So here we are. Halfway through the book, A Secure Base. And this chapter is promising to be pretty fascinating. Last week we read about how family violence was not considered to be a major factor in adults’ psychological disturbances in the scientific world, until fairly recently. This is a part of my ongoing series on the book written by John Bowlby, a researcher on attachment theory, the base for attachment parenting.If you are new and want to catch up, click here.
This next part of the chapter promises to be pretty interesting, as it covers maternal violence. Here we go.
Chapter five: Violence in the family.
In more recent years there is a lot of literature on attachment. The basic idea behind attachment is that a child seeks proximity toward one person who is seen as better able to cope. The attachment behavior, also known as dependency, is elicited by pain, fatigue, fear, or an inaccessible primary caregiver. Although attachment behavior is partially pre-programmed, research has also found that the behavior is also influenced by the type of response given by the attachment figures, generally, mother and father. It seems apparent, based on research, that sensitive and loving care results in a confident, self-reliant, and a cooperative child/adult. Additionally, and importantly, secure attachment also results in a sympathetic person, who is helpful to persons in distress.
Conversely, when a child is responded to slowly, unwillingly, and regarded as a nuisance, this results in an anxious attachment, apprehensive to leave a caregiver, anxiously obedient, and unsympathetic toward others.
When caregivers actively reject a child, the child is likely to become extremely angry and develops a pattern of avoidance, which competes with desire for proximity to the caregiver. (There will be more on anger later in the book.)
Attachment behavior is consistent throughout life, although, less active in adolescents and adults, the desire to be loved and cared for by your attachment figures remains with you throughout your entire life.
Bowlby chooses to start discussing familial violence by taking a look at women who physically assault their children. From there, more conclusions can be drawn about men who hit their wives and/or children.
The findings about maternal batterers show much agreement that battering tends to happen more in lower socio-economic homes, but it also happens in middle class homes where it is hidden behind a facade of respectability.
Abusing individuals tend to be cold, rigid, obsessional, and severely critical. They are also found to be passive, unhappy, and disorganized. Emotionally, these types have much in common. Featured behaviors of abusive mothers are prone to periods of intense anxiety punctuated by outbursts of violent anger. They are impulsive and immature. Their own dependency needs are very strong, but ironically, they are distrustful, consequently leaving them to be unable to form close relationships. They are typically isolated socially. Because of these two things, they turn to their children for care and comfort, usually treating them as if they were much older than they actually are.
Most of these women had a “miserable childhood” and were “deprived of basic mothering.” Interestingly, a considerable minority were themselves battered. A 1977 study found that of 38 children who had been physically abused, two-fifths of the parents had suffered physical abuse “of severely exceptional degree” and more than half had suffered “severe or prolonged mental abuse.” Many of the parents had a tendency to make broad generalizations about their children, in which the children were idealized. This was a stark contrast to the dark episodes described when detailed questions were asked.
In terms of attachment theory, this suggests that these women were suffering from extreme degrees of anxious attachment. This shows a connection to childhood abandonment of either long periods, repeated periods, or continuous threats of abandonment.
A small study in 1982 by Pauline DeLozier looked at this hypothesis by studying two sets of 18 working class women. One set had physically assaulted their children. They were all matched in age and number of children.
The two sets of women were tested using Hansburg Separation Anxiety Test. The test is a series of pictures showing the child leaving the parents and the parents leaving the child. The person is then asked to describe the feelings resulting from the pictures.
The study showed that the abusive mothers were highly sensitive to any separation, even the commonplace. Their responses showed high levels of anxiety and anger. Their responses also showed that while they yearned for care, all they really expected was rejection. They also showed much higher concern for the welfare of the parents. Of the abusing mothers, 12 out of 18 rated the highest degree of anxious attachment. Only two women in the control group rated as such.
The childhood experiences, on the other hand, did not support some of the initial hypotheses. DeLozier had expected to find significantly higher rates of actual abandonment in the abusive group. This was not the case. She also found threats of abandonment, whether fulfilled or not, were just as harmful, probably more so, as actual abandonment, a theory already in place at the time. Similarly, many of the women, who had not actually been abused, had been repeatedly threatened with being beaten, maimed, or killed.
Another striking and expected feature of this results of this study was that a minority of the women (only seven) felt that they could turn to their mothers for support during distress. Four of the women described having no one, not even a friend or neighbor. In the control group, all but three women felt they could turn to their mothers for help. And the three who could not, had an alternative.
In fact, most of the women felt they had to be the one to care for their mothers.
Instead of judging these abusive women, Bowlby says it is small wonder they turn on their children angrily. They grew up in homes where they were repeatedly threatened with abandonment, rejection, impatience and anger, leading her to be suspicious of everyone around her, leaving her unable to form close relationships, all the while, yearning to be cared for and loved. He says it is a small wonder that these women turn the tables on their children, looking for care and attention, and then, when the child becomes demanding, they switch on the anger.
Phew! I’m going to stop here, even though there are several more pages in this chapter. It will probably take two more posts. I feel a little ill from all of this. Thinking of the perpetual cycle of violence and all of the submerged complexities behind it, seems almost impossible to stop it, or even make people aware of the truly deep rooted consequences.
The next part of the chapter is an even more intimate look at maternal violence. Bowlby tells the story of one of his patients. A woman who suffered from heavy anxiety and came very close to becoming an abuser.