Violence and Gender – Similarities and Differences by Paul Renn

The British Crime Survey for 2006/07 found that in the great majority of incidents of domestic violence the victims were women and the perpetrators were men. Approximately one-third of female victims of partner abuse had been pregnant at some point during the violent relationship. Statistics for recent years show that, on average, two women are killed each week in England and Wales by their intimate male partners. Furthermore, offences recorded by the police in 2007/08 in the ‘most serious sexual’ category reveal that women were far more likely to be the victims of sexual violence than men, and that in cases of rape and serious sexual assault the offender was most likely to be the male partner, ex-partner or lover of the female victim. This was also the case in respect of harassment offences. In the light of these findings, it is clear that there is an appalling incidence of violent assault on women by men. 

In respect of intimate violence in the family, Home Office researchers found that self-completion questionnaires consistently reveal a relatively similar incidence of domestic violence for both men and women. The peculiar contradiction between self-report findings and those relating to face-to-face interviews is partly accounted for by the sensitivity involved in disclosing intimate violence to an interviewer. The picture of similar rates of domestic violence for men and women revealed by the Home Office self-report module has been replicated by attachment researchers. However, one finding consistently moderated by gender is that women are much more likely to suffer injury than men in violent relationships. Researchers believe that this may be why women are more likely than men to perceive domestic violence as a crime and to report such incidents to the police.

The NSPCC cite research showing that the most common perpetrator of childhood sexual abuse in the family is a brother or step-brother, followed by a father and other male relatives. The killing and physical abuse of children by parents, however, are committed in roughly equal proportions by mothers and fathers. The source of the woman’s violence is located in early experiences of neglect and abuse, predominantly at the hands of her own parents. Researchers contend that the woman perceives the child as an extension of herself, rather than as a separate individual. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was found that mothers who had been abused in childhood, and whose capacity for reflective functioning or mentalization had, therefore, been compromised, were more likely to become abusing parents themselves than were mothers who had not been abused.

Research shows that women tend not to be violent outside of their intimate relationships, in comparison to men. It is suggested that attachment insecurity underlies women’s use of violence and that such insecurity arises in the private domain of the family as the couple struggle to manage their respective attachment conflicts over discomfort with closeness and fear of abandonment. From an attachment theory perspective, the psychological mechanisms underlying couple violence are thought to be similar for both genders and, moreover, to occur in same-sex as well as opposite-sex relationships. This suggests that such behaviour needs to be understood from within a relational context and to be informed by attachment theory and research. Specific socio-cultural factors may also need to be considered in understanding relationship violence in minority ethnic communities.

In respect of people who have developed an avoidant-fearful attachment style, there is a desire for a close relationship but a countervailing fear of disapproval and rejection. This ambivalent internal conflict leads to inflexible behavioural strategies designed to avoid emotional intimacy which, in turn, create disappointment and tension within the couple relationship, thereby increasing the risk of violence. It should be stressed, however, that understanding violence from a relational and trauma perspective does not exculpate the male perpetrator of his individual responsibility for violence.

In terms of relationship quality, findings show that some attachment dimensions are gender-specific. For females, anxiety over abandonment was found to be a strong correlate of relationship quality, being linked with jealousy and with low levels of communication, closeness, partner responsiveness, and satisfaction. For males, comfort with closeness was the crucial attachment dimension of relationship quality. These gender differences may reflect sex-role stereotypes, whereby women are socialised to value emotional closeness and men are socialised to value self-reliance. 

In more general terms, individuals’ adult attachment styles – secure-autonomous, avoidant-dismissing, avoidant-fearful and preoccupied – were found to be of relevance to couples’ communication patterns and relationship satisfaction. Insecure couples that had difficulty in sustaining emotionally meaningful and satisfying relationships were found to be at greater risk of resolving conflict through violent means than were securely attached couples. There is also some evidence to show that attachment strategies formed in childhood influence the playing out of the care-giving, care-seeking and sexual behavioural systems in adult intimate relationships. 

Understanding couple violence in a relational context, with attachment status as a key link in this process, has clear implications for the choice of intervention. In clinical practice, I have found that in relationships involving infrequent, low-level violence in which the couple is committed to staying together and struggling to understand their abusive behaviour, it may be more effective to work with them conjointly rather than separately. Furthermore, research indicates that the similarities between opposite-sex and same-sex intimate relationships far outweigh the differences and that attachment issues also underlie violence in same-sex relationships. Conjoint work using an attachment-based approach may, therefore, be equally appropriate and effective in working with same-sex couples. 

The clinical picture is very different for women caught up in a battering relationship in which the violence is frequent and severe. Despite being repeatedly physically and psychologically abused, the woman may experience great difficulty is leaving the abusive man. This phenomenon may partly be explained by the development of a traumatic attachment bond. Research shows that the strength of the attachment bond is unrelated to the quality of the attachment relationship. Indeed, abused children and battered spouses typically show signs of being strongly, albeit traumatically, attached to their abusive caregivers or partners. 

The contention that the battered woman becomes traumatically attached to the perpetrator receives support from research showing that women with a history of childhood abuse are at an increased risk of marrying an abusive partner. In addition to the isolation and fear induced by the man’s violence and controlling behaviour, the woman’s difficulty in separating from her violent partner may be seen in terms of a collapse of behavioural and attentional strategies. These relational dynamics, in the context of threat, danger and coercion, indicate the activation of a disorganized/disoriented internal working model developed in childhood with an unresolved or abusive caregiver who was both the source of fear and alarm and the solution of these traumatic states of mind.

Thus, in addition to socially constructed gendered aspects of experience which militate against women feeling entitled to fulfil their needs and desires in a context of unequal power relations, the battering relationship may be viewed as providing a maladaptive vehicle for repetitive re-enactments. These consist of dissociated attachment trauma involving repeated exposure to fear without resolution. Indeed, an important motivational factor in the perpetuation of archaic attachment bonds in the here-and-now is the desire to recreate a familiar relationship pattern, however violent and self-destructive this may be, precisely because it is familiar and thus, in a paradoxical way, provides a modicum of felt security. Couple work in cases characterised by such dysfunctional and unstable relational dynamics is strongly contraindicated. In my view, the woman needs help to physically and emotionally separate from her battering partner, and the man should be worked with separately with the goal of resolving the attachment trauma that is likely to be motivating his violent behaviour.

Attachment theory, then, holds that the person’s cognitive-affective internal working models of early self-other relationships mediate all subsequent relationships, particularly those with intimate partners in adulthood. In object relations terms, it is argued that the failure to attain ‘mature dependence’ reflects a persisting state of psychological merger with the early maternal love object, a state driven by insecurity and chronic separation anxiety. It is contended that love relations in adulthood conform to the pattern of the individual’s early undifferentiated relationships with the parents. Via processes of transference and identification, later love relations assume the emotional significance of these original relationships. 

The seemingly addictive propensity to repeatedly forge intimate adult relationships that are redolent of ties to early objects, even when these are traumatic, suggests that such behaviour may reflect neurochemical as well as emotional and psychological derivatives. Indeed, neurobiological data indicate that mother-infant interaction activates specific neuroendocrine systems. For example, the stress response entailed in avoidant behaviour appears to be maintained by the release of catecholamines and cortisol, the main stress hormone, whereas attachment and nurturing behaviour seem to depend on the availability of oxytocin and vasopressin, positive neuropeptides associated with loving physical touch. The question here is whether, and to what extent, exposure to positive or negative neurochemicals in early life influences later behaviour and the unconscious choice of adult intimate partner. 

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