Attachment Theory and Its Role in Abuse

Attachment Theory and Its Role in Abuse

Relationships between abusers and their victims are complex. Attachment and emotional bonding are part of the complicated abuse cycle. But can attachment theory explain why abuse happens and why victims stay? 

What is Attachment Theory?

Simply stated, attachment theory explains the strong emotional bond between two people. In our early years, attachment applies to the relationship between parent and child. As we grow, we form attachments with romantic partners instead.

Psychologist and psychoanalyst John Bowlby first mentioned attachment theory in the 1950s. Since then, many therapists have used attachment theory—healthy and unhealthy attachments—to help abuse victims understand their emotional bonds with their abusers. 

It Starts in Childhood

Our earliest attachments start when we’re born. Infants develop attachments extremely early, typically with a parent or caregiver. Healthy attachment, known as “secure attachment,” means children feel safe and well-cared for. Three other attachment patterns, ambivalent, avoidant, and disorganized, typically cause distress in children.

Children who have absent or abusive caregivers, experience trauma, or have other unhealthy childhood experiences may develop these unhealthy attachment patterns.

Unhealthy patterns of attachment can impact a child as they grow older. Unfortunately, attachment theory also states that those with harmful childhood attachments are at greater risk of abuse in adulthood.

Attachment Theory and Intimate Partner Relationships

Our attachment patterns can impact our adult relationships, too. Through our childhood experiences (usually with our caregivers), we learn:

  • How to communicate
  • When to depend (or not depend) on another person
  • Whether or not to trust someone else
  • Our perceived value and worth
  • How to connect with someone else in a close relationship
  • How to be alone OR fear of isolation and abandonment

Those with healthy attachments during childhood often have high self-esteem and an ability to connect well with others. They are more likely to have healthy dating and romantic relationships and less likely to experience abuse or stay with an abuser.

Those who developed harmful attachment patterns in childhood are likely to carry them into adulthood. Attachment theory often links these patterns to trauma bonding. 

Trauma bonding is an intense emotional and physical connection to an abuser. Many abusive relationships experience an ebb and flow, with periods of relative peace and euphoria followed by a downward spiral of abuse. It’s a roller coaster. For many victims, it’s a roller coaster they can’t stop riding. The attachment to an abuser—trauma bonding—has its roots in childhood attachment.

Those who grew up in dysfunctional homes gravitate towards abusers because it feels familiar. That is, their childhood experiences molded their bonding patterns, making abusive relationships feel “right.”

One study suggests that adults develop “anxious attachment,” where one partner is fearful of the other leaving. The study found that those with anxious attachment are more likely to be victimized by an abuser, and more likely to stay in the relationship. Essentially, the victim is so afraid of abandonment and being alone that she will remain with an abuser, seeing an abusive relationship as preferable to no relationship.

Attachment Theory and Abusers

Unhealthy childhood attachment doesn’t just impact abuse victims. Researchers say abusers often display signs of unhealthy childhood attachment. These attachment patterns often stem from childhood abuse, neglect, or trauma. While this may explain why a perpetrator abuses, it never, ever excuses the abuse. 

Using Attachment Theory for Healing

Attachment theory can help abuse survivors understand what led them to gravitate toward the aggressor and, in some cases, stay in the relationship. But it’s also helpful in therapy, as the survivor heals and learns new behavior patterns.

Therapists, social workers, and others working with abuse survivors can use attachment theory to connect with survivors more successfully. And survivors can use the theory to overcome their hard-wired childhood experiences and choose healthy, safe relationships instead.


If you are in an abusive relationship, please reach out for help. Those in Dane County, WI, can contact our nonprofit partner, Domestic Abuse Intervention Services (DAIS) for assistance. Anyone can contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at thehotline.org.

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