Exploring Attachment in a Treatment Group for Men Who Batter

Steven Van Wagoner


Programs for men who batter have proliferated in the last three decades, with ensuing debate on how to best treat this population. Researchers, practitioners, and activists have researched this population in an attempt to both explain why men resort to violence in their relationships and to devise effective treatment programs. Research suggests that shorter-term, structured treatment models presented simultaneously with court monitoring offer the most promise in reducing partner violence (Edleson & Syers, 1991). More recently, Saunders (1996) found little difference between cognitive behavioral, psychodynamic, and profeminist models when looking at main effects, but detected an interaction effect such that men with dependent personalities did better in a psychodynamic group. This latter finding, suggests that men with attachment difficulties might benefit from examining their attachment struggles, in addition to confronting inequality and abuse of power in relationships (i.e. pro-feminist, education models), faulty appraisal and decision making in intimate interactions, and learning non-abusive conflict resolution skills (i.e. cognitive behavioral approaches).


The violence abatement groups I have led typically consisted of 10-12 men who were court mandated into a 14 or 26-week treatment program that combined pro-feminist education and analysis, with cognitive-behavioral methods and conflict resolution skill building. While the groups were structured with each week focusing on a specific topic and/or skill, as the group progressed, and instances of excusing, justifying, and minimizing abuse and violence had been well confronted, we gradually explored the quality of attachments in the members' relationships, and how those attachments might contribute to feelings of intense vulnerability. It is essential that in this exploration, there is a balance of empathic understanding for their vulnerability, combined with an understanding of how these feelings are often mitigated through the use of power and abuse as the men abdicate responsibility for their feelings, and externalize blame onto their partners. While empathetically holding them in their vulnerable feelings, we also help them to appreciate that they are solely responsible for managing their feelings and subsequent coping behaviors, and that to externalize blame is to head down the slippery slope of using abuse and violence to control their partners.


1. Identify attachment based dynamics in described interactions with spouse: Many of the men in these groups clearly exemplify one of three forms of insecure attachment: avoidant, ambivalent, or disorganized (Ainsworth et al., 1978). Typically, when listening carefully to the men describe relationship conflicts, the predominant attachment style comes to light. Men who are angry and abusive often react to attachment disruptions when abandonment or separation is threatened or occurs (Dutton, 1995; Holmes, 2001). The response is often an angry one, and an attempt is made to control the other who is seen as a threat to attachment. The avoidant attachment style is often displayed by men who deny vulnerability and present their grievances in a matter of fact manner. They are detached from their feelings, and justified their abuse and control. In the group these men display an air of independence while belying an intense need to make or restore some semblance of attachment.

Men exhibiting an ambivalent style often present in a confused, uncertain manner. At times their stories are presented without focus or clarity, and there is a quality of self-absorption that makes others in the group seem irrelevant. They attenuate their feelings through long-winded story telling, which keeps them detached

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from the underlying vulnerability. For these men there is both a desire and fear of establishing intimacy, which can make them unpredictable in their relationships. They vacillate between intense need and intense anger when affect is stimulated, and can also fall into passivity as an attempt to regulate affect.

Men with a disorganized attachment style are overwhelmed by affect. They experience moments of intense rage, or disorganized emotional collapse. They are prone to dissociation, and are often remarkably forgetful of some of their most explosive episodes of violence. They regularly project their intense internal strife onto others, making others seem intensely threatening. Violence is often the result of dehumanizing the other, resulting in an empathic rupture that has a disinhibiting effect on their behavior. In the group, the therapist and other group members are often intensely affected by these individuals who portray an image of barely holding on.

At this stage of the intervention, we are assessing the men's attachment styles through their descriptions of their relationships. In the next stage, we actively explore their early experiences with their parents, and the determinants of their current attachment style. Keep in mind that with this intervention, we are scratching the surface of understanding. We are planting the seeds of early understanding, which can be deepened and explored throughout the group, but also in subsequent therapy for those men who continue treatment after the group.

2. Exploring early attachment failures: In this stage, men explore the antecedents to their attachment style. Many with the avoidant style describe parents who put little time into parenting their children. These parents were more consistently rejecting and unavailable, forcing the development of a pseudo independence in their children that continues into adult life. The men come across as not needing others, which is a way of avoiding the rejection that they expect. They will reject rather than be rejected, and in therapy often display a "help-rejecting stance," which is illuminated in the group process. We explore how their perception of their partners being unavailable or uninterested in attachment often triggers anger and abuse as a way of regulating closeness.

Men with ambivalent attachment styles describe more inconsistent early parental interactions. While parents could be intensely rejecting and harsh at times, these experiences were mixed with nurturing. As a result, these men tolerate some rejection in order to receive the nurturing. How these experiences led to ambivalently held attachments in their adult relationships are explored and illuminated. Their pattern of relating to others through a vacillation of submitting to the demands of others, while simultaneously resenting the shame this submission brings (Holmes, 2001), is actively explored, especially as their shame and resentment can result in unleashed fiiry when shame reaches intolerable levels.

Men with the disorganized attachment style depict highly traumatic early experiences with parents who seemingly lacked their own internal resources for coping with the demands of interpersonal relationships, and in particular parenting. As a result, these men vacillate between desperately seeking emotional proximity to a primary object, and distancing, the former occurring when they perceive the other to be mis-attuned or distancing, and the latter when the experience of the other is highly aversive (Wallin, 2007). For these men, the therapeutic emphasis is on how they use anger and abuse as a means for controlling their partners who are felt to be the stimulus for their emotional deregulation.

These early attachment experiences are explored both in terms of their adaptive nature given their early environment, and of what they miss in present relationships as a result. How their attachment style affects their current relationship, and in particular how it provides a context for angry and abusive responses to their partner's perceived failures is also illuminated. We consistently empathize with the emotional challenges their experiences stimulate, but also confront how their perceptions can trigger a violent reaction, and how awareness of these triggers can provide choice points for non-abusive responding. Throughout the exploration, men are confronted if they use this understanding to externalize blame for their behavioral choices.

3. Managing the countertransference: Because of the intense affects that can be invoked in us as therapists with this population, a co-therapy team is extremely helpful in managing the inevitable countertransference feelings. Typical but not exhaustive of working with each attachment style, the avoidant group member can elicit resignation in the therapist as (s)he relentlessly attempts to break through the rationalizations and justifications; the ambivalent member can elicit boredom and fatigue as he anesthetizes the therapist and group from their feelings as he does from his own through monotonous story telling; and the

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disorganized member can elicit intensely disorganizing experiences in the therapist and other group members through powerful projective processes. Group leaders must rely on each other to manage these countertransference feelings, often by bridging to other group members about what they think the member in question might be thinking or feeling. In many cases, we use the bridging technique to have other members make sense of what is going on in the interactions between particular group members and the leader (Ormont, 1990; 1991, 2001). For example, if one leader is caught in an enactment with an avoidant member in the group, relentlessly trying to break through rationalizations, the other leader can turn to another member and ask "Why do you think that Dr. Van Wagoner won't let this drop with Carl." This can lead to further exploration of the interaction, the underlying attachment difficulties fueling the conflict, and how this person impacts others. Soliciting the feedback of others also helps break the impasse between therapist and member, which at times can replicate what happens between the member and his partner when he feels attachment threatened.


In my experience, this exercise is often very powerful for the men in the group. They connect more intimately around shared early experiences, and some are able to normalize their seemingly adaptable responses to impossible, early interactions with parents. In addition, many group members find this context-building exercise a relief, not in the sense that it provides excuses for their abusive responses, but rather a framework for understanding the intolerable feelings that emerge when attachment is threatened in their intimate relationships, real or imagined.


Exploring attachment style in men who batter can be a powerful and emotionally provocative technique designed to help men understand triggers from and to the intolerable affects that in the past have led to abuse and other forms of control over their partners. This exploration, while not designed to resolve early traumas in the context of short-term groups, can plant the seeds of understanding for further therapeutic work. More immediately this exploration can provide a framework for understanding how attachment styles affect relating and attempts to regulate emotions and emotional proximity to significant others. One contraindication of this technique is that with this population, great care needs to be taken not to provide the men with another way of excusing their behavior (i.e. "See, it was my past that makes me abusive!"), and so group leaders need to be ready to confront such attempts to externalize responsibility for their abusive behavior. This exercise should only be employed once denial, justification, and minimization have been thoroughly confronted in the group, and the men, not just the therapist, take responsibility for confronting one another.

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