Adult Attachment and Relationship Satisfaction Among Men Who Experienced Childhood Abuse

Submitted by Patricia

The following dissertation summary was provided by a researcher who approached Pandy’s last spring for permission to gather some of her research here. Many times we request a copy of the summary research data to share with our membership, and this time we are able to share that information with the membership. Admittedly the sample size is small with only 79 respondents in the survey, however there is some more information that does provide data to indicate that CSA among males is more prevalent than society generally believes it to be.

Supportive thoughts to all,


Adult Attachment and Relationship Satisfaction Among Men Who Experienced Childhood Abuse

by Selisha Nelson, PhD

A nonexperimental study was conducted to examine the relationship between adult attachment and relationship satisfaction among men who reported a history of childhood abuse. This study attempted to answer three research questions examining the relationship between the three different attachment styles, relationship satisfaction, and childhood abuse severity. Previous research presented with an absence of information regarding how experiences of childhood abuse affect the manner in which men bond and experience satisfaction in romantic relationships. Results of this study indicated that there was no relationship between childhood abuse severity and insecure attachment, there were no differences between relationship satisfaction based on attachment style, and childhood abuse severity did not moderate the relationship between adult attachment and relationship satisfaction. Although marital status was not used in any of the primary analyses, it was found that relationship satisfaction differed significantly by marital status. Results found that men who were married or in a committed relationship had significantly higher levels of relationship satisfaction than single men, even if they scored in the dissatisfied range.

This study and its fundamental importance were justified by the dearth of empirical data in the literature regarding experiences exclusively of men with a history of abuse and its effects in domains of relationship satisfaction and attachment. Well documented in the literature are behavioral and emotional outcomes of childhood abuse among women in various aspects of relationships, mental health, attachment, and overall wellbeing. Because of the lack of literature among men, this study was conducted to provide awareness to a population that experiences abuse at a potentially similar rate as women (Kraftcheck et al., 2007).

The goal of this study was to clarify findings based on attachment theory (Bowlby, 1973), which purported that relationships during childhood tend to play a major role in how individuals connect and bond with others throughout their lives. Childhood abuse disrupts a child’s ability to develop healthy and positive internal working models of themselves or others, which can also lead to insecure attachments with primary caregivers and others (Bowlby, 1973). Researchers have noted that instances of parental rejection, a lack of parental support, warmth, and harmony, and adverse events during childhood tend to result in an insecurely attached child who may eventually grow up to feel less satisfied with themselves, relationships, and life in general (Hinnen, Sanderman, & Sprangers, 2009).

Individuals with an insecure attachment are likely to report poor childhood conditions and emotional or relational problems during adulthood (Whishman, 2006). This current research confirmed previous literature as it highlighted that over half of the men who participated in this study revealed an insecure attachment and more men reported dissatisfaction in relationships. All the men reported childhood abuse, with more men disclosing experiences of sexual abuse. During childhood, children look to their primary caregivers for security and trust; however, when childhood physical and/or sexual abuse occurs, that sense of trust and safety is betrayed. The outcome tends to be a manifestation of anger and suspiciousness in relationships, which make it more difficult to obtain satisfaction (Whishman, 2006). Childhood abuse and neglect can also contribute to emotional disturbances, shame and guilt, isolation, and difficulty developing close relationships (Riggs et al., 2011). Common among previous research literature and this current research are the challenges faced in close relationships.

To further elaborate on findings of this study and their connection to extant literature, Whishman (2006) found that childhood sexual abuse was associated with increased relationship problems, and individuals who reported a history of physical abuse tended to have low marital satisfaction and harmony. Research also found that childhood traumas of a physical and sexual nature were associated with a greater probability of marital disruption and low marital satisfaction in adulthood (DiLillo, Lewis, & Di Loreto-Colgan, 2007; Whishman, 2006). Sexual abuse by a parent could cause immense confusion in a child along with a sense of betrayal. This type of abuse from such a close caregiver can harm the child’s capacity for trust, intimacy, and self-esteem during adulthood (Easton et al., 2011; O’Leary et al., 2010). A large number of men from this current study disclosed experiences of physical and sexual abuse from their parents and some parents were reportedly involved in child pornography rings and sex cults in which the child was used for sex.

Research has shown that a dismissing and preoccupied attachment style predicted marital dissatisfaction in couples, concluding that attachment style tends to be a significant indicator of the level of satisfaction in relationships (Mondor, McDuff, Lussier, & Wright, 2011). Individuals with a preoccupied attachment tend to perceive themselves as unlovable and worry excessively about being rejected by their partner. Dismissing attachment is characterized by a belief that others will be unavailable during times of need, which leads to avoidance of being too close or dependent in relationships. Interestingly, results of this current study found that more than half of the participants reported a disorganized/fearful attachment style; however, as aligned with previous research, dismissing attachment was the second highest reported style of attachment.

Childhood traumas such as neglect, physical and sexual abuse, and parental psychopathology were found to be related to adult attachment. Parental divorce, absentee parents, and death of a parent were also associated with adult attachment (Hinnen et al., 2009). Many of the men in this study reported such events during their childhood. Many adverse experiences during childhood were related to one’s satisfaction of life during adulthood, which was influenced by one’s attachment style. Individuals with fearful and dismissing attachment styles may have learned to be more independent with a tendency to refrain from seeking support from others because it is likely that their parents were absent or unresponsive (Hinnen et al., 2009); however, individuals with a fearful attachment style typically recreate past traumas, which could contribute to conflicts in relationships and overall dissatisfaction (Buckley, 2013; Wallin, 2007).

Researchers have questioned whether the ability to recall childhood experiences was associated with adult attachment styles (Hinnen et al., 2009). It has been found that individuals with a dismissing attachment style tend to encode less emotional information than those who are not avoidant in their attachment style, and as a result, may have difficulty accessing attachment memories. Those who report a preoccupied attachment may be sensitive to experiences that may be perceived as rejecting and abandoning, which may lead to accessing of more negative memories from childhood. Overall, previous research indicated that individuals who are anxious or avoidant in their attachment style tend to report more childhood adverse experiences; however, recollection of those memories may be skewed based on attachment representations (Hinnen et al., 2009).

The theoretical base for this study supported Bowlby’s (1973) attachment theory, which suggests that individuals are biologically hardwired to develop close bonds and connections with other people. The bond between a child and his or her primary attachment figure is adaptive to survival and reduces the child’s risk of harm or danger, as these attachment figures serve as the child’s source of safety and security (Bowlby, 1982). The manner in which a child bonds and interacts with his or her attachment figure is suggestive of future outcomes later in life. A lack of consistency, affection, and attachment during childhood can lead to dependency, anxiety, aggressiveness, and difficulty in social situations throughout an individual’s life. When security is lost during childhood, one’s sense of safety with others becomes distorted. There is a tendency to find it difficult to trust others, which can lead to problems in close relationships. Individuals with insecure attachment find it challenging to develop and maintain intimate relationships with others. These challenges tend to manifest as a result of developed insecure attachments of a fearful, dismissing, and preoccupied nature (Reyome, 2010).

Bartholomew and Horowitz’s (1991) attachment representations provided some additional structure for this study in regard to defining secure, dismissing, preoccupied, and fearful attachment styles. There have been numerous studies citing research from Bartholomew on the different attachment styles and the role they play in relationships (Buckley, 2013; Holland & Roisman, 2010; Mikulincer & Shaver, 2007; Taussig and Culhane, 2010); Wallin, 2007) and additional research on the effects of childhood abuse and how the different attachment styles manifest in romantic relationships (Buckley, 2013; Muller, 2009; Reyome, 2010; Walker, & Holman, 2011; Zilberstein & Messer, 2010). Individuals with a fearful attachment style tend to have the most impairment in relationships as they recreate trauma experienced during childhood. Relationships are unstable and involve conflicts, testing, avoidance, and emotional instability (Riggs, 2010). Within this study, more than half of the men reported a fearful attachment style. These relationship patterns help emphasize why there is a proclivity toward dissatisfaction in relationships. Individuals with an avoidant attachment style may devalue intimacy and detach from their feelings, need for closeness, and intimacy (Buckley, 2013). This attachment style was the second highest reported in this study.

Much of the existing research on childhood abuse has been solely focused on the female population; however, this study specifically employed the male population because they tend to be under-researched (Kraftcheck et al., 2007). Childhood abuse is a widely studied phenomenon; however, prevention continues to be a necessity. There has been noted research on the effects of childhood abuse and how it manifests in adult relationships regarding attachment; however, research is lacking among men. The problem with this lack of research is fairly complex because of the lack of disclosure from men who can take years to disclose experiences of abuse (O’Leary & Barber, 2008). Stigmas attached to men who do report abuse because of internalized beliefs that they are weak, damaged, and unlovable (Kapeleris & Paivio, 2011; Paivio & Pascual-Leone, 2010; Whishman, 2006) may lessen from participating in research and exploring the outcomes of abuse. These men could be the voice of a silenced population.

Understanding how men are affected by childhood abuse can bring awareness to various concerns and unexplainable behaviors displayed by men. As a result, appropriate intervention strategies can be employed to help with managing behavioral symptoms and relational problems. By understanding one’s attachment style, exploration can occur of how beliefs about self and relationships developed and distortions can be challenged and healing can begin. This research can provide information to professionals who provide couple’s and marriage therapy because the manner in which an individual connects in relationships is critical to understanding their behaviors in relationships and internal working models.

This research adds to the literature of research conducted solely with the male population by providing information regarding attachment styles and relationship satisfaction. It was significant because abuse during childhood for men can have some of the same adverse effects as with women. Many of the men in this study reported sexual trauma prior to the age of 18, showing that sexual trauma is not a gendered phenomenon and could be at higher rates among men; however, a lack of and delayed disclosure (O’Leary et al., 2010; Quina & Brown, 2007) prevents adequate research from occurring consistently. Increasing awareness may help in the implementation of programs and supports to help men heal from the trauma of abuse and neglect during some of the most vulnerable phases of their lives.

This study provides understanding into the relationship between adult attachment and relationship satisfaction among men who report a history of childhood abuse. There were no significant relationships or differences among childhood abuse severity, adult attachment, and relationship satisfaction. A total of 79 men completed the online surveys and reported experiences of physical and or sexual abuse. Of these 79 men, only three reported secure attachment, which means 79 men had insecure attachments. With this information, avenues for additional exploration of the causes of insecure attachment can be explored and appropriate assessments can be made for individual and marriage therapy to highlight potential causes of presenting behaviors in men.

Although this study did not indicate any statistical significance among childhood abuse severity, adult attachment, and relationship satisfaction, there is now research on rates of insecure attachments and level of relationship satisfaction among those who have reported abuse. Research has now highlighted that men experience childhood abuse at an alarming rate and action must be taking in regard to prevention, availability of educational resources, and support to manage behaviors that may arise as a result of adverse childhood experiences. Further, education could help the general public, mental health practitioners, and families of those abused to understand the effects of childhood abuse, how it manifests in relationships throughout individual’s lives, and how men connect and bond with others. This information can potentially help understand parenting styles and level of satisfaction in relationships. Notably, this research may provide some awareness into the fact that there are men willing to disclose experiences of abuse; however, appropriate measures must be taken to maintain confidentiality and safety as well as understanding that difficulty in disclosing vulnerable information of abuse can potentially be re-traumatizing for men. Empathy may be critical to obtaining the trust needed to conduct more in-depth research.

The current study has expanded the understanding of the relationship between adult attachment and relationship satisfaction among men who report a history of childhood abuse. It is recommended that additional research be given to this topic in a more in-depth nature. The current study used quantitative measures; however, conducting this study using qualitative measures would possibly produce more comprehensive analysis and statistical significance as it would gather specific themes that could be explored to address any relationships among adult attachment, relationship satisfaction, and childhood abuse severity. Results indicated that there were a high number of men who reported insecure attachments and more men reported dissatisfied relationships than those who reported satisfaction. Research should also include men who are not in connection with any organizations that offer support for experiences of abuse. It appears as though childhood abuse did not moderate any relationship between adult attachment styles and relationship satisfaction.

As research has previously noted, insecure attachments in relationships can lead to poor development and maintenance of close interpersonal relationships (McCarthy & Maughman, 2010). The attachment bond influences early emotional and romantic relationships; therefore, an insecure attachment is more likely to lead to dissatisfaction in relationships. Additional research is needed in the realm of childhood experiences of men and whether attachment plays a significant role in relationship quality.

The measures used in this study may not have been sufficient enough to explore any relationships among these variables; however, it is noteworthy to mention that the majority of the men reported relationship dissatisfaction and insecure attachments. Additional research should also explore what other factors may moderate the relationship between adult attachment and relationship satisfaction. Much research has explored the effects of childhood abuse, and men should be afforded the opportunity to share their experiences to allow for additional awareness of the potential effects of such abuse and knowledge that it occurs just as frequently as with the female population. Researchers may face barriers in that men are less likely as women to report experiences of abuse, which makes this vulnerable topic of childhood abuse difficult to explore. It is important that researchers remain persistent and understanding of the challenges these men face regarding the effect of childhood abuse. It is this researcher’s hope that these findings will bring much needed awareness to a population that is under-researched so that appropriate care and treatment are enforced, policies for prevention are developed and implemented, increase in education and knowledge for early recognition of signs of abuse are made available, and future research remains a priority. Their voices can and will be heard through appropriate means of research and exposure.


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