Interpersonal Schemas Associated with Childhood Abuse

The interpersonal schema for attachment that emerges in an abusive caretak-ing setting deviates from the format proposed above. For example, in a physically assaultive home, proximity, a condition for care, may also elicit physical assault. Thus care and physical assault become paired. In sexually abusive homes, proximity may elicit sexual activity. Such contingency experiences might lead to templates of interpersonal relatedness that, whatever their particulars, suggest that to be interpersonally engaged means to be abused, and that abuse is a way to be connected.

Because these schemas are assumed to be the templates for future behaviors, and because they are automatically activated, it is easy to see how negative patterns set down in childhood can guide the adult toward repeating activities that are maladaptive in adulthood. For example, a young woman from an abusive family who has developed the understanding that interpersonal relatedness is contingent on sexual behavior is more likely to accept sexual activity as a way of emotionally connecting to others, whether or not she is interested in sex. Women from abusive homes are relatively unlikely to recognize the negative aspects of exchanging sex for human connection, because the pattern was established and accepted in early key relationships.

interpersonal schema theory is valuable because it provides a non-victim-blaming way to understand repeated abusive relationships and assaults experienced by childhood abuse victims. The theory suggests that there is a predisposition to form attitudes and actions based on past experience and that the interpersonal belief system that emerges from these experiences has its origins in efforts to adapt effectively to the given environment for satisfaction of relational and survival needs. For those whose lives have been comprised of positive experiences and loving interpersonal relationships, the automatic activation of interpersonal schemas does them no harm and, in fact, probably enhances the probability of positive relationships (e.g., "Having my needs recognized/recognizing those of others is a way to attach"). In contrast, those whose lives have been comprised of trauma and negative relationships are at risk for continued or repeated negative relationships, a form of "self-fulfilling prophecy." Clinicians should note that such individuals carry a burden from their childhood experiences: namely, ways of thinking about themselves and others that are automatic and maladaptive. The challenge for client and therapist is to identify and change the automatic schemas in order to protect the individual from the negative consequences of inadvertently repeating his or her own history.

A recent study suggested that the tendency to "repeat" one's history via automatic application of interpersonal schemas is a behavior that is typical of both abused and nonabused individuals; the difference is found in the contents and consequences of the schemas. in a recent study based in the circumplex model of interpersonal functioning, we assessed the interpersonal schemas of several groups of women with differing trauma histories (Cloitre, Cohen, & Scarvalone, 2002a). The interpersonal beliefs of the revictimized women (incest survivors with adult sexual assault experiences) were strongly negative and reflected the expectation for others to respond to them in cold and controlling ways, for all the "others" they were asked to consider (i.e., mother, father, or friend) and across a variety of situations (e.g., competitive, cooperative). In contrast, never-assaulted women generally expected responses of warmth and low control (i.e., respect for autonomy) from the various people and circumstances they were asked to imagine. Thus both groups showed relatively "rigid" interpersonal expectations that differed only in valence (positive vs. negative) but not in range or flexibility. Notably, incest survivors who had not been assaulted in adulthood differed from both of these groups. Whereas women in this group held somewhat negative interpersonal beliefs, they showed more variable expectations of others, depending on the person and situation. Thus the non-revictimized women showed a greater range of interpersonal expectations, which suggests the presence of greater flexibility in their approach to interpersonal events.

Although the data are cross-sectional and causal inferences must be made with caution, we surmise that the characteristic of relatively high interpersonal flexibility among the subgroup of incest survivors may make them less at risk for abusive relationships or assaults, because they may be sensitive to opportunities for more positive relating and/or reworking of negative circumstances. Research is under way to identify the experiential factors that may contribute to interpersonal flexibility, such as the presence of role models outside of the abusive family system (e.g., teachers, strong peer friendships, aunts or uncles), positive therapy experiences, or the good fortune of having developed and sustained healthy intimate relationships in early adulthood.

Self-Appraisal: Shame

From a biosocial perspective, shame may result from physical and sexual assaults through the experience of submission and defeat. Andrews, Brown, Rose, and Kirk (2000) assessed individuals 1 month after they had experienced a violent crime, and again 6 months after initial assessment. The researchers found that feelings of shame at initial assessment were predictive of PTSD symptoms at time 1 and PTSD development at time 2. Of the respondents reporting high shame, the most common reason for feeling shame was that they had not taken effective action to prevent the victimization or trauma. This type of appraisal may also occur in children in abusive homes, despite their relative dependency and limited cognitive, physical, and social resources. One study noted that women with moderate or severe levels of child sexual abuse had significant levels of internalized shame (Playter, 1990). In addition to risk for PTSD, there is some evidence that shame is associated with risk for revictimization. In a large retrospective study of 548 college women, Kessler and Bieschke (1999) determined that shame mediated the relationship between childhood sexual abuse and adult victimization. Results also indicated that childhood sexual abuse survivors with higher levels of shame were more likely to be revictimized than both nonabused women and abused women with lower levels of internalized shame.

Shame appears to represent a sense of failure via experiences of defeat or submission. Beliefs that one is not competent to defend or protect oneself or others may create risk for successful revictimization via a self-fulfilling prophecy: "Given that I failed to protect myself then, I can't protect myself or don't deserve to protect myself now." Some data indicate that women who suffer from shame tend to become socially isolated and thus more vulnerable to future assaults (Kessler & Bieschke, 1999). It may be that a woman with high shame appraisal in a high-risk situation may quickly feel defeated or undeserving of escape and thus incapable of responding appropriately. Prospective studies are necessary to learn more about shame as a mediator between childhood sexual abuse and adult victimization.

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