Serious Violence, Trauma and Disorganized Attachment by Paul Renn

While we may all have violent and aggressive thoughts, feelings and fantasies, an interpersonal violent act consists of an actual attack upon the body of another with the explicit intention of causing physical harm and injury. 

Violence falls into two broad types of behaviour: predatory or psychopathic violence, which is held to be planned and emotionless, and in which the perpetrator seeks out a victim with whom he has no attachment relationship; and defensive or affective violence, which arises in reaction to a perceived threat to one’s personal safety or sense of self, and which is preceded by heightened levels of emotional arousal. While I agree with this distinction, I argue that both types of violence involve the expression of unbearable states of mind which cannot be reflected upon or symbolised. Indeed, I view both categories of violent people as sharing a common history of insecure attachment and unresolved trauma, with these factors being more extreme in the histories of predatory people than in the far more numerous cases involving affective violence. Findings confirm that the majority of violent assaults between adults occur within an existing attachment relationship and fall into the defensive or affective category. Further, research shows that the physical and sexual abuse of children takes place mainly within a domestic situation and is perpetrated by a member of the child’s family.

With regard to stranger violence, threat, menace and the fear of annihilation may be projected outwards and become embodied in the person of the stranger. This may be one reason why so many young people carry knives. The violent act may often have the aim of attenuating an actual or perceived threat to the person committing it. Redirection and displacement are, therefore, clinical issues that require consideration in understanding violent acts against strangers. We need to ask, “Who did the unknown hapless victim represent to the violent stranger in the particular context in which the assault occurred?” and “What dissociated attachment dynamics were suddenly disinhibited and acted out in the violent attack on the stranger?” Home Office research shows that young men are at greatest risk of becoming the victims of stranger violence, and also that young men are most likely to be the perpetrators of such acts.

When development is marked by substantial trauma, abuse and dissociation, identifying with the aggressor and victimizing others may become a maladaptive regulatory act: the discharged violence transforms the sense of helplessness and powerlessness associated with the original trauma, providing a temporary sense of triumph and revenge. Clinically, I have found that most perpetrators of serious violence operate somewhere between a repetition compulsion and dissociated enactment of their personal trauma. In the re-enactment, the person who was once persecuted becomes the persecutor.

Disorganized attachment is the most serious form of attachment disorder and is seen in terms of an unintegrated system of self-other representation. Although this parallel system is segregated from consciousness, it may suddenly become disinhibited by the stress of separation and loss. At such times, early, less conscious mental models of attachment tend to become dominant. In later life, traumatic separations and losses may activate confused, unstable working models imbued with dissociated shame, hate and rage deriving from childhood fear of abandonment and dread of loneliness. If we accept that what is dissociated is destined to be enacted, this situation may result in extreme behaviour, including violence. Violence, therefore, may often be explained by the person’s inability to tolerate the attachment figure leaving. This supposition is confirmed by data showing that spousal homicide imbued with intense affective violence is most likely to occur in the context of the relationship breaking up and the couple physically separating. 

Although the traumatically unresolved individual is able to modulate normative levels of stress and emotional arousal, when rejected, abandoned or betrayed by their partner and separated from children of the created family, the person’s conscious coping strategies and unconscious defensive structure are vulnerable and liable to break down. This situation may be exacerbated by stressful factors such as sexual jealousy, bereavement, redundancy and financial problems. Loss, betrayal and abandonment activate a multiple, disorganised internal working model, together with implicitly encoded state-dependent traumatic memories and unregulated bio-chemical changes. These psychobiological states are experienced as posing an imminent threat to the self and fuel a maladaptive, incoherent response. This stressful situation may overwhelm the person, compromising their mentalizing capacity. Not infrequently, this culminates in the enactment of a dissociated, shame-driven explosive rage deriving from the original traumatizing attachment matrix in which the self was felt to be endangered. 

Thinking about political violence, it is important to acknowledge that the issues motivating individual and collective acts of political violence are complex and multi-factorial. Such issues include social injustice, coercion, consensual validation, radicalisation, dehumanisation of the other, abdication of individual responsibility, becoming the voluntary agent of others within a malign authority system, and fear of retribution. Socio-cultural, economic and historical contexts also need to be taken into consideration in understanding political violence. Examples that incorporate some of these factors may be found in East Congo where abducted child soldiers are inducted into political violence by being ordered to kill under the threat of being killed themselves, in the ultra-racist policies of Apartheid South Africa, in the slave trade in this country, and in the use of torture in Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay. 

While fully acknowledging these various factors, I would argue that the developmental experiences of the politically violent person may often be a significant factor, too, in that the victims of childhood violence, abuse and persecution may channel their hatred, rage and humiliation towards political ends. Thus, the political may often reflect the very personal. When an individual in the grip of grandiosity and megalomania grasps political power and plays out his dissociated personal trauma on the world stage, the social and political consequences can be horrendously destructive of human life. 

Considering such psychological processes may help us better to understand the personalities of those who have exhorted their followers to commit atrocious acts of collective violence – war, genocide and ethnic cleansing – and also why some people are only too willing to engage in such atrocities, while others find such behaviour morally repugnant and abhorrent. The My Lai massacre in the Vietnam War, genocide in African states and ethnic cleansing in the Balkans come to mind. It may be thought that similar processes of pathological dissociation, projection, re-enactment and identification with the aggressor are occurring in the current tragic situation in Gaza. But all behaviour, whether violent or not, needs to be contextualised. Israel is a State surrounded by hostile neighbours and under constant threat. Just as an individual who feels threatened may resort to defensive violence, so, too, may the collective political leadership of a nation state.

Closer to home, in England and Wales in 2006/07 213 men and 21 women were convicted of homicide. Comparative studies of violent males reveal that many men who kill the women they profess to love present as model citizens whose early environments seem to have been relatively benign. These are the so-called ‘normal’ murders. In such cases, the violent act and the accompanying affective rage appear to be sudden and inexplicable, arising in response to little or no provocation. Clinical experience indicates that in such instances the violent individual’s psychological self has been violated in childhood in more subtle and covert ways than in those involving explicit trauma and abuse. The very ‘normality’ of some men who go on to murder constitutes an aspect of a complex but rigid defensive organisation forged in a family care-giving/attachment system characterized by subtle developmental trauma that is cumulative in its effect. 

Clinical experience with violent men suggests that many violent males have remained psychologically merged with their early attachment figures and, therefore, lack the internal security to exist as separate, autonomous selves. This generates existential anxiety and conflict between fear of engulfment and fear of abandonment in their adult intimate relationships. For defensive reasons, good and bad aspects of the self are encapsulated in segregated parts of the personality that are inaccessible to reflection and affective regulation. Traumatic states of mind imbued with fear, shame, rage and hate are dissociated because they are experienced as too terrifying to face. These states, together with ambivalent feelings of love and hate, are defensively excluded from consciousness and regulated by avoidance of intimacy, by violence or a compulsive, controlling form of care-giving, or by the sexualisation of relationships. 

In respect of the relatively few women who kill their male partners, I suspect that they, too, have had to defend against unresolved attachment trauma in ways not so dissimilar to the much greater number of men who murder their female partners. In addition to these psychological factors, the greater strength and fighting competency of men, the physical injuries and psychological harm received in a battering relationship, and the issue of provocation needs to be kept in mind in understanding women who kill their partners. Moreover, although the focus of this workshop is on understanding violence from an attachment and trauma perspective, it is important to emphasise that a broader understanding of violence and abuse needs to take into account the social and political context of unequal power relations within which the violence occurs. 

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