Conflict in relationships attachment theory

IntroductionThe purpose of this study is to provide a more accurate understanding of the influences on communicative behaviours of people who use violence in close personal relationships. Couple violence is increasingly of great concern within American society, with predictions of at least 50% (Olson, 2002) of American couples experiencing violence to some degree within the context of their relationships.

The present study aims to expand on the influential research undertaken by Loreen Olson (2002) who has been successful in steering previous lines of enquiry into couple violence towards a more fruitful endeavour, by highlighting the impact that communicative behaviours have in couple violence.  This study will use Olson’s (2002) findings to advance knowledge further by proposing that the theory of attachment can be utilised to interpret her findings in a meaningful and knowledgeable way.  It is proposed that the communication behaviours that Olson (2002) identified as intrinsically adopted during the process of couple violence, may be predicted or mediated by individual differences in attachment representations.

 In order to incorporate the influence of attachment on the communicative behaviors of violent couples identified by Olson, the present study will attempt to replicate Olson’s (2002) findings.   Mayseless’s (1991) offered insight into the communicative behaviours adopted within couple violence by proposing that attachment style may mediate the relationship between the means people use to communicate their emotions and the meanings they attribute to both their own and their partners’ emotions.

Therefore, the present study will use a measure of attachment to identify why people adopt communicative behaviours that could potentially lead them to use violence against their partners.  To summarize, the present study will examine the communicative behaviours identified by Olson (2002) and measure the differences between these behaviours as a function of the attachment representations of individuals in violent relationships.Couple violence

Couple violence is a phenomenon in American society, and indeed worldwide, that is not yet fully understood.  It is intuitively appealing to acknowledge the interpersonal relationship between romantic couples as being the primary source of support and positive affect for both individuals involved.  However, findings reported by Olsen (2002) suggest that as much as half of American couples experience highly conflictual, aggressive and violent relationships. These relationships are commonly defined as couple violence, often understood generally as an inability to resolve conflict constructively (Yoshimura, 2004; Bippus & Rollin, 2003; Kunkel et al., 2003).

Olsen (2002) highlighted the distinction between two types of couple violence. Common couple violence can be defined as occasional one-off encounters that do not permeate to other areas within the relationship and only rarely involve the type of violence associated with assault and battery.  In contrast, the second type of couple violence, labelled as patriarchal terrorism, can be life threatening, involving often extensive assault, continual emotional and physical violence and is generally thought to be perpetrated by the male partner as a means of dominating and controlling their respective partner.

However, Olson (2002) argued for greater recognition of the diversity within the interpersonal relationships of violent couples and called for less focus on typologies and more focus on the dysfunctional communicative patterns within these relationships.  Presupposing that communication is crucial to the resolution of conflict within relationships, Olson (2002) examined dysfunctional communicative behaviour, and identified two significant communicative behavioural patterns, domineering-submissive (one partner controls with no reciprocation) and demand-withdrawal (one partner exerting power, the other avoiding the issue).

Olson was able to tease out the qualitative associations between couple violence, distinguishing between aggressive, violent and abusive interactions and detailing the dysfunctional way in which individuals express their emotions in the context of these types of relationships.

In support of Olson’s (2002) work, a growing body of literature reveals that these types of communication behaviours involve primary patterns of interaction regarding negative affect and ineffective problem solving (Story et al., 2004; Burleson, 2002; Macggeorge et al, 2002).  These behaviours combine to result in dysfunctional patterns of conflict resolution and the potential for aggression and violence.  However, much of this research, and indeed the work of Olson (2002), failed to provide an explanation of why couples adopt such dysfunctional communicative patterns.

The usefulness of Olson’s work is undoubtedly that it shows that the dysfunctional patterns under examination resemble those associated with the regulation of and response to emotional affect.  In other words, the intrinsic way in which couples ‘elicit and extinguish specific kinds of emotions as well as the sequence of emotions commonly experienced in response to certain relational events’ (Simpson, Collins, Tran & Haydon, 2007).

Adult attachment theory has demonstrated that attachment representations determine how individuals express their emotions and their acceptable level of intimacy within their romantic relationships (Simpson et al., 2007; Bartz & Lydon, 2006; Birnbaum et al., 2006).  Attachment theory research has also provided clear evidence of the reciprocal associations between adult attachment patterns, dysfunctional communication behaviours and couple violence (Simpson, 2007; Yoshimura, 2004; Mayseless, 1991).

For example, Mayseless’s (1991) use of attachment theory offered insight into the communicative behaviours adopted within couple violence by proposing that attachment style may mediate the relationship between the means people use to communicate their emotions, and the meanings they attribute to both their own and their partners’ emotions during interpersonal conflict.

Attachment theory

Attachment theory demonstrates how the experience of ‘receiving care and support from attachment figures across the life span shapes the goals, working models, and coping strategies that one uses when emotion-eliciting stimuli or events occur in relationship contexts’ (Simpson et al., 2007).  Specifically, attachment representations develop in childhood through the responsiveness of the individual’s primary caretaker to their physical and emotional safety and well being.  Once attachment representations have developed, they represent the means by which the individual gauges the emotional responses of subsequent partners in close relationships.  Thus, the means by which individuals manage emotions in relationships depends upon the nature of attachment representations formed in response to their specific attachment experiences (Simpson et al., 2007).

The significance of adult attachment theory in understanding the association between dysfunctional communication behaviours and why people may use violence in their relationship is dependent upon the distinction between secure and insecure attachment representations.  For example, primary caretaker’s that are emotionally responsive to the child’s needs will illicit secure attachment representations compared to neglectful, abusive or inconsistent response behaviours that are likely to cause the child to form insecure attachment representations (Simpson et al., 2007).

Attachment theory, dysfunctional communication and couple violence

According to Levy & Davis (1988), insecurely attached individuals are less likely to use effective and integrative communication approaches, such as compromising tools, self-disclosure, negotiation, active listening or problem solving, than individuals who are more securely attached.  This suggests that insecure attachment is related to a lack of communication skills during relationship conflict.  Hence, it is possible that insecure attachment and corresponding associated dysfunctional communicative patterns may predict or interact with couple violence.

Significantly, the common division of insecure attachment into avoidant and anxiety attachment behaviours (Simpson, 2007) may form the basis for the association between attachment and couple violence.  In romantic relationships, avoidant attachment involves the degree to which individuals are uncomfortable with closeness, and anxious attachment involves the extent to which individuals fear abandonment (Bartholomew & Horowitz, 1991; Feeny 1994).  Cohn, Silver, Cowan, Cowan, & Pearson, (1992) suggested that, in relationships where both partners are insecure, couple violence may occur as a result of conflicting needs between avoiding closeness on the one hand and fearing abandonment on the other.

It is clear from the research presented above that both these attachment representations have important implications for the ways in which individuals interact within the context of couple violence.  Returning to Olson’s (2002) work on dysfunctional communicative patterns, it is possible to interpret these patterns in such terms that, for example, insecure attachment representations of fear of abandonment may predict or interact within domineering-submissive communication patterns Alternatively, avoidant attachment representations may, similarly, predict or interact in demand-withdraw communication patterns.

The current study

The current study will attempt to replicate the qualitative work of Olson (2002) aiming to identify the same dysfunctional communicative patterns, and then expand this work by incorporating an attachment methodological framework.  The aim will be to determine the relationships between attachment and dysfunctional communication patterns within the context of couple violence.  Hence, it is hypothesised that there will be a difference between patterns of dysfunctional communication, as identified by Olson (2002).

The addition of the attachment methodological framework remains, as yet, theoretical and untested within the context of Olson’s (2002) findings and thereby warrants direct investigation to increase current knowledge of the individual attachment differences in dysfunctional communicative patterns (domineering-submissive, demand-withdraw) that could potentially lead people to use violence against their partners.

Therefore, the following research questions are proposed,

RQ1:  Do the dysfunctional communicative patterns identified by Olson (2002) differ as a function of insecure attachment representations?

RQ2:  Is there a relationship between individual differences in attachment and couple violence?  And if so, can couple violence be predicted by these individual differences?

RQ3:  Is there a significant relationship between individual differences in attachment and communicative patterns of couples within violent relationships?

RQ4:  Do violent couples differ as a function of individual differences in both attachment and dysfunctional communication?

Proposed methodology


In order to accurately replicate the findings of Olson (2002), participants will be recruited from the general population and invited to take part in this study.  Replicating Olson (2002), participants will be required to be at least 19 years of age or older, and currently be, or have recently been, involved in a romantic, heterosexual relationship that had lasted at leas six months.  If the relationship no longer existed, it must not have ended more than 12 months prior to the initial contact.

Participants will be made aware that their involvement in the study will contribute to a greater understanding of the way in which couples interact during instances of relationship conflict in order to contribute to current knowledge of why people use different communication behaviours to regulate emotional relational events.

Qualitative analysis

Dysfunctional communication

The emphasis on qualitative analysis adopted by Olson (2002) will be continued in the current research by which participants will be required to take part in individual semi-structured interviews that will aim to identify themes relating to the categories of dysfunctional communication as described in detail by Olson (2002).  In keeping with Olson’s methodology, questions pertaining to gender, frequency, extent, reciprocation and power and control will be included in the qualitative methodology utilised within this study.  Additional questions will include reference to perceptions of partner’s ability to resolve or reciprocate conflict within relationships will be examined alongside perceptions of violence, aggression and conflict per se.


Participants will also be required to complete a quantitative questionnaire that will record demographics, length of relationship, previous and current relationship behaviours and attachment representations.

Quantitative analysis

Conflict Tactics Scale: (refer to Olson (2002)). This measure taps experiences of conflict.  Three conflict scenarios involving various levels of verbal and physical aggression are included.  Additionally a fourth option is provided to allow participants to record their own experiences.

The RQ (Bartholomew & Horowitz, 1991) is made up of 4 breif paragraphs aimed at tapping individual differences in attachment representations.  Participants are required to rate the extent to which each paragraph resembles their ability to manage their emotional behaviours in close relationships.  Ratings are based on a 5-point scale ranging from 0 (not at all) to 4 completely.  Participants also selected the attachment style that best represented how they responded to their close relationships.


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