Attachment Style as a Moderator of the Relationship Between Level of Perceived Conflict and Constructive and Psychologically Abusive Behavior in Clinic Couples
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This study examined a potential moderating effect of attachment styles of members of clinical couples on the relationship between their level of perceived conflict and use of forms of psychologically abusive versus constructive conflict management behavior toward each other. Data from one hundred seventy seven couples who had sought therapy at the Family Service Center at the University of Maryland, College Park were used. Each client had completed a set of assessment questionnaires prior to beginning couple therapy at the clinic, and all data previously had been entered into a database. The subset of assessment measures utilized for this study included questionnaires assessing attachment styles, forms of psychological abuse, physical abuse, and relationship adjustment. It was hypothesized that when individuals experience conflict in their intimate relationships and their working models of attachment are activated, they will use degrees of constructive or psychologically abusive conflict management behavior based on the type of attachment style that they exhibit. It was postulated that, in general, if individuals perceive their relationship to be higher in level of conflict, they would use more psychologically abusive conflict resolution behavior than if they perceive their relationship to be lower in conflict. Results supported this hypothesis. It was also proposed that individuals perceiving their relationship to be lower in level of conflict would utilize more constructive conflict resolution behavior than individuals perceiving a higher level of conflict in their intimate relationships. Results did not support this hypothesis. In addition, individuals with secure attachment styles who perceive their relationship to be higher in conflict were expected to use more constructive conflict management skills than insecure individuals, whereas insecure individuals were expected to use more psychologically abusive behavior. The results indicated an interaction between the level of perceived conflict and the level of attachment insecurity for individuals' use of psychologically abusive conflict resolution behaviors, but not for individuals' use of constructive conflict resolution behaviors. Contrary to the hypothesis, it was found that securely attached individuals in higher conflict relationships utilized more psychologically abusive conflict resolution behavior than their insecure counterparts. However, consistent with the prediction, no significant differences were found in secure and insecure individuals' use of psychologically abusive conflict resolution behaviors in lower conflict relationships. Moreover, regarding specific types of insecure attachment, it was expected that if perceived level of conflict between the partners is relatively high: (a) individuals reporting a dismissive-avoidant attachment style would use more of the hostile withdrawal types of psychological abuse as compared with individuals reporting other forms of insecure attachment, (b) individuals with the fearful-avoidant attachment style would use more of the denigration type of psychological abuse as compared to individuals reporting other forms of insecure attachment, and (c) individuals with the preoccupied attachment style would use more of the restrictive engulfment and domination-intimidation types of psychological abuse as compared to individuals with other forms of insecure attachment. The results did not support these hypotheses. As predicted, there were no differences in the use of psychologically abusive or constructive behavior among individuals with secure attachment and the various types of insecure attachment who perceived their relationship to have a lower level of conflict. Furthermore, gender and racial (Caucasians versus African-Americans) differences in the distribution of attachment styles in members of these clinical couples were examined, and no significant results were observed. In addition, gender differences in the relationship between attachment styles and use of constructive and psychologically abusive conflict resolution behaviors in high versus low-conflict relationships were examined in an exploratory fashion. The results indicated no significant gender differences in individuals' use of constructive or psychologically abusive conflict resolution behaviors based on the level of conflict that they perceived in their relationship. Finally, the distribution of couple pairings by partners' attachment styles was explored, and the most common pairings were found to be both partners secure, both partners fearful-avoidant, and a secure male matched with a fearful female. Overall, the findings indicate that attachment styles are a variable that those who study and treat abuse within couple relationships should take into account. Implications of the study's findings for therapeutic interventions with psychologically abusive partners with various attachment patterns and suggestions for future research are discussed.