actual power that the abuser had in the relationship (Babcock et al. 1993).  The abused partner reported feeling that the abuser often uses threats of violence or violent behaviors in order to control decisions that the abuser makes (Ehrensaft et al.,1999).

The Four Types of Abuse Used Together

            The four types of abuse have been presented separately but may also be used together by the abuser (Murphy & Eckhardt, 2005).  For an example a husband might not like the way a mother-in-law talks poorly of him and may be afraid that his wife will listen to her and leave him.  The husband may use restrictive engulfment to prevent his wife from visiting her mother. The wife, feeling trapped between her husband and her mother, may seek to resolve the issue through communication.  The abusive husband might use hostile withdrawal to avoid discussing his wife’s concern.  The wife, sensing a greater problem in the relationship, may then attempt to advance further in her effort to discuss the concern that she perceives as the underlying problem.  The husband may then begin to use denigration in an effort for him to create a desire for his wife to distance herself from him and stop bringing up the subject.  The wife could then respond in an unexpected manner by feeling that she must work even harder to resolve the relational problem and further advance her efforts in discussing the avoided concern with her husband and now her mother. The husband, who then feels a greater lack of control by his wife’s efforts to “demand” that he resolve problems with her mother, and a greater fear of abandonment by his wife’s frequent talks with her mother, may then begin to use dominance/intimidation.  The wife, who has now reached her threshold in the stress that she can handle in a relationship, then begins to withdraw and emotionally distance herself from her husband.

            We are born into this world with the gift of choice.  As we grew into childhood our ability to choose also grew.  Continuing through adolescents and onto death we have been confronted with choices. When confronted with choices, this ability to choose was strengthened or diminished.  The gift of choice continues to be present despite the ability to utilize it.  As people, the more we allow ourselves to be taken by undesirable lusts, behaviors, and thoughts, the weaker our ability to shore up our inhibitions becomes.  The opposite is also true, the more we choose a direction and avoid the lure of exhibiting unwanted behaviors, the easier it becomes. I believe that strengthening the ability to choose positive behavior can be very hard, but it is a process that is continuous throughout life. Can an abusive person choose to change their behavior? Yes, the choice has never left, but the ability to choose may be diminished to a point that the road back is a struggle. That does not mean it can’t be done and God is there to help them do it.

Cyclical Patterns in Personality and Behavior

CyCycle of Abuse as depicted by Walker, 1979, Retrieved from http://www.soc.ucsb.edu

            Abusers are sometimes described as having cyclical functioning behavior (Walker, 1979).  Walker used her cycle to describe battering patterns (Walker, 1979).  In this paper, the cycle will be used to represent patterns of abuse that occur, in conjunction with the cyclical buildup and release of inner tension that abusers feel in relation to intimate partners (Gunderson, 1984; Millon, 1981; Walker, 1979; Zimbardo, 1969).  In Walker’s cycle there are three phases, namely the tension-building phase, explosion of acute battering, and the contrition phase (Walker, 1979). 

Tension-Building Phase

            In the tension building phase, the abuser will escalate forms of abuse that he has been using (Walker, 1979).  During this phase the submissive spouse will increase her efforts in catering to the abuser (Walker, 1979).  She will be careful in the words she chooses and the topics she brings up so as not to anger her spouse (Walker, 1979). 

            It is during tension-building phase, that the abuser is feeling a slow buildup of rage and anxiety (Zimbardo, 1969).  The anxiety stems from the desire to be with the partner, but a desire to hold the partner at bay for fear that she will eventually leave him (Millon, 1981).  The abuser knows that the buildup is occurring but is unable to verbalize the emotions (Gunderson, 1984).  The abuser in this phase desires to increase the intimacy in the relationship, but being unable to verbalize how to do so (Gunderson, 1984).  The abuser will become obsessed with a desire to gain affection and while experiencing an equally obsessive fear of abandonment (Millon, 1981).

Having a lack of relationship skill, the abuser will continue to build up in tension (Gunderson, 1984; Millon, 1981).  This buildup of tension eventually spills over into the abusers language and the abuser will increase the belittling and denigration of his partner (Gunderson, 1984; Millon, 1981; Walker, 1979). 

            The abuser has an inability to resolve his own emotional insecurity, and in seeking self integrity through others, the abuser’s tension will become focused on the inability of the partner to console him (Gunderson, 1984; Millon, 1981). The abuser will buildup in his mind that his partner is going to abandon him and slowly allows tunnel vision to deconstruct other possibilities in the interpretation of meaning in his partner’s behavior (Baumeister, 1990; Millon, 1981).  Abusers do not see themselves have having a high sense of self worth and therefore cannot accept that their partner esteems them in high regard (Millon, 1981).  Through self-fulfilling prophesy, the moodiness and increasing relational tension slowly pushes the partner away (Gunderson, 1984).

Explosion of Acute Battering

            The explosive anger in this phase acts as a release for tension that was building up in the previous phase (Zimbardo, 1969).  The release of tension is euphoric becomes addictive in two ways (Zimbardo, 1969).  One is through the release of the tension and the other is through the subsequent absence of tension (Zimbardo, 1969).  In the previous phase, the focus of the abuser has been on the inability of the abused spouse to change the direction of anxiety buildup (Baumeister, 1990).  Now, in this phase, the abuser has developed tunnel vision to the point that it excludes empathy toward the partner’s emotions (Baumeiste, 1990).  This tunnel vision deconstructs all other thinking resulting in the focus being on the one endless loop of thoughts focused on a single process, his partner abandoning him (Baumeister, 1990; Gunderson, 1984; Millon, 1981).  It is in this phase that the abuser sees the relationship as lost and responds by exhibiting anger through both verbal and physical aggression (Gunderson, 1984).  

            In each phase the abuser’s worldview will completely change (Gunderson, 1984).  Where once, in the contrition phase, he worshiped and desired his partner, now the abuser sees the relationship as something that is already lost to him (Gunderson, 1984). Since the abuser perceives the relationship as lost, he will also exhibit impulsive behaviors intended to numb and distract his conscious from feelings of anger, abandonment, and loss (Gunderson, 1984; Millon, 1981).  This will be accomplished through the use of substance abuse, gambling, promiscuity, drugs, or other impulsive behaviors (Gunderson, 1984; Millon, 1981). This dramatic shift in a worldview will continue to occur in a cyclical pattern (Gunderson, 1984).

            The abuser experiences frequent self-deprecating thoughts and self-derogation (Millon, 1981). The abuser obtains his sense of self through the reflected view of the partner, and since the abuser see’s the relationship as lost, the reflective sense of self is also lost in this phase (Gunderson, 1984).  The results are an explosive unruly behavior, without boundaries, because the boundaries have suddenly been eliminated (Gunderson, 1984; Millon, 1981).

Contrition Phase

            In this phase the tension has been released and the abuser begins to attempt to repair the relationship (Walker, 1979).  In this phase the abuser buys flowers, calls her often, starts tasks she has wanted him to do, and other things to play on her emotions and seek reunification (Walker, 1979).  He desires to have her back and craves a way to resolve the feeling of abandonment and loneliness (Gunderson, 1984).  He also relays to her how much she helps him and will threaten suicide because only her love is worth living for. (Walker, 1979).  This is not totally an act, for in the contrition phase the abuser feels a deep sense of loneliness and longing for the intimate partner, while holding an underlying fear of eventual rejection (Gunderson, 1984; Millon, 1981).  Baumeister’s description of tunnel vision may occur once again as the abuser focuses on his desire to reunite with his partner, and excludes focus on all other activities (Baumeister1990; Millon, 1981).

             The abuser will demonstrate a start toward reform by going to church, start counseling, and begin talking to friends about his mistakes (Walker, 1979).  This may also not be an act, since it is in this phase the abuser recognizes within himself that he is at loss of relational skills (Gunderson, 1984).  In this phase the abuser implores the counselor, pastor, and friends to tell his spouse how much work he is putting into changing himself and how he needs her back (Walker, 1979). 

Systemic Intervention

            Belief systems maintain a degree of homeostasis (Krippendorff, 1986).  Individual belief systems contain subsets (Rokeach, 1970).  These subsets contain situation specific constraints that restrict the possible outcomes in a specific situation (Ashby, 1981).  In Cybernetics, change occurs when the system regulates input to control desired output (Ashby, 1956). This is done in a process called positive feedback (Krippendorff, 1986).  Feedback is the interaction of the environment with the system (Krippendorff, 1986).  On a continuum scale, the degree to which a system is closed is the degree that it is unwilling to accept input and thus restrict change in its output (Ashby, 1956).  The degree to which a system is open or closed is directly related to the environment that the system is in (Rokeach, 1960).  A system must change itself when it interacts with the environment in order to maintain homeostasis (Ashby, 1956).  In cybernetics this process is described as morphogenesis occurring so that morphostasis is maintained (Krippendorff, 1986).

            A system that experiences perceived threats increases the degree to which it is closed and thus restricts change in it’s output (Rokeach, 1960; Ashby, 1956).  This effect increases the probability that the same if not greater restraints will stay in place and that isomorphic behavior will occur.  Isomorphic behavior occurs when the belief system exhibits resembled behavior in separate environmental interactions that are perceived to resemble each other (Ashby, 1956).  The interaction of a child and caregiver could be classified in a subsystem as interaction with intimate relationships.  This classification would subsequently have constraints that were formed to protect the homeostasis of the system (Rokeach, 1960).  The system would then require that additional constraints be formed every time a threat, such as abuse, would present itself (Rokeach, 1960).  The result would be an increase in the probability that the child’s subsystem, theoretically labeled intimate relationships, would continue into adult hood with much of the same probable outcomes of interaction, that it had as a child.

            Cybernetics deals with the control of the efficiency of the system (Ashby, 1956).  It does not decide if the desired output of the system it is observing is appropriate or inappropriate, it is not biased in that manner.   In cybernetics, it is the system that decides what desired output the system wants to achieve.  Decision is defined as “the willful imposition of a constraint on a set of initially possible alternatives” (Krippendorff, 1986).  In cybernetics, the efficiency of the system is explored by comparing output desired with output obtained (Parra-Luna, 2008).  The efficiency of the intrapersonal system will determine the individual’s ability to maintain a psychological wellbeing, according to what the individual identifies as “wellbeing.”

Therapists Influence on Client’s Subsystems

            Compatibility “refers to the ability of devices, subsystems or systems to effectively cooperate with each other in providing some service” (Hornung as cited in Pernice, Doare, & Rienhoff, 1995, p. 186).   A system refers to “a set of variables selected by an observer together with the constraints across variables he either discovers, hypothesizes or prefers.  Inasmuch as the variables of a system may represent the components of a complex machine, an organism or a social institution and a constraint is the logical complement of a relation” (Krippendorff, 1986).

            The ability of one system to accept information from another system is based upon the compatibility of the two systems (Rokeach, 1960). This compatibility is based on the degree of open and closedness of a system (Powell, 1962).  The more open a system is, the more it is open to allowing the encoding of information that is not representative of its own concepts (Powell, 1962; Rokeach, 1960).  The more closed a system is, the more it is closed to allowing the encoding of information that is not representative of its own concepts (Powell, 1962; Rokeach, 1960). 

            The degree to which information is encoded is also influenced by the degree to which a system decides an authority figure is acceptable (Restle, Andrews, & Rokeach, 1964). An authority figure that is highly acceptable has a greater ability to influence a system to accept concepts that are very foreign, than an authority figure that has low acceptability (Restle, et al.,1964).  An authority figure that is not highly acceptable has a higher tendency to be rejected along with its presented concepts (Michener, & Burt, 1975; Restle, et al., 1964; Rokeach, 1960).  A therapist that is representative of an organization that the client is affiliated with, such as a church, has a high probability of being an accepted authority figure (Rokeach, 1960).  Also, if the therapist is recommended by someone that the client views as an already established authority figure, the client has a higher probability of accepting assistance from the therapist (Rokeach, 1960).

Compatibility of Beliefs

            The therapist’s approach to identifying a helpful solution is another element that influences the degree to which compatibility will take place.  Therapists rely on varying degrees of a priori knowledge (Baehr, 2006).  If the presented a priori knowledge about the client’s mental health already mimics schemas that the client pre-established regarding their own mental health, then the therapist is easily accepted and the knowledge is easily assimilated (William, et al., 1990).  If the presented a priori knowledge does not mimic pre-established schemas, then the knowledge is rejected, according to the degree of open and closedness of the client’s system (Mouw, 1969; William, et al., 1990).

            Therapists also vary as to the degree that they will rely on a posteriori knowledge when assisting the client (Baehr, 2006).   This a posteriori knowledge is gained through the joining of the system of the therapist with the system of the family and in what is called second order cybernetics.  Second order cybernetics occurs when the observer joins the system being observed (Heinz, 1981).  The therapist and the family then experience the second order system together and present themselves with a posteriori knowledge based on experience.  This a posteriori knowledge is easier to be accepted from the client’s system since it is not seen as being foreign material (Ehrich, & Lee, 1969).  The degree to which it is accepted is dependent upon the therapist’s ability to join the system.  The system will never be completely joined since the session usually takes place, out of context, and within a one hour period. 

Nature of Belief Systems

            A belief system is constructed in tiers where core beliefs, if changed, manipulate the concepts held in peripheral beliefs (Rokeach, 1970).  The family system operates upon the covert and overt rules maintained through core and peripheral beliefs (Rokeach, 1960; Watzlawick, Bavelas, Jackson, 1967).  If a core belief is changed, then the peripheral beliefs will also change (Rokeach, 1963).  Social constructs also use overt and covert rules (Watzlawick, et al., 1967).  The degree to which a social construct changes the rules of interaction, within the system, is dependent upon the tier of the belief that is being influenced by the social construct (Rokeach, 1970).  It is also dependent upon the degree to which the system accepts the social construct (Rokeach, 1954).


            Intervention first takes place by utilizing a method called constraint analysis (Ashby, 1981).  In this method, the constraints within a system are broken down into subset categories and examined for their representativeness of the system parameters (Ashby, 1981).  Next the client identifies constraints that inhibit the system’s ability to achieve the desired outcome.  The client proposes new constraints, and explores the theoretical effect of the new constraints with the therapist.  Finally the client attempts to utilize the new constraints and keeps a log containing both a quantitative and qualitative record of their interaction with the situation in question.  In this case the situation would be intimate relationships. 

            Upon the clients return to therapy, the therapist and client reviews the log with the client.  Inferences are made regarding the influences of variables evidenced within the record.  The variables are further analyzed through quantitative analysis to either substantiate or discredit inferences.  A constraint analysis is conducted again, the new constraints are modified to increase the efficiency of the system, and the client attempts to achieve desired outcome once again. 

            In working with the abused client, it is not always necessary to confront the abusive relationship directly, especially if the client is denying the extent of the abuse.  As previously mentioned, the rules of interactional belief systems are maintained through established constraints.  The belief systems are isomorphic in that it will operate in the same manner in like situations.  The therapist may ask the abused partner to change another relationship that mimics the abusive relationship.  This will probably be a relationship in which the abused partner is taking up the care giving role, is not receiving reciprocal assistance, is tolerating a lot of stress, and is feeling unable to leave the relationship.  A change in the isomorphic behavior with a similar relationship will require that the constraints governing the intimate relationship belief system be changed.  A change in the constraints increases the input into the system and consequently availability output choices.  This increases the ability of the abused partner to choose alternative action, if so desired.


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