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Attachment and Violent Anger – Part 1: How They Are Connected

How are Attachment and Violent Anger Connected?

Understanding the connection between intimacy and anger is important for improving our own relationship, and if you are a therapist like me knowing how to help others. Some couples I work with are so stuck in a cycle of anger that the emotional communication work I normally do in therapy does not seem to work.

I recently came across a paper published in 1994 by Dutton and colleagues that helped me understand why some couples are so entrenched.

They based their study on the attachment theory of John Bowlby. Bowlby suggested that our brains are hard wired from cradle to grave to attach to relationship that we trust for emotional safety and support. He suggested that the confidence in the availability of attachment figures is built from infancy through adolescence. We carry with us the expectations about our most trusted relationship from our early years for the rest of our lives.

Bowlby called these expectations “internal representations” or working models of self and of our intimate relationships. He suggested that people who are confident in the loving care of their attachment relationships will be less prone to fear of rejection or abandonment.

Bowlby believed the primitive anger we see in intimate relationships is a form of protest behavior from being injured or ignored by attachment figures. Infants respond to unmet needs with intense rage. This rage response can become habitual and carried into adulthood.

Dutton and colleagues referred to this type of rage as intimacy-anger. They suggested that this kind of anger is present in adult love relationships. It is triggered when there are any cues of separation or abandonment. Their study speculated that male violent outbursts may be a form of protest behavior triggered by what is perceived as a separation or abandonment by their sexual partner.

They used two dimensions of attachment to study the relationship between attachment insecurity and violent anger in adult love relationships. These dimensions were based on how people have positive or negative views of themselves and of the people they love. The positive view of self has to do with self-esteem. And the negative view of self has to do with excessive anxiety and dependency in relationships.

They defined the other dimension as the extent to which individuals expect significant others to be supportive and trustworthy. It is associated with the tendency to seek out or avoid intimacy in relationships.

From these two dimensions they defined four different categories of relationship security.

  1. The secure attachment category consisted of people who had a positive view of themselves and others.

  1. The dismissing attachment category is defined in terms of a positive view of self and negative view of others. Dismissing individuals maintain a positive self-image by defensively downplaying the importance of attachment needs and maintaining emotional distance in their relationships.

  1. Preoccupied attachment category consists of people who have a negative view of self and a positive view of others. They actively seek to gain their attachment figure’s approval in order to validate their tenuous sense of self-worth.

  1. Individuals in the fearful attachment category have a negative view of self and a negative view of others. They desire social contact and intimacy but have a lot of intimacy distrust and fear of rejection. This group avoids relationships where vulnerability to rejection exists.

The study compared men who were non-violent with men who were violent and what attachment category violence was associated with.

Overall they found that the non-violent men were more securely attached than the men who were violent.

It was the fearfully attached men who were most prone to use emotional and physical abuse. They also used dominance and isolation to protect themselves when they felt threatened.

It makes sense that men who are angry and violent in relationships have a negative view of themselves and of others. It also explains why emotional communication skills alone do little to change the expression of anger and violence in the short run.

In part 2 of this series I will talk about how therapy can help fearful men to change their negative view of themselves and others. In time it can help them become more loving and less angry.


Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and loss: Vol. I. Attachment. New York: Basic Books.
Bowlby, J. (1973). Attachment and loss: Volume II. Separation. New York: Basic Books.
Bowlby, J. (1977). The making and breaking of affectional bonds. British Journal of Psychiatry, 130, 201-210.
Dutton, D.G., Starzomski, A., Saunders, K., & Bartholomew, K. (1994). Intimacy-anger and insecure attachment as precursors of abuse in intimate relationships. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 24(15), 1367-1386.


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