Psychology and Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice

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Volume 90 Issue 2 (June 2017), Pages 125-243

Unresolved attachment and agency in women victims of intimate partner violence: A case–control study (pages 177-192)


Women victims of IPV are more likely insecurely attached and have experienced childhood abuse, which according to the attachment theory is deeply related to disorganized attachment. This case–control study was performed with the aim to compare the attachment status and the defensive processing patterns of women victims of IPV (cases) with women with no experiences of IPV (controls).


Cases were 16 women with an age range from 26 years to 51 years. The control group included 16 women with an age range from 26 years to 59 years. Women's states of mind in regard to attachment were evaluated with the Adult Attachment Projective Picture System, which allows classifying attachment status and defensive mechanisms.


Compared with control group, most IPV women resulted having an unresolved attachment status and describing characters less capable to draw upon internal resources, that is, internalized secure base, and less capable to act than controls. Women victims of IPV used significantly more words referring danger and failed protection than controls.


The results evidenced the strong effectiveness of the AAP on analysing the psychological attitudes of women victims of IPV. The dramatic events lived by the women victims of IPV are so dominant in their minds that they invade their stories. This could represent a clue of emotional dysregulation.

Practitioner points

  • The use of AAP improves the understanding of the agency of self and of the specific levels of trauma experienced by IPV victims, on clarifying their frightening/frightened dynamic, typical of the disorganized attachment relationship, which undermines their activity of mentalization.
  • The therapist will assume the stance of a secure base and then both promoting exploration and contrasting impotence, humiliation, and subordination that IPV women have experienced.
  • This therapeutic interpersonal context will be functional to reach two different but related therapeutic goals: (1) to facilitate the rebuilding of agency (through an activation of subject to explore concrete strategies for exiting from IPV), (2) to explore attachment‐related segregated systems from awareness, and to integrate them in memory.

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