Attached to abuse

A new book by psychotherapist Adam Jukes analyses how both men and women can ‘choose’ abusive relationships, resulting from insecure attachment as children. 

Angela Neustatter
29 September 2016

Emotionally and physically abusive men turning their rage and pain on the women in their lives have been the subject of psychotherapist Adam Jukes’ work and writing for over 40 years. But his latest, ‘What You’ve Got Is What You Want – Even If It Hurts’, published by Free Association Books, is different. In what appears uncomfortably like a volte face, he addresses women who are victims of emotionally abusive men, and very occasionally those who are physically violent, telling them they choose these male perpetrators out of ‘unconscious perversity’. This is a man whose fierce writings, including ‘Why Men Hate Women’ and ‘Is There a Cure for Masculinity?’, confront our cultural misogyny and the men whose festering (if unacknowledged) feelings of rank hatred toward women propel them into behaviour that can terrify and oppress.


When it comes to physically violent men, Jukes is the first to say they must be stopped and must accept full responsibility. In ‘What You’ve Got is What You Want – Even If It Hurts’ he says he is writing about something else: a pathology that fixes male and female partners in “default settings” so that they live with the hope that things will change and miraculously be the love story they once believed was the stuff of their relationship.  That is all very well, but even without physical violence the man who only really feels good when he has power and control, using profound verbal abuse, shouting, threatening and seeking to make his woman do as he wishes, all too easily leaves her feeling oppressed, diminished, and too frightened by where the man’s rage may go, to feel she can take any control over her life or protect her children. In his earlier work, ‘Is There A Cure For Masculinity?’, Jukes had explained this unconscious drive to achieve the state of “phallic narcissism where men seek the omnipotent sense of being an erect penis”. He had labeled this phenomenon phallic narcissism.

Yet his latest work insists that both partners are almost always acting on the same pathology – insecure and inconsistent attachment in very young childhood – and that they are equally caught in the behaviour to which this leads. But is this genuine equality? Surely Jukes accepts that in so many ways, women’s lives are not a level playing field with those of men? We know that it is women who most often leave marriages, seek refuge for themselves and their children, and suffer a great deal more depression than men when caught in emotionally and verbally abusive relationships. At Springtime Resources, where they work to protect abused women, they say:

“While the forms of abuse may vary, the end result is the same - a woman is fearful of her partner and changes her behaviour to please him or be safe from harm. Many people think that emotional abuse is not as serious or harmful as physical abuse. Women state that this is not true, and that the biggest problem they often face is getting others to take emotional abuse seriously” 

When I raise this with Jukes, he acknowledges but parries the point, explaining that in his latest book he is not addressing women in severely disadvantaged lives, where poverty and desperation so often up the ante on male abuse and violence. Instead, he is addressing those he sees frequently as clients, who have materially comfortable lives, but who cannot comprehend why their partner will not understand how to make them happy. His voice becomes almost impatient here: “You are dealing with complex unconscious stuff and most often neither of the partners wants to leave. What they want is the other person to change because they believe they can then live happily ever after and they use mechanisms to try to achieve this, then suffer when it doesn’t work. So my book is intended to help them understand what is going on, how patterns of family life as they grew up, as well as early attachment, may have led to their default settings, why and how perverse behaviour sets in.”

So Jukes is not, he insists, taking the familiar line of blaming the female for making herself the victim.  He is concerned with protecting women, which is why he set up the Men’s Centre in London in 1984 - the first dedicated place for treatment that tries to help men understand the psycho dynamics of their behaviour and how they may change their ways. It has been the subject of several books of his, including Why Men Hate Women.


The 'Orange the World' campaign lit major landmarks to raise awareness around violence against women. Credit: UN Secretary-General’s UNiTE to End Violence against Women campaign.

In ‘What You’ve Got Is What You Want – Even If It Hurts’ he writes that “in my practice I frequently see people having ‘relationship difficulties’ which lie at the root of their unhappiness.” Later he writes that “they almost invariably present as victims of their partners and repeat themes like ‘my wife/partner is persecuting, neglectful, depriving, promiscuous, frigid, or not good enough in a myriad of ways.  And both suffer a great deal, but the difference in gender makes their way of dealing very different.”

So for instance, Jukes says that “the woman wants the man to be more loving, more emotionally available, more willing to be intimate, and tries repeatedly to make this plain to him with a range of strategies from saying it, sulking, telling him how unkind he is, withdrawing sexually. If only he would respond by changing his behaviour all would be well, is how she sees it. He on the other side perceives her as nagging, hard to please and frighteningly demanding of an intimacy that terrifies him. He becomes angry and very possibly physically or emotionally abusive, hoping that this will ‘persuade’ her to change and be the woman he wants.” Jukes refers to this situation as The Mad Hypothesis: both partners believe that what they want is what they should be able to get, and become despairing at the relentless failure of their attempts. 

Jukes adds that “to grasp what is going on, what drives this ‘unconscious perversity’ we need to understand the importance of earliest attachment and just how vital being securely attached as a baby and small child is. In a chapter explaining the significance of attachment in detail Jukes writes that “the central hypothesis of Attachment Theory is that one of the main drivers of human behaviour is the need to be in attachment with other people. It is hard-wired into the newborn child to ensure that the primary carer forms an attachment to her or him in order to ensure survival. As a consequence of the way we are parented we all develop ‘internal models’ of close relationships. And these form the model for how we understand relating and attaching in later life. Secure attachment follows from safe, affectionate, reliable and consistent care where the carer is quick and sensitive in responding to the child.  So in later life secure people operate from a position of fundamental trust.”

Jukes explains how, in people with insecure attachment seeking to make relationships, the role of gender is particularly pronounced. He argues that “men and women grow up in a misogynistic culture that makes insecurely attached men want to feel in control and powerful, to have the omnipotent sense of being an erect penis.”  For the male, this is phallic narcissism. “Whereas women with insecure attachment internalise their unhappiness and may become depressed,” he writes, “men are inclined to express their anger more overtly. Women tend to be more passive-aggressive, withholding affection for longer until they feel the injustice has been equalised, rather than inflicting aggression overtly. The woman’s silent victim phase morphs into the silent aggressive phase much more subtly, whereas the suffering male changes into an active persecutor in very obvious ways that involve active persecution including, at times, aggressive behaviour even if it is not physically violent.”

Jukes offers an explanation of how women may model the only love they understood at home: “I have worked with lots of women who grew up in highly conflicted families in which the parents’ relationship was volatile. Their internal model of a couple is formed from that. Love is conflict and anxiety and pain. Against all their conscious wishes they can be fatally attracted to men who share that internal model and frequently, he writes, the woman is prepared to work hard to shape the relationship to fit the one she knows only too well from earliest times. Loving and being loved without pain, and with intimacy is beyond their experience and generates anxiety for them. The paradox is that they are only secure when they feel anxious and insecure. That is why I say women choose these male perpetrators out of “unconscious perversity”’. 

Dr. Lisa Firestone, Director of Research and Education at The Glendon Association in California, an expert on violence in relationships, adds to this when she writes that “an attachment pattern is established in early childhood and continues to function as a working model for relationships in adulthood. This model of attachment influences how each of us reacts to our needs and how we go about getting them met. When there is a secure attachment pattern, a person is confident and self-possessed and is able to easily interact with others, meeting both their own and another’s needs.  However, when there is an anxious or avoidant attachment pattern and a person picks a partner who fits with that maladaptive pattern, they will most likely be choosing someone who isn’t the ideal choice to make them happy.”

We are talking here about a substantial number of people with imperfect and impaired attachment.  The finding in a study of 10,000 adult attachment interviews conducted over 25 years and analysed in a paper on adult attachment disorders concluded that this is found in some 40% of adults.

Evidence that women cleave to the men who abuse them is well documented. Joseph M. Carver, Ph.D., Clinical Psychologist Love, in his paper Stockholm Syndrome: The Mystery of Loving an Abuser, describes how in clinical practice, some of the most surprised and shocked individuals are those who have been involved in controlling and abusive relationships: “When the relationship ends, they offer comments such as “I know what he’s done to me, but I still love him”. Recently I’ve heard “This doesn’t make sense. He’s got a new girlfriend and he’s abusing her too…but I’m jealous!”” Friends and relatives are even more amazed and shocked when they hear these comments or witness their loved one returning to an abusive relationship. While the situation doesn’t make sense from a social standpoint, it does from a psychological viewpoint, says Carver. 

Many would ask why anyone would return to an abusive partner after leaving, but people get caught in a "pendulum of pain," says Steven Stosny. Stosny is Founder of the anger and violence management program CompassionPower, based in Washington DC, which treats people convicted of abuse in the home. In his book, ‘Love Without Hurt: Turn Your Resentful, Angry, or Emotionally Abusive Relationship into a Compassionate, Loving One’ he argues that abuse victims will “leave partners out of either fear, anger or resentment, then, after the fear, anger or resentment begins to subside, they feel guilt, shame, anxiety, and that takes them back. After a violent incident, there is often a ‘honeymoon period’ during which the abuser may apologise profusely, give the victim gifts and persuade the victim to stay, experts say. But when that period is over, the abuser may once again become violent.”

Given that Jukes has seen women as well as men in his practice over many years, I asked why it had taken him so long to write a book that included a perspective that may help women understand what is going on?  He replied sharply, “that’s how long it took for my thinking about the therapeutic process to reach this point,” later adding:“This is not about abusive relationships in isolation but about dysfunctional, unhappy ones, amongst which one can include highly volatile relationships where the volatility is mutual even if there is no physical violence.” Seeing how compulsive this dance macabre pattern can be and how unable couples are to break what he calls their “default settings”, Jukes became convinced that a book was needed which would help women understand the roots of men’s abusive behaviour and their own, often repeated, choice to enter relationships with such men.

However he emphasizes that ‘What You’ve Got Is What You Want – Even If It Hurts’ is not a self-help book. It is no good looking for a 100 tips on how to be a better partner, or a guide to making your man love you more, or a comforting spiritual guide through your pain. The book is a thorough exploration of the psycho-dynamics of what goes on when partners damage each other and how that dynamic can be altered only if we change ourselves.


The White Ribbon Campaign (WRC) is a global movement of men and boys working to end male violence against women and girls. Credit: WRC.

Knowledge and understanding of what goes on at a psychic level may make this possible. So Jukes explores how we can alter the way our relationships work by changing ourselves so that the dynamic in the relationship may change. But don’t expect instant solutions Jukes says: “when you change your behaviour it can be very confusing for the partner who may well feel threatened, worried, unloved if the other is withdrawing and so on. In answer to the idea that a man who is so discomforted by his partner changing her behaviour he is likely to be more abusive, I say not so. He may in fact realise in time that they can live more comfortably with a changed dynamic.” Or else, he says, through changing her way of handling a relationship, a woman might break the unconsciously perverse drive to select men who will be abusive towards her because “our satisfaction is not determined by what we think we want, but by what we really want and that is out of our conscious control and awareness.”

In Jukes’ case studies we see men and women where unsatisfactory attachment can mean they carry a deep wound of rejection and abandonment. Men who are violent are often acting out the pain they felt at not getting the love and comfort they needed as an infant. The little boy whose mother colluded in his being sent to boarding school at a young age, even though she knew how unhappy he was, may seek revenge for the pain he felt by seducing women and then rejecting them without feeling.  Or it could be the woman choosing a partner to “replace” the father who she could never feel loved her, and desperately trying to get him to behave in a way that will feel as though the emptiness is being filled. 

On the basis of all he has seen in his clinical work Jukes says: “It is transparently obvious to me that all the people I see are projecting on to their partners an internal persecuting female object, or a rejecting male object, almost certainly their mother or father.”

Obviously we cannot undo insecure attachment by returning to our infant selves and having a happier action replay, but the point of his book, Jukes says, is to guide us in re-evaluating our relationships, gain insight and understand how to take action, without necessarily needing to go for treatment. Here he takes a tough love approach: “You are responsible for everything that is wrong with your relationship including any behaviour of your partner which you use to justify, excuse or in any other way account for your own behaviour towards him or her in the world in general.”

So take heed, Jukes says, and he is addressing women as much as men, and decide to lead an examined life. “It involves being aware of our default settings; the unconscious, taken-for-granted world of beliefs and attitudes and expectations of others. It means giving up the ideas which we hold dear about ourselves and others. More than anything, it means coming to terms with our need for attachment and the ways in which this need was frustrated when we were least able to cope with the consequences of this or to do anything about it except become increasingly distressed and fearful.” 

Nothing will be solved or changed otherwise. After 40 years of work, Jukes has come to the conclusion that “we write our own lives with the tools we were given as children and in the end what we get is what we wanted, even when it seemed the last thing we would have consciously chosen.” 

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