Counteracting the impact of domestic violence on future relationships: an autobiographical case study

Building on autobiographical, as well as academic research, this paper aims to explore how disturbances in the relational development of children who have witnessed or experienced domestic violence can be neutralized. The author suggests that access to positive relationship models can support the development of secure attachment style and therefore counteract impaired relational development as a result of exposure to domestic violence in childhood. The research paper identifies some gaps in existing research, and outlines potential applications for advocacy, social work and health promotion.

This paper was written for Prof. Roberto De Vogli’s class in Psychology of Mental Health at University of Padua. If you’d like to read this paper with all the footnotes it’s accompanied by, you can access it here.

  1. Introduction and research question 

Scientific research is founded on the belief that for research to generate useful knowledge, objectivity must be present. However, scholars from a multitude of academic disciplines have challenged “the unquestioning pursuit of the appearance of objectivity”. Autobiographical research methods, including personal narrative and auto-ethnographic research, investigate a researcher’s personal life history to draw unique insights which may reveal valuable perspectives and fuel new conceptualizations for further research. Whereas autobiographical research methods are relatively new to psychology, sociologists and anthropologists have used them for many years. Heuristic inquiry, another method of autobiographical research, focuses on the lived experience of the researcher, and utilizes it as an instrument in the process of understanding a given phenomenon. Heuristic inquiry is considered one of the pioneer methodologies which challenge “the hegemony of the natural science approach in psychology” as it puts the researcher’s experience and process of transformation in the center of the investigative process.

Due to my complex positionality as a young scholar, a survivor of domestic violence, and an advocate for domestic and intimate partner violence prevention and rehabilitation, my interest in developing a model to counteract the impact of DV on the relational development of survivors of DV in childhood is fueled not only by a desire to minimize the negative effects of DV on its victims, to develop effective and practical approaches for survivor support, but also to live a better and more fulfilling life myself. Within this research paper I aim to investigate the existing academic literature, as well as to present my own life history as a domestic violence survivor as a case study, in order to investigate the following questions: 

1) How can disturbances in the relational development of children who have witnessed/experienced DV be counteracted/neutralized? 

2) Does having positive relationship models help overcome negative attachment styles?

I define a case study as “multifaceted investigation, using qualitative research methods, of a single phenomenon” (Feagin, 1991).

  1. Health determinant and target group

Domestic violence entered my life as a lived experience at a very young age, before I knew there was a term to name the experience inflicted on my mother, brother and me by my own father, a Palestinian immigrant in Bulgaria. It was years later, in 2013, that I started to understand how our family, albeit located in a relatively peaceful corner of the world, was impacted by world politics, by the trauma of war and the self-perpetuating cycle of violence. After spending a summer volunteering on the West Bank and seeing the omnipresent manifestations of Occupation, systemic and everyday violence, I was able to gain some understanding of the lasting suffering my father had had to endure since a child and well into his adulthood, unhealed suffering which found its display in his inability to control his anger, to feed or teach my sibling and me patiently, to stay near us and be with us without causing us terror.

A lot of my earliest memories are colored painful. My father often left for Jordan, threatening us we would never see him again. At three, I had no idea what love was. I hardly knew it existed. But whenever the Disney Alladin series began on TV, my cheeks soaked in tears. He never called. We never knew when to expect him. My mom’s hands hurt as they held me. We often stood together at the balcony of our 1-room apartment in Sofia, looking over the horizon where my mom said my father was, both lost into our own thoughts, silent. He came back when we least expected him. And I jumped out of bed into his arms.

Yet it wasn’t better when he stayed home longer. My parents fought frequently. There were shattered glass, screams, slaps and kicks. Fights could start in a second, and last with days. And it wasn’t just between them, although that was horrible enough. Once my mom was at work, my three-year old brother had gotten sick and didn’t want to eat his meal, and my father started to force feed and hit him without mercy. I was seven or eight, but I knew I had to act. I opened the apartment’s door and rang on the neighbors’ bell for help. Scared of my father’s reaction, I closed the door before someone came out. I hoped that somebody would come for help, but no one did. The powerlessness I felt this day haunted me for many years, but has also inspired me to reflect and speak about these experiences as a way to break the silence, raise awareness and work with others to explore ways to heal trauma and eliminate violence. 

I’ve known poverty. I’ve known humiliation. I’ve known fear. I’ve known the prayer for salvation which doesn’t come for years. I know trauma and its ghosts. I know the need to get out of where you are. And the necessity to stay. It’s not forgettable. I’ve had to go back and relive these memories hundreds of times as a way to reflect on my experiences in a quest to turn trauma into self-understanding with the hope to escape the cycle of violence, and be able to find or create the kind of healthy, nurturing love I didn’t observe in my environment.  

Historically domestic violence (from here on “DV”) was viewed as a private matter, whereas nowadays it is considered more of an inter/national policy concern. The social and legal definitions of domestic violence have changed dramatically since the 1960s: moving from a family perspective which portrayed domestic violence as “normal stress and interpersonal conflict” within families to a perception of DV as a function of traditional family structure and gender roles which should be subject to criminal liability (1980s). 

Domestic violence poses many challenges for research due to its changing definitions and conceptualizations, the multitude of terms through which it is referred to (“battering”, “intimate partner violence”, etc.), and the difficulty to define measurement criteria and to compare study results. As a broader term “domestic violence” is often used to refer to violence among intimate partners as well as child abuse and elder abuse within the family. DV can include physical, sexual, psychological, and verbal behaviors, economic abuse, isolation and others. Due to the variety and complexity of phenomena surrounding experiences of domestic violence, many basic and applied research issues remain unaddressed by existing studies, and statistics about the prevalence of domestic violence should be interpreted with caution. 

Effective intervention is crucial because revictimization is a frequent occurrence among victims of domestic violence resulting in injury, long-lasting trauma, disrupted friendships and family relationships, and, in some instances, death. While practitioners and policymakers increasingly gain wider access to promising interventions from which to select, DV scholars urge for the need of better data to understand and assess efforts to reduce domestic violence revictimization as there is still only a very limited systematic basis for stating “what works”.

Whereas domestic violence impacts a wide range of stakeholders, including victims, perpetrator(s), other family members and the community as a whole, the focus of this research paper is on the effects of domestic violence on the relational development of individuals who have witnessed and/or experienced DV in childhood. Research has uncovered an association between exposure to physical abuse in childhood and an increased risk of revictimization in adulthood or perpetration of intimate partner violence among samples of both men and women. 

There is growing evidence that individuals who have experienced DV as children may be at increased likelihood of experiencing impaired relational development compared to their peers who have not been affected by DV. A group of 1,196 young adults comprising of both men and women with official records of child maltreatment (physical and sexual abuse and/or neglect) reported greater difficulties in establishing and maintaining intimate relationships (e.g., walking out and divorce) compared with their matched controls.  In 1983 a Canadian longitudinal study examining the association between childhood abuse, intimate relationship quality and attachment security in young adults utilized the “Childhood Experiences of Violence Questionnaire” as a way to gather data about childhood experiences of physical and sexual abuse. The researcher team collected follow up data about respondents’ current relationship status in 2000/2001. The study findings were consistent with the researchers’ hypothesis that the effects of early abuse exposure on interpersonal relationship functioning difficulties persist beyond childhood into early adulthood. The study results were consistent with theoretical explanations suggesting that children exposed to physical and sexual abuse are likely to develop models of the self and others that are detrimental to the formation and maintenance of positive interpersonal relationships, supported and extended earlier findings about the effects of child maltreatment on the quality of relationships in adulthood.  Additionally, the study findings confirmed the negative impact of early abuse exposure on adult mental health. 

  1. Health outcome (Relational development)

The health outcome this research paper focuses on is the relational development of individuals who have experienced DV as children and the quality of their romantic relationships as adults. The existing academic literature highlights numerous aspects of adult relationships which have been found to be affected by childhood abuse, domestic violence exposure and/or family conflict. There is evidence that children who experience domestic violence early in life may develop negative internal working models of attachment and transfer them to future relationships, therefore expecting abuse in adult relationships and viewing abuse as normative (Cicchetti et al., 1990, feeney, 2008). Data from 961 married couples showed that family of origin climate was positively associated with marital stability directly and indirectly via the effects of relationship self-regulation and marital satisfaction for both men and women.  

While there is abundant evidence that violent childhood experiences impact the relational development of abuse victims, scholars who study child abuse effects on later relationship outcomes warn about the existence of many potential confounders. For instance, factors such as family socioeconomic status, parental mental health and relationship quality are associated with both independent variables (child abuse) and outcomes (adult intimate relationship quality).

Knapp and Vangelisti (2014) have developed a relationship model which features ten stages of interaction that can help us understand how relationships develop and disintegrate. The stages are organized under two main processes: “Coming together” (including the stages of initiating, experimenting, intensifying, integrating and bonding) and “Coming apart” (differentiating, circumscribing, stagnating, avoiding, terminating). This model can provide a useful way of assessing relational development in survivors of domestic violence as it can provide insight into behaviors that interfere with both relationship formation and termination. Importantly, utilizing the before mentioned relationship model can fill the gap in the academic literature which is created by the lack of a clear and comprehensive conceptualization of relational development.   

  1. Conceptual framework

My own experience has been one in which I have struggled tremendously to navigate the trauma of the violence in my childhood and its repercussions. I have always craved to experience caring, trustworthy, gentle love. Love which doesn’t inflict pain, and doesn’t feel like torture. Often I have felt ill-prepared for the challenge of intimate relationships despite my best efforts to deserve and create the conditions for love that does not look alike what I have experienced in the past.  I have tended to put my best self forward, giving myself over to the ideal of love I have created in my mind in vast opposition to what I had seen between my parents and their respective relationships with me, and trying to create a different way of relating with others, built upon mutual care, trust, attention and sensitivity for each other’s needs. Having been called “needy”, “anxious”, and “expecting too much”, I have frequently found myself in doubt whether my dissatisfying relationships are the result of an anxious attachment model, of unrealistic expectations or rather of incompatibility with my partners and inability to choose partners with whom I won’t have to experience the old traumas anew. I have studied attachment theory, spent countless hours in self-reflection. I have gone through some therapy, and I have tried to bring about change by experimenting with new ways of thinking and behavior. My path has not become easier, but I am not planning to give up on my search of healing, self-actualization and healthy, committed and nurturing relationships.   

Attachment styles

An explanation of the process through which exposure to DV in childhood translates into impaired relational development in adulthood could be provided by John Bowlby’s attachment theory. Attachment theory highlights the role children’s early interactions with caregivers play in shaping the cognitive templates of self, others and relationships that subsequently guide adult interpersonal interactions. According to the theory, it is expected that abused children are more likely to develop internal models of self and others which are detrimental to the formation and maintenance of positive interpersonal relationships. To that end, DV has been said to initiate a “developmental cascade in which insecure attachments continue to occur across the lifespan”. Existing research provides evidence for at least the basic assumptions of attachment theory. A study which evaluated 261 marriage relationships demonstrated that family-of-origin problems are associated with poorer positive communication skills with attachment behaviors (including accessibility, responsiveness, and engagement) significantly mediating the relationship.

An important question worth investigation is whether or not attachment styles remain stable across the lifespan. This is a key consideration as it may suggest the need for different approaches in order to counteract or neutralize the impact of exposure to DV on the relational development of abused children. Bowlby’s theory for one proposes that individual differences in attachment are relatively stable and become evermore resistant to change as development progresses.  To that end, his view is similar to the prototype perspective which contends that there is a latent factor (prototype) which is stable over time and continues to influence working models of attachment throughout adulthood. However, the revisionist-contextual perspective proposes that “changes in attachment representations have the potential to dilute or even override early representations”. Therefore, knowledge of an individual’s past would not be enough to predict an individual’s later attachment style. 

Meta Analysis of studies that examine stability of attachment styles from infancy through adolescence and adulthood show mixed results. While there seems to be more evidence in favor of  the prototype perspective, findings that attachment stability is lower in adolescence than in adulthood give rise to speculations that adolescents may be more susceptible to changes in attachment compared to adults who on average have more stable social environments and have had longer to consolidate their internal models. To that end, adolescence might be a fruitful time to apply interventions to support individuals who have experienced domestic violence to develop secure attachments. Importantly, the factors which predict change to security in attachment relationships over time are not clear, although there is evidence that negative life events serve as the strongest predictor in influencing change to insecurity. There is a need to identify specific factors that predict change to security as a way to gain further understanding on the processes involved in this particular shift in the quality of attachment.

A possible moderator?

I have often found myself struggling in intimate relationships because I haven’t known whether to trust my feelings or trust others in challenging interpersonal situations. Had I had positive relationship models, I have thought, it would have been easier to know what is normal and what is not in a relationship. How do adults behave around each other when they are together in a healthy relationship? How much silence is acceptable? How much conflict? When things don’t work, how do we make them better in a sustainable way, without creating unhealthy dependence or losing the connection? How does one accept the existence of other realities without invalidating her commitment to her own experience? If one allows for the possibility that hers is not the only perspective, how can one keep the integrity of having her own judgement and stand firmly behind her own truth?  

As previously discussed, attachment styles have been found to correspond to cognitive models of self and others that either support or undermine positive relational development. Nevertheless, there is some evidence that social-psychological interventions can be used to counteract the effects of insecure and avoidant attachment styles, and to increase relationship satisfaction and security. In this part of my research paper I propose that access to positive relationship models might be a relevant moderator which could minimize the impact of exposure to DV in childhood, and lead to having positive relationships as an adult. Given that I was not able to find any relevant academic research which has utilized positive relationship models (or a variation of the term), I propose several considerations for future research. 

Most broadly we can distinguish between two types of positive relationship models: the first consists of observed relationships, while the second includes relationships one experiences or has experienced. Since in general positive relationship models could be found within the family and outside of it, further research is needed to gauge the extent to which sources matter in providing oneself with relationship models that could overrun or replace previously attained in the family negative ones. 

In order to further elaborate the conceptualization of positive relationship models as a viable moderator of relational development, we also need to find out other important characteristics of the category, including the importance of frequency of contact, proximity and time spent. Is it enough for individuals who have experienced or been exposed to DV in childhood to be made aware that other, better ways of relating between adult romantic partners exist or do they need to observe them over a period of time to be able to incorporate these examples into their internal concepts for relationships? 

  1. Conclusion and implications for health promotion and policy

We need more research to better understand how to treat the impact of DV on children and young people to ensure they have positive role models for romantic and sexual relationships, and enjoy secure attachment styles despite childhood traumatic experiences in the family. Future research should investigate the conceptual framework outlined in this paper, and examine the impact of access to positive relationship models on relational development and relationship satisfaction. If we know that awareness of positive relationship models could support development of secure attachment styles, health policy and advocacy can address the overall unavailability of healthy relationship models through showcasing positive examples of relationships representing diverse individuals and ways of relating. If we know that experiencing subsequent positive relationships can reduce or eliminate the impact of DV, this will likely hold important implications for social work, psychotherapy, even sex work. 


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