Research & Action Report, Fall/Winter 2008

The notion of the intergenerational transmission of abuse has been accepted for some time. Both research and our own observations lead us to expect that having been abused or neglected or having witnessed violence between parents as a child will contribute to an individual’s increased risk to abuse or neglect one’s own child or to be involved in an abusive relationship as an adult. Fortunately, intergenerational transmission is far from universal in that the majority of individuals who experienced an abusive childhood are not themselves abusive as adults. However, the overall effect of an experience of violence in one’s family of origin cannot be denied.

What is less clear is what happens when both members of a couple have experienced childhood trauma of some type. How does this double dose of violence history affect the perpetration of child abuse by one or both parents as well as the risk for violence in the couple’s own relationship? Although these are typically the couples that are described by newspaper accounts of extreme child abuse or neglect and by clinicians’ anecdotes of their most difficult psychotherapy cases, very little research has actually been conducted on the dynamics leading to the formation and maintenance of these dual-trauma couples’ relationships or on the effects of their histories on violence in their families of creation. Moreover, no one has explored what protective factors keep many dual-trauma couples from engaging in abusive behavior even when the cards are seemingly stacked against them. In addition to drawing attention to this important but neglected topic in the field of family violence, the purpose of this commentary is to speculate about possible mechanisms involved in the intergenerational transmission of violence in dual-trauma couples and the implications of these experiences for their families of creation.

With respect to the formation of dual-trauma couples, it appears that individuals who not only have experienced trauma in childhood but also remain unresolved regarding that trauma are more likely to end up in relationships with other individuals who are similarly unresolved.1 Other research shows evidence of assortative mating with regard to substance abuse, antisocial behavior, negative affect and sensation-seeking,2, 3, 4 all of which could easily have resulted from experiences of abuse in childhood. Not only would engaging in such behaviors necessarily determine one’s peer groups (and potential partners), but it would also suggest what one could tolerate in a partner. I have conducted two studies in which it was possible to explore whether individuals with histories of childhood trauma were indeed more likely to have partners who also had histories of trauma. The first sample consisted of 293 military couples who were receiving home visitation services at the birth of a child. In this study, there was not only a significant association between a mother’s and father’s histories of trauma, but those who had experienced multiple types of maltreatment in childhood were more likely to have partners who had also experienced multiple types of maltreatment. There were even notable associations between the specific types of trauma experienced (i.e., physical abuse, neglect or witnessing violence between one’s parents). In a second sample of 495 couples in which the man had been referred to a batterer intervention program, there was also a small but significant concordance in couples between the number of different types of trauma experienced in childhood.

So what are the effects of both members of a couple having histories of trauma in childhood? In an observational study of couples, a psychologist from Illinois State University5 found that those couples in his sample who were not only insecure in their attachment but had both experienced childhood trauma about which they were unresolved showed extremely high levels of negative behavior – up to 200 instances of negative behavior in 15 minutes! In my study of military families, dual-trauma couples were twice as likely to have had Child Protective Service involvement for abuse or neglect and three times as likely to have had official reports of domestic violence. They were also more likely to have a child who was difficult to soothe and to be described by their home visitors as socially isolated, financially unstable, maritally distressed and rigid in their sex roles. On one hand, each individual’s own abuse history predicted his/her own level of current distress. On the other hand, the increased risk for violence or at least marital strife associated with past trauma served to increase each parent’s risk for abusing their own children. Moreover, both domestic violence and one’s own history of trauma may have reduced the capacity of one parent to protect the child from the other parent. These effects were undoubtedly exacerbated by the couple’s financial stresses and decreased ability to garner support from the wider community. Therefore, for a number of reasons, dual-trauma couples are much more likely to abuse or neglect their own children.

There is also evidence of the impact of dual trauma in couples characterized by current domestic violence, although the restricted range of the sample may have had the effect of masking findings that may actually exist to a greater degree in a more normative sample. The man’s admission of his history of childhood trauma had apparently opposite impacts on the members of the couple. For example, it appeared that both his trauma history and her own trauma history led the woman to minimize or excuse his violent behavior. Conversely, his trauma history and her trauma history were both associated with his increased self-report of his own violence. What actually occurred in the relationship is open for interpretation, but it is important to note that each partner’s trauma history, to the degree that it was reported truthfully and also known by the other partner, had significantly divergent impacts on men’s and women’s perception of violence in their relationship.

Finally, what are the implications and needed future directions of research on dual-trauma couples? In making these speculations, it must first be acknowledged that so little research has been conducted on this very important family configuration that much more remains to be learned. Second, given that members of any couple provide a context for each other’s behavior, it is important to delve further into the nature of the interactions of the dual-trauma couple. For example, under what conditions do members of a dual-trauma couple exacerbate each other’s emotional dysregulation and already negative self-concept and under what conditions do they provide for each other a safe haven and unique source of understanding because they have experienced similarly difficult childhoods? One clue to this question can be derived from the notion that unresolved trauma appears to be particularly problematic for such couples. In other words, to the degree that couples arrive at a relationship having already explored and come to some level of understanding of the trauma they have experienced, they will be both less susceptible to its negative influence personally and also more able to understand and depersonalize their partner’s reactions to stress. Third, the specific mechanisms of the intergenerational transmission of violence in these couples require more study. There are many pathways from a history of violence to the perpetration of violence. These could include: genetic influences; the direct modeling of one’s parents’ behavior; the adoption of a distorted set of beliefs about the roles of men, women and children in families; the neurological disruption of brain structures associated with the experience of abuse; the inability to view an intimate partner as being a separate psychological entity with his/her own thoughts, perspectives and desires; and/or the long-lasting impact of shame arising from an experience of abuse and its potential to be projected onto another. Research should attempt to explore which of these mechanisms are particularly pertinent to dual-trauma couples and in what situations. Fourth, service providers must develop an awareness of the importance of dual-trauma couple dynamics. They should, for example, routinely but respectfully inquire into the family of origin histories of clients whom they serve, whether one or both partners have been identified as abusive. Even when the trauma history of the other parent or partner is not actually contributing to the identified individual’s violent behavior, it could interfere with the nonviolent parent’s ability to protect the child and keep the nonviolent partner vulnerable to further abuse.

Parents and partners are not individuals who are influenced only by their respective histories; instead, they are part of an interactive whole. The intergenerational transmission of violence occurs within a current context and one family member’s history will inevitably affect the current experience of that person’s partner. The study of dual-trauma couples is important because it provides a window into the simultaneous longitudinal and concurrent effects of family dynamics on the perpetration and experience of violence. Additionally, the study of dual-trauma couples is critical because these are potentially vulnerable families in need of support and services.

1Van IJzendoorn, M. H., & Bakermans-Kranenburg, M. J. (1996). Attachment representations in mothers, fathers, adolescents, and clinical groups: A meta-analytic search for normative data. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 64, 8-21.

2Du Fort, G. G., Boothroyd, L. J., Bland, R. C., Newman, S. C., & Kakuma, R. (2002). Spouse similarity for antisocial behaviour in the general population. Psychological Medicine, 32, 1407-1416.

3Han, K., Weed, N. C., & Butcher, J. N. (2003). Dyadic agreement on the MMPI-2. Personality and Individual Differences, 35, 603-615.

4Segrin, C. (2004). Concordance on negative emotion in close relationships: Transmission of emotion or assortative mating? Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 23, 836-856.

5Creasey, G. (2002). Associations between working models of attachment and conflict management behavior in romantic couples. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 49, 365-375.

Pamela Alexander is a senior research scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women, where she conducts research on gender-based violence. Her current interests include the intergenerational transmission of violence, and the evaluation of child abuse prevention programs, batterer intervention programs, and interventions for battered women. Her article, “Stages of Change in Batterers and Their Response to Treatment,” co-authored with Eugene Morris, is featured in the published in the journal Violence and Victims (Volume 23, Number 4, 2008).