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  • Writer's pictureClaire Verney

How Can Vulnerable Mothers be Supported to Detach from Their Abusers?

The practical barriers women face when leaving an abusive partner are widely recognised, but the emotional attachment a woman may have to her abuser is often misunderstood or overlooked. This post will explain how vulnerable Mothers can be supported to break a distorted attachment to an abuser.

Mum working remotely
Supporting vulnerable mother's

Early attachment theory proposed that attachment behaviors in infants, such as crying and searching, were responses to separation from a primary attachment figure i.e. someone who provides support, protection, and care. Although this theory was primarily focused on understanding the nature of the infant-carer relationship, researchers then began to look at how attachment processes may occur in adulthood. Research on adult attachment assumes that the same system that produces the close emotional bond between parents and their children is also responsible for the bond that develops between adults in intimate relationships.

More recent research has speculated that a victim with an anxious attachment style (described as suffering from fear of abandonment, low self esteem and negative self-image) may have difficulty leaving an abusive relationship because the loss of the partner is considered unbearable, they may think they do not have sufficient resources to separate, deceive themselves about the possibility that the partner will change and may also feel underserving of love and care. Importantly, an abusive partner who is intermittently loving and attending can cause confusion in their partner, increasing the value of a relationship that the victim fears to lose, and favoring illusions that there will be a change in their partners behavior.

In line with best practice recommendations in the field of domestic abuse, it is important to note, that the responsibility for abuse should always be placed with the abuser and not with the victim. Wherever possible the perpetrator should be held accountable for their abuse and pressured towards changing their behaviour.

How can victims be supported to break their attachment?

Many women underestimate the emotional work of separating from an abusive partner, this means that leaving the relationship is not usually a one-off event but tends to occur through a process of increasing preparedness through a number of separations and reconciliations. In the meantime, children's services may act to keep the children safe by requiring the parents to separate using written agreements with specific contact arrangements in place. However, separation under any form of duress carries a much greater risk of reconciliation in the long term. In order for victims to remain meaningfully separated, they will require support.

1.Ensuring that third parties are used for child contact - reducing the amount of contact the parents have with each other will help to put distance between them, allowing the mother time to work on disengaging from the relationship.

2.Educate on domestic abuse dynamics - Using tools such as the power and control wheel and the cycle of violence can help to illustrate abusive behaviours and the tactics that abusers use. When women begin to recognise and name the abuse, they become more able to move towards successfully ending the relationship.

3.Explain the impact of abuse on the children - Mothers often believe they have successfully shielded the children from violence and abuse. However, children are usually aware of the abuse and can give detailed accounts of violent behaviour that their parents had assumed they never witnessed. Exposure to domestic violence as a child can have a severe effect on the child’s emotional and psychological well-being, even if they are not directly assaulted, this knowledge can motivate mothers to prioritise the children's wellbeing.

4.Encourage self-reflection - Insight is an important factor in helping victims to recover and learn from their experiences. If victims lack insight and struggle to stand back, look at themselves, and try to make sense of their problems, particularly their partner choices, they are less likely to be able to make progress and be able to protect themselves and their children.

5.Improve self-efficacy - Behaviour such as name-calling, constant criticism, undermining and dismissing their partner’s feelings and using emotional blackmail to manipulate her are all effective in damaging a victims self-esteem and self-confidence particularly when used alongside physical violence.

6.Providing safe and confidential accomodation - Actions a woman may take that seems illogical to someone not experiencing abuse, such as retracting statements or having illicit contact, may well be a strategy to keep herself and her children safe. By providing safe and confidential accommodation the Mother will have the opportunity to make safer decisions for herself and her children without fearing reprisals from the abuser.

7.Refer to an in-depth programme of work specifically for mothers in child protection measures - Most community domestic abuse programmes offer excellent education, support and advocacy to victims of violence and abuse. However, the needs of mothers in care proceedings are often complex, with enduring problems around adult attachments, accountability and prioritising their children’s safety. In these cases, more intensive, challenging and focused work is needed in order to support lasting change. Visit our post on how DV-ACT experts work with mothers to reduce their vulnerability

What support can DV-ACT provide?

DV-ACT specialises in complex cases with vulnerability assessments designed to offer a level of clarity and insight into the dynamics of abuse and ongoing risks within the family, including an expert opinion on specific issues of concern. Alongside identifying vulnerability to future abuse, the impact of the abuse on the victim’s parenting will also be assessed with a detailed analysis of the risks posed to the children. A realistic risk management plan for each member of the family including suitability for further treatment and prognosis for change is also included. These assessments can take place alone, with an assessment of the perpetrator or alongside a vulnerability treatment programme.

The DV-ACT vulnerability programme is designed to work with mothers in the UK where the family court or local authority has concerns regarding ongoing vulnerability to domestic abuse. The programme is particularly suitable for women who; have an enduring emotional attachment to their abuser; have failed to prioritise their own or their children’s safety when making decisions or have a history of separating and reconciling with their abuser. This work is demanding and matched to the needs of the woman and the child protection plan.

DV-ACT experts are continuing to work throughout the Coronavirus pandemic as usual and are available to discuss cases and complete assessments on both victims and perpetrators. Visit our post how are DV-ACT completing assessments during coronavirus crisis to find out how we are currently working.

Research used

Further research and information used in this post can be found here -

Adult attachment theory and research: a brief overview

About us

DV-ACT are a team of domestic abuse experts, available throughout the UK, who provide assessments, consultancy and training to local authorities and the family courts. Our experts have decades of experience working directly with domestic abuse perpetrators and victims, as specialist assessors and as expert witnesses in the family courts.

DV-ACT was formed with the aim of using our expertise to help safeguard children from abuse, this is at the heart of everything that we do. To read more about us please visit our post - Who are DV-ACT?


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