Covid-19 Lockdown and the Increase in Domestic Violence.

Glyn Hudson-Allez

The United Nations described domestic violence against women and girls as a shadow pandemic, as some countries are reporting increases of up to 33% of domestic violence during the lockdown. Aware of this issue, the UK Government released extra funding and support as well as guidelines for recognising the signs of abuse in a relationship. They highlight not only physical violence, but also emotional abuse including gaslighting (Dorpat, 1996; Korobov 2020), threats and intimidation, and sexual exploitation and violence. Of course, domestic violence is not only perpetrated by men against women. Nicola Graham-Kevan emphasised that although the incidence of men being victimised in intimate relationships may be less, they can still be the victims of a battering partner in the same way as women (Graham-Kevan, 2007), and she argued that they are not best served by only taking a feminist perspective of domestic violence. However, male partners consistently under-report violent attacks by women and are less likely to consider it a crime. Indeed, it may be that women may not engage in as many overtly violent attacks as men to both male and female partners, but they are capable of manipulative, controlling and emotionally abusive behaviours as well as physical assaults (Dutton & Nicholls, 2005). In addition, a woman’s potential for violence would be increased if she had a narcissistic style or borderline personality disorder. It has also been shown that women who hit their partners are more likely to hit their children (Margolin & Gordis, 2003).

This increase of violence in the home raises difficulties for the therapist when conducting their assessments remotely online when considering risk within the family for the victims and the children in abusive households. This assessment could be enhanced by taking an attachment perspective. John Bowlby said that those with insecure attachments either shrink from the world or do battle with it (Bowlby, 1984), and people with an attacking or aggressive style may be using the maladaptive strategy of attack being the best form of defence. Pamela Alexander highlights that a disorganised and unresolved attachment style are intricately linked with subsequent vulnerability to violence (Alexander, 2003), and disorganised styles are synonymous for people who have experienced abuse or trauma in their childhoods. One in three women and one in ten men have experienced some form of sexual contact in their childhood (Loeb, Williams, et al., 2002). Such individuals who were abused as children are more likely to enter relationships where they become victimised, as this fulfils their expectancies and perceptions of themselves (Carmen, Reiker & Mills, 1984). Revictimisation is a consistent finding. Girls who were sexually abused as children are more likely to be raped as adults, more likely to become prostitutes, more likely to pose for pornography, and are twice as likely as other women to report violence in their relationships  (van der Kolk, 1989).

People with a preoccupied style repeatedly show a tendency to aggressiveness towards others (Moretti & Holland, 2003) and this can be found in both heterosexual and homosexual couples (Landolt & Dutton, 1998). This is especially the case if both partners of the couple have an insecure attachment. However, the dynamic that demonstrates the greatest negativity toward each other is where one of the couple is an insecure male with a partner (whether female or male) who has a secure style. This represents the most negative and volatile combination, as these insecure men express more anger toward their partner than any other men, and therefore this dynamic poses the greatest risk of serious injury or death as a result of violence in the home. The secure partner may have chosen the other whom they perceive as vulnerable and insecure to make the person feel more loved and secure. But in their attempt at rescue, they invoke the Karpman drama triangle and become persecuted as a result of trying to rescue the victim (Karpman, 1968).

The trigger for the abuse is the neurological FEAR circuit of the brain (Panskepp, 1998), where jealousy triggers the LOSS, FEAR and RAGE circuits from the threat of rejection or abandonment (Dutton, 1995). Thus, the aggressor becomes overly dependent on his partner and takes ownership of her: ‘you are mine’; ‘you belong to me’. His FEAR of LOSS makes him very controlling within the relationship, gaslighting in arguments, and laying down rules about who she can speak to, who is looking at her, where she can go, what she is allowed to wear. This sense of control is related to a sense of entitlement particularly from narcissistic expectations and is evidence of coercive, aggressive and disordered personality traits (Graham-Kevan, 2007). He argues that this is evidence as to how much he loves her, blames her for not realising it, and thus she fails to object or assert herself at the early manipulative attempts. She may even feel that his violence is justifiable, agree with him that it is all her fault, and may respond positively to expressions of remorse following the abuse (Walker, 1979). It has been shown that such aggression in relationships serve to strengthen the attachment bond rather than weaken it, albeit at the expense of the victim’s psychological and physical wellbeing (Dutton, 1999).

As a couple, they will fall into a pattern of his dominance and her subservience. Any attempt at her autonomy will elicit sudden and often disproportionate rage to the perceived offence, and he therefore uses violence to maintain the status quo. The intensity and adrenaline surges that such outbursts produce has an addictive quality per se, for both of them. The intensity of fights replaces over time the intensity of what was often initially a very passionate and sexual relationship in the early stages. The abused partner may refer back to that early time as justification for staying in the relationship, in the hope that things will go back to where they were. But like other addictions, tolerance develops toward the violent behaviour and the strength of the violence subsequently escalates. In therapy, if this violence is discussed openly, both partners will minimise its intensity, and both will suggest that it will not happen again. But it will. And it will escalate in intensity.

It can be seen, then, that using an attachment perspective in assessment, and identifying a relationship dynamic of a preoccupied man and a secure or disorganised woman, should flag up risk of domestic abuse for the assessing therapist. Of course, when the client is part of the LGBTQ community, this dynamic is not so apparent, but the attachment dynamic persists. The only difference in the sexuality of the couple seems to be that a fearful (preoccupied) man is more likely to be violent than a fearful woman. A fearful man is more likely to attack externally, whereas a fearful woman is more likely to attack herself internally. Being able to identify this dynamic early is vital for therapists in helping couples, who have been locked together for months with no place for the victim to escape, in conducting their risk assessment, and also considering any children who may be living in the household, whom, despite what the couple might tell you, will always know instinctively what is going on and be damaged by it.

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