A DMM-informed attachment framework to promote attachment healing in custody and domestic violence cases
A CSI Case Study Report
Mark Baumann J.D., Director, CSI
“Unfortunately, it’s legal for parents to harm their children.”
From an attachment perspective, the judge who said that was largely correct. Obviously, certain parenting behaviors are not tolerated, but from an attachment trauma perspective we know there is a universe of attachment-harming behaviors parents can lawfully engage in, while there is little a court can do to stop it. A common problem I face, as a litigator and counselor, is helping a client-parent create attachment healing when the co-parent is, to some degree, dysfunctional, stubbornly uncooperative, and actively causing attachment trauma through the parent-child relationship.
A potential solution is to use attachment theory to help the client gain some understanding of their own contribution to the family system as well as the attachment-driven needs and behaviors of the other parent and the children. This approach can also lead to improved fact-gathering and attachment-healing.
Case study: Molly, Mike, Olivia and Tabby*
My client Molly and her partner Mike* are in the process of separating and they have two daughters ages three and four. In our meetings, Molly’s primary and most obviously apparent attachment pattern is cognitive-oriented (and possibly A- patterned), meaning that she tends to be sweet and quick to smile (especially when experiencing a painful moment), but avoidant and dismissive of negative affect (including conflict), tends to blame herself and over-take responsibility, and is over-focused on other people’s perspectives and need, and over-focused on following rules. Molly tends to rely on prescriptive and overly-logical if/then statements to guide her thinking (“If only I did X, Mike would do Y”, “I should ….”, “I mustn’t cry”), as exemplified by her belief that if she got a protection order, then all the problems she had with Mike, including her parenting concerns, would go away.
Mike appears the opposite of Molly, affectively-oriented, as he tends to be ambivalent to the resolution of issues, enmeshed in relationships, and over-focused on his feelings and perspective. Mike frequently seems to be engaged in some sort of difficult or unresolvable struggle, alternates coercive behaviors with coy/charming/disarming behaviors, and tends to blame others and avoid responsibility. His parenting is marked with inconsistency, insensitivity, broken promises, bribing, sometimes harsh discipline, poor boundaries, and a heavy reliance on the use of electronics to keep his children occupied and entertained. His coercive behaviors escalated after the birth of each child to include dramatic but undocumented emotional abuse to Molly in front of the children, with dramatic and harmful statements like “No one will ever love you like I do.” The last straw was when he said “If you leave me, you’ll never see the children.”
Splitting positive and negative affect
Molly’s tendency to dismiss negative affect and over-focus on positive affect are two aspects of her attachment pattern, which lead to two dynamics in our counseling sessions. First, she tends to focus on the positive aspects of Mike and dismiss or minimize the negative. “Well, it really wasn’t that bad, I just want to have a fresh start.” This focus on the positive was inhibiting her ability to address problems in the present. It helped for me to ask compassionate Socratic questions such as: “It must have been tough for you to live with Mike the last few years. Do you think Mike’s behavior will improve or worsen moving forward?” “It sounds like the girls don’t do well when they are with Mike. Do you think things will improve when you are not there to monitor Mike’s behavior?”
Second, her tendency to dismiss negative affect made it difficult for her to recall details of past abusive episodes. To obtain even the minimal temporary protection order she wanted, I needed to find the past abuses and their details. Broad questions such as “Did he ever abuse you or the children?” would not work. Instead, I asked detailed questions with words and images to probe her memory: “Did he ever push/spit/kick/throw things at you?” “What happened last Christmas, were there any problems with Mike?” Attachment theory taught me that Molly likely felt scared when I asked about negative events and that it was subjectively dangerous for her to access these memories, so I limited the time we spent on these issues and worked to provide a safe and protective listening environment. The process offered her an experience that suggested it was safe to say these things to me, although still painful.
Using attachment as a relational framework
Molly learned to recognize Mike’s ongoing verbal attacks as an aspect of his attachment-driven self-protective strategies (or attachment wounds). She learned not to take them personally by recognizing Mike’s attachment strategy and appropriately identify boundaries and responsibility, while maintaining a consistent relationship with Mike. Helping her work through this process was more effective for her than filing contempt motions.
Molly is also gaining good insight into her children’s basic attachment organization. Four-year old Olivia is like herself, cognitive-oriented, and she now sees how Olivia spends a lot of time caretaking Molly and Mike, putting on a happy face when things really aren’t going well, and also over-achieving to please her parents. (“Mommy, I don’t need to sit on your lap for the story, I will just sit on the floor since my sister is already in the chair with you.”)
Three-year old Tabby is like her father, affectively-oriented. She can be pouty, defiant, and attempt to engage Molly in a struggle just to get attention. Tabby’s attachment behaviors tend to be dramatic and aggressive when she comes back from time with Mike, and is resistant to everything, refuses to share anything, often juts her jaw forward to nonverbally show defiance, and often kicks, hits, or throws things at Molly and Olivia. Despite being difficult to be with during these times, Tabby will not let her mother get more than a few feet away. She protests loudly if Molly leaves the room. Sometimes Tabby’s aggression is followed by, and sometime preceded by, attachment bids for comfort (“I just need you mommy, uppy.”) or acts of feigned helplessness (“No, I caaann’t. I want yoouuu to do it.”)
Healing attachment trauma with advanced attachment parenting
The children’s suffering is clear to those knowledgeable about attachment-behavior. The kids are suffering from attachment trauma and their wounds need attention to heal. However, their suffering probably doesn’t rise to a concern the court will pay much attention to, and there is no other professional help available in Molly’s case. (Even if there were professionals to help, few professionals understand attachment theory sufficiently to be able to apply an effective attachment therapy approach.)
Molly is on her own to help her children, so she is making adjustments to her parenting. Molly is applying enhanced attachment parenting techniques to create attachment healing.
Olivia’s caretaking attachment strategy is centered around dismissing her own feelings, and attachment needs for protection and comfort, and tending to Molly’s needs. Tabby’s coercive strategies are centered around her own unlabeled feelings, and tending to her own needs. Molly began to teach them about emotions and feelings, perspectives of the self and others, and highlighting times when the girls recognized and appropriately met their own comfort needs. Molly is learning to anticipate and address how each child may be differentially attempting to gain protection and comfort, and what each child subjectively perceives as a danger.
When Tabby attempts to initiate a struggle, Molly can simply not accept the initial bid and may redirect Tabby. (“I’m not eating that.” “Okay, you don’t have to.”) The kids are dysregulated after seeing Mike, so she always gets them immediately involved in hands on craft-making experiences. For all the things Molly is now becoming aware of, she is keeping a log and reviewing her experiences with my staff and I. These notes will help her testimony later.
By using advanced attachment parenting techniques, Molly is not only able to better prepare for her court case, she is also able to help her children heal their attachment wounds. This childhood attachment healing will help her children as they become adults, and carry down to Molly’s grandchildren and great grandchildren.
Self-protective attachment strategies are dimensional
Attachment strategies lie on a continuum. Many professionals don’t realize even B strategies, in all attachment models, range from B1 through B5. B3 is a balanced blend of cognitive and affective oriented strategies, while B1/2 strategies are cognitively-organized and B4/5 are affectively-organized.
←Cognitively organized patterns|
|Affectively organized patterns→
With Molly’s new awareness, she has become concerned about worsening attachment behaviors by Mike and the children. In my experience, simply ending the litigation will not necessarily resolve these attachment problems.
Molly and I can’t know for sure what the girl’s attachment classification’s are. But we have ample evidence about their general strategy organization to be able to make some working assumptions, and she knows that if unattended, their strategy use may intensify into more at-risk behaviors. Molly’s fight is now clear.
Molly can now have a hope of targeting her parenting strategies to functionally address her children’s attachment needs, create attachment healing, and to functionally stay in relationship with their father.
My approach is informed by the Dynamic Maturational Model of Attachment and Adaptation (DMM), and by my study of attachment assessments such as the Strange Situation Procedure and the Adult Attachment Interview. The DMM was developed initially by Dr. Patricia M. Crittenden. For more information, see Crittenden, P.M. (2016, 2d ed), Raising Parents: Attachment, representation, and treatment, Routledge; and also Crittenden P.M. and Landini, A. (2011), Assessing Adult Attachment: a dynamic Maturational Approach to discourse analysis, W.W. Norton & Company. Internet resources include:
Authors Note: The attachment framework described above is gender-neutral. Either parent is capable of sensitive and responsive parenting strategies or dismissive/coercive and attachment-harming self-protective strategies.
* Molly, Mike and their children are fictitious clients made up from an amalgam of real clients.
Mark Baumann, J.D.
Director, Conflict Science Institute
Mark Baumann is the founder and director of The Conflict Science Institute and has developed several of CSI’s integrative models for high conflict professionals, including the Conflict Model. Mark has served as a family law litigator, counselor, mediator, educator, and professional speaker since 1988, and as an ad-hoc board member of the International Association for the Study of Attachment (IASA). In addition to teaching CSI concepts worldwide, Mark continues to develop CSI techniques through the practice of family law, with a focus on attachment, trauma, and domestic violence. (His complete C.V. can be found here)
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