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Carolyn Johnson and Mark Sachmann

Familicide-suicide following separation is an underresearched and poorly understood offense. Findings from previous research
are inconclusive about risk factors and perpetrator motivation. This article explores common myths about the offense in relation
to some of the findings from two studies of familicide-suicide following separation undertaken in Western Australia. A new
conceptualization of the offense is proposed based on attachment theory, the neurobiology of trauma, and the possible
subconscious motivation of perpetrators, which may be helpful in assessing risk of familicide-suicide in family court cases.
• There are warning signs to familicide-suicide following separation.
• Warning signs are often not recognised or not adequately communicated to decision makers.
• Risk factors are dynamic and therefore not always able to be assessed in tests that measure static personality
• Assessment needs to involve input from family members and collaboration with other agencies.
• Judicial decision making should be informed by comprehensive psychological profiles including childhood abuse
history, adult attachment assessments, level of narcissism, degree of symbiosis in the relationship and history of
domestic violence, including threats to kill and/or suicide.
Keywords: Attachment; Childhood Trauma; Familicide; Familicide-Suicide; and Marital Separation.

The term “familicide” is used to describe a range of different perpetrator-victim configurations, for
example, murder-suicide where the spouse and children are killed (Alder & Polk, 2001, p. 13; Websdale,
2010), massacres that include members of the extended family (Ewing, 1997, p. 134; Websdale, 2010),
murder of the spouse and children without perpetrator suicide (Daly & Wilson, 1988, p. 82), and
offenses where children, but not the spouse are killed, with or without perpetrator suicide (Johnson,
2005, pp. 126–127). We have adopted the term “familicide-suicide,” the term used by Liem (2010, p. 52)
to describe multiple killing of family members associated with perpetrator suicide. Perpetrators of
familicide-suicide are almost exclusively male (Alder & Polk, 2001; Johnson, 2005; Websdale, 2010)
so we use the masculine pronoun throughout this article, in general reference to perpetrators.
The ideas we posit refer only to familicide-suicide following separation, and may not be transferable to other forms of the offense. They are founded on the results of two previously published
Western Australian Studies (Johnson, 2005, 2006). Therefore, the purpose of this article is to combine
results from both studies to explore common myths about the offense, and to propose a new
constellation of risk factors.
Malmquist (2006, p. 253) raised the issue of psychotic depression as a factor in familicide. He
explains that anger towards the self becomes mobilised and externalised in familicide, but does not
clarify how this process occurs or what triggers it. Wilson, Daly and Daniele (1995) propose that
“masculine uxorial proprietariness” is a significant factor. Whilst this may explain a man killing his
wife, it is not readily apparent why he should also kill his children. They hypothesise that nonpaternity amongst the perpetrators of familicide-suicide may be a factor, yet most studies (including
theirs) note the lower incidence of step-children in familicide-suicide than in filicide (Alder & Polk,

FAMILY COURT REVIEW, Vol. 52 No. 1, January 2014 100–113
© 2014 Association of Family and Conciliation Courts

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2001, p. 78; Johnson, 2005, p. 48; Wilson, Daly, & Daniele, 1995). None of these authors have been
able to satisfactorily explain why partners are rarely killed in familicide-suicide following separation
(unlike familicide-suicide following community shaming). Websdale (2010) examined 211 cases of
familicide, but excluded cases where the partner was not killed. In acknowledging the exploratory
nature of his extensive work and the “haunting presence of the inexplicable” in familicide-suicide
(Websdale, 2010, p. 277), he warns that the personal characteristics of perpetrators are complex and
need to be considered against the historical, psychic and biographical context of the offence
(Websdale, 2010, p. 273) indicating that existing methods of risk assessment are inadequate. A
significant gap remains in the literature in relation to risk factors that may contribute to misunderstanding and/or myths about the offence. We present our research findings and consider them in the
context of the literature on attachment, personality dysfunction and the neurobiological effects of
abuse on children, as a contribution towards understanding familicide following separation.

Attachment theory attempts to explain how we see ourselves, our environment and how we relate
to one another. Our characteristic way of attaching and relating to others is seen as a result of
internalised working models that provide expectations about future relationships derived from our
early childhood relational experiences (Bowlby, 1969; Rutter, 1995; Winnicott, 1965, pp. 15–17).
If a child is usually soothed by his carer and has his needs attended to, he learns to self-soothe by
internalising the positive representation of the nurturing “good” parent (Mahler, Pine, & Bergman,
1975, pp. 52–64). Eventually, with the security born of stable parenting, the child is supported in his
moves towards autonomy. He is able to experience himself, with growing confidence, as a separate
entity and achieves what is commonly termed “healthy individuation.”
With healthy individuation comes a capacity to venture away from the primary carer, and to cope
with adversity, by drawing on the internalised representations of the “good” parent (Mahler et al.,
1975). The child emerging from a secure base learns to tolerate those times when an otherwise
nurturing parent occasionally frustrates his needs. This pattern of experience forms the basis for a
cognitive schema wherein positive and negative attributes of self and “other” are flexible and integrated (not “all good” or “all bad”) and recognition that when needs are not met, these experiences are
not overwhelming, and that these experiences do not mean that the “other” is rejecting or abandoning.
Future relationships are likely to be adaptive so when rejection or abandonment are experienced, they
can be worked through and resolved. Thus, a secure attachment with the primary carer enables the
child to progress from symbiosis in infancy (lack of differentiation from the carer) to healthy
autonomy in childhood (individuation from the carer) and supports ability throughout the lifespan to
engage in and maintain relationships with others, and to emotionally survive the demise of intimacy.
Alternatively, if a child’s experience of parenting is unpredictable, inconsistent, or abusive, he is
not able to achieve this degree of integration of self in relation to others (Mahler et al., 1975, pp.
39–109). The risk of attachment pathology is then significantly increased (Main, Hesse, & Hesse,
2011) and may result in disorganised attachment, which is highly correlated to early childhood
abuse, intense abandonment anxiety, controlling behaviours, and poorly integrated self-object representations. Disorganised attachment is frequently found in individuals with Cluster B personality
disorders (Fonagy, 2001, p. 37; Owen & Cox, 1997; van Ijzendoorn, 1995). Furthermore, abusive
early attachments significantly elevate the risk for behavioural vulnerabilities for violent acting out
(Holtzworth-Munroe & Stuart, 1994).

An understanding of personality dynamics is essential to the understanding the complexities
of interpersonal functioning and the risk factors for violent behaviour. Personality reflects the



individual’s most fundamental behaviours, which also include the way one relates to, perceives, and
thinks about the environment and oneself (American Psychiatric Association, 2000). Moreover, where
pervasive and enduring socio-behavioural problems occur, the possible presence of personality disorders warrants consideration.
Personality dysfunction as expressed in the need for omnipotent control, fears of abandonment and
rejection, identity formation (corresponding to narcissistic, antisocial and borderline diagnoses)
together with specific attachment typologies (frequently relating to the diagnoses cited above) have all
been empirically determined in research examining batterer typologies (Gondolf, 1988; HoltzworthMunroe & Stuart, 1994; Holtzworth-Munroe, Meehan, Herron, Rehman, & Stuart, 2000; Tweed &
Dutton, 1998; Waltz, Babcock, Jacobson, & Gottman, 2000). Research findings on the correlation
between Cluster B personality disorders and domestic violence show high rates of Borderline
Personality Disorder (BPD), Antisocial Personality Disorder (APD) and Narcissistic Personality
Disorder (NPD) diagnoses amongst male perpetrators (Babcock, Jacobson, Gottman, & Yerington,
2000; Dutton, 1998; Hamberger, Lohr, Bonge, & Tolin, 1996; Holtzworth-Munroe, Bates, Smutzler,
& Sandin, 1997; Holtzworth-Munroe & Stuart, 1994; Mauricio & Lopez, 2009). Poor impulse control,
affect dysregulation, narcissism, and vulnerability to paranoid ideations are associated with general
physical violence, domestic violence and destructive acting out behaviours directed towards the self
(Holtzworth-Munroe et al., 1997; Roizen, 1993). The presence of Cluster B pathology, or significant
Cluster B traits, is significant and central to our formulation.

Repeated abuse, particularly within important early attachment relationships, has been shown to
influence the way the brain is organised physiologically and its ability to accurately interpret the
intentions of others (Perry, 2002; Perry, Pollard, Blakley, Baker, & Vigilante, 1995; Schore, 2001; van
der Kolk, 2003). The physiological changes include the release of neurochemicals, which have an
impact on the individual’s emotional responses, including vulnerability to hyperarousal and dissociation, and when repeated over time, may become long term traits of the personality (Perry et al.,
1995; Schore, 2001; van der Kolk, 2003).
Furthermore, the child’s behavioural response to living with abuse memories may further compromise the parent child relationship, as they may be perceived as unresponsive or rejecting
(Crockenberg, 1986). In this way, attachment disturbance and abuse related sequelae may be interrelated with the negative effects tending to persist throughout the lifespan (Howe, 2005, p. 47; Siegel
& McIntosh, 2011). In addition, early relational abuse may alter the development of the right brain,
and thereby impair the ability to attach, empathise and feel compassion and remorse (Schore, 2001;
Schore & McIntosh, 2011). Most importantly, the ability to function autonomously within adult
intimate relationships is also seriously compromised.

Perpetrator attachment typology and intimate partner violence have been examined by a number of
researchers (Babcock et al., 2000; Dutton, Saunders, Starzomski, & Bartholemew, 1994; HoltzworthMunroe & Stuart, 1994; Holtzworth-Munroe et al., 2000; Mauricio & Lopez, 2009; Tweed & Dutton,
1998). As in the case of perpetrator typologies, attachment dynamics are not homogenous, reflecting
different personality pathologies, life experience, and temperamental variance, though a number of
important themes consistently emerge from the empirical literature.
Many individuals with Cluster B personality disorders have proclivities towards self-destructive
behaviours, and destructive behaviours towards others. Acts experienced as rejecting may be interpreted as violent attacks on the self, leading to the self-feeling “all bad” resulting in a depressive

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reaction. But there is a simultaneous intense rage, directed at the “other” who is also seen as “all bad”
(Fonagy, 2001; Meloy, 1998, p. 18). Hence, abusive, violent or even lethal behaviour towards the
“other” may be seen as justified.
Perpetrator typology research has found that anxious, avoidant and disorganised attachment
typologies render an individual vulnerable to intense abandonment anxiety and rage, which may
manifest in violent acting out. (Dutton et al., 1994; Holtzworth-Munroe & Stuart, 1994; Mauricio &
Lopez, 2009; Waltz et al., 2000). Furthermore, anxious avoidant and disorganised attachment have
been demonstrated to be significantly represented in individuals with BPD.
Individuals with BPD frequently present with a poorly integrated sense of self. In essence, BPD
is a disorder of both the regulation of, and the experience of, the self. Personality dynamics, and in
their more attenuated form personality disorders, fundamentally determine how individuals relate to
both the self and to others, and in times of conflict also determine the type of acting out response.
The behavioural and relational dynamics of individuals with BPD can be characterised by the
following: poor impulse control; poor frustration tolerance; problems with affect regulation;
absence of genuine remorse for negative behaviors; lack of empathy; little acknowledgment of the
needs/feelings of others; dependent; marked feelings of abandonment and/or rejection; suspicious
attitudes; vulnerability to suicidal ideation and intent; vulnerability to substance abuse; sense of
entitlement; difficulty developing and maintaining stable relationships; and vulnerability to
marked feelings of anger (American Psychiatric Association, 2000). The presence of non-psychotic
forms of cognitive impairment such as depersonalization, dissociation, paranoid ideation, brought
on by transient psychosocial stress, are common in BPD. As such, BPD is a disorder characterised
by vulnerability to relationship breakdown. Secondary victims of familicide-suicide report observing traits in perpetrators for years prior to the offence, particularly when partners attempted to
Whilst we would expect to find the presence of APD in perpetrators of familicide-suicide due to
their capacity to act out along violent ways, (Dutton & Kerry, 1999; Huss & Langhinrichsen-Rohling,
2000; Huss & Langhinrichsen-Rohling, 2006; Huss & Ralston 2008) our retrospective examination of
the psychological profiles of perpetrators in our studies leads us to believe that BPD is even more
likely to be represented. Specific dynamics and experiences characteristic of BPD render these
individuals more vulnerable to the negative psychosocial sequelae of separation; notably a marked
sensitivity to rejection and abandonment, affective regulatory dysfunction, higher levels of abuse,
high substance abuse issues and a propensity to act out destructively along personal and interpersonal
lines (Fonagy, 2001, p. 101).
Affective regulatory dysfunction is a diagnostic criterion for BPD (American Psychiatric
Association, 2000) that increases the risk for violent acting out when under the strain of separation.
Moreover, the disorganised and anxious/ambivalent attachment patterns evident in BPD individuals
are characterised by constant checking for the proximity of the partner, persistent calls for attention
or to be noticed, and dependent clinging behaviours. Combined with affective regulatory dysfunction,
they increase the risk for interpersonal violence.
BPD individuals frequently develop extreme, poorly integrated, and unrealistic expectations of
interpersonal relationships and oscillate between idealising and devaluing their interpersonal attachments. Their need for symbiosis in intimacy drives their behaviour and BPD individuals develop a
highly regressed dependency on their partner. This can quickly become hostile when, inevitably, the
caregiver fails to deliver everything the BPD individual needs. The internal dialogue is along the lines
of, “You will be responsible for all of my happiness. If you can’t achieve that, then you will become
responsible for all of my unhappiness.”
Bowlby (1973) proposed “multiple working models” of attachment to explain why individuals may
demonstrate contradictory polarised thoughts and feelings regarding their relationships whilst under
stress, which closely resemble the interpersonal consequences of splitting so evident in individuals
with BPD and which renders them vulnerable to hating the “other” they supposedly desperately need.
Research has demonstrated that multiple working models frequently appear in individuals with
dissociative symptoms and BPD personality (Liotti, 1999; Liotti et al., 2000).



Despite the BPD individual demanding high levels of attention and emotional availability from
their partner, they frequently act in unpredictable, manipulative, and self-destructive ways that
promote the very rejection they fear. Whilst the presence of a personality disorder, such as BPD, helps
us understand the dynamics that may contribute to violence following separation, it should not remove
personal responsibility from the perpetrator, nor be used as an excuse for him to avoid appropriate
consequences for his offences.

The first study considered seven cases of familicide-suicide following separation and the second
considered two cases, providing a total of nine cases. Together they mapped the long term antecedents
of all cases of familicide following separation that occurred in Western Australia over a twenty year
period (1986–2005) plus an earlier offense, included at the request of secondary victims and due to
the low incidence of the offence.

The aim in each study was to determine whether there were common factors in familicide-suicide
that might assist in hypothesising about causal factors. As little is known about the topic and as small
as the “n” is, a collective case study design was adopted in each study (Stake, 1989, p. 237).

A qualitative approach was taken as the research was exploratory and total sample size small.
Descriptive data were collected from police reports, Coroner’s and Family Court Counselling Service
records, newspapers and electronic media archives (Dow Jones, 2011). In depth interviews were also
undertaken with four secondary victims, and a surviving perpetrator, who also completed the Child
Trauma Questionnaire (Bernstein & Fink, 1998). All data for each offense were collated in a working
file and then demographics and offense details were transferred onto a spreadsheet for further analysis,
whilst a thematic analysis was undertaken of the qualitative data.

We combined the findings from the two studies to consider the common factors in antecedents to
the offences regarding certain myths that exist in the community, and then drew from attachment
theory, personality dysfunction and the neurobiology of trauma to formulate an understanding of the
psychological processes underpinning familicide-suicide following separation.

Familicide-suicide offenses usually generate extensive and emotive media coverage. Since there is
limited knowledge about causal factors, certain myths persist in the community about the offense and
are reflected in newspaper headlines, “Letters to the Editor,” and public statements by men’s lobby
groups when offenses occur.
The first and most prevalent myth is that familicide-suicide is caused by a dispute in the Family
Court (e.g., Butler, 2002; Watts, 1998). The latter article referred to a view that men’s frustration with
the Court process was leading to homicidal violence. However, in the present studies four of the nine

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Table 1
Summary of findings for nine cases in relation to community myths


Couple used
Family Court

Had current
court dispute

Father had access
to children

History of
domestic violence

Evidence of

History of
threats to kill







couples had not used the court process at all. Of the five couples that did use the court, one simply used
the registry to file a Deed of Agreement about financial matters and child custody; two reached
consent about access through the court process; and only two had an outstanding legal dispute about
access at the time of the offense.
The second myth is that perpetrators kill their children because they are denied access, although
why lack of contact should lead a man to murder his children is unclear. The evidence disputes the idea
that offender motivation is related to loss of access. One man’s access to his children could not be
determined, seven of the eight men who did have access to their children committed the offense during
this time.
A third myth is that separating women invent or exaggerate domestic violence and child abuse. Yet
research has repeatedly shown these issues are core business of the Family Court (Chisholm, 2009;
Commission on Domestic Violence, 2006; Kaspiew et al., 2009; Moloney et al., 2007; Sheehan &
Smyth, 2000) and the current studies found women survivors of familicide denied, minimised or did
not recognise abusive behavior, and did not try to stop the perpetrator having access with the children.
This is particularly concerning because research has shown that witnessing or living with domestic
violence, carries with it the risk of pervasive and enduring psychological damage to children
(Fantuzzo & Lindquist, 1989; Sachmann, 2001, pp. 126–127). Moreover, experiencing violence from
caregivers in childhood, increases the individual’s risk of becoming a perpetrator and/or a victim
(Dutton, Bodnarchuk, Kropp, Hart, & Ogloff, 1997; Elisha, Idisis, Timor, & Addad, 2010; MacEwen,
1994; Reitzel-Jaffe & Wolfe, 2001).
A fourth myth is that familicide-suicide is a spontaneous act (e.g., Butler, 2002). However, this
research found a different profile, wherein perpetrators made prior threats to kill and engaged in
careful preparations, indicative of premeditation, including purchasing weapons, restraints, or substances to sedate children, adapting a hosepipe to fit an exhaust pipe and ensuring uninterrupted, sole
access to children.
Finally, and inexplicably, a fifth myth is evidenced by media headlines that infer these offenses are
somehow an act of love (e.g., Fitzpatrick, 1994; Gregg & Moore, 2004; Butler, 2002). In contrast, this
research suggests perpetrator motivation is more related to an obsessive need to control, and a desire
to inflict harm on his ex-partner for leaving him, rather than love for his children. Seven men warned
their wives that if they left, they would kill them, and/or kill the children and/or themselves. The
history of threats was unknown in two cases. Table 1 shows a summary of some of the findings across
both studies in relation to community myths.

In each case the perpetrator was male. Seven committed suicide and the remaining two
survived their suicide attempt. Twenty-one children aged between one and ten years were murdered,
eleven girls and ten boys. The primary mode of homicide and suicide was carbon monoxide poisoning,
with one case where the children were gassed, stabbed, and set alight, one where they were stabbed
and another where they were shot. Fifteen children were killed whilst in their father’s sole care



(primarily on access visits) (6 cases) four were killed at home (2 cases), and two after being abducted
(1 case).
In one case, the antecedents to the offense were unknown, but in the remaining eight, the marital
relationships appeared to have been characterised by a history of serious domestic violence, intimidation, and highly threatening behaviour, similar to those found in uxoricide (sometimes referred
to as femicide) (Campbell et al., 2003; Koziol-McLean et al., 2006). Perpetrators’ prior violence
included, but was not limited to, assaulting, pushing, shoving, gagging, restraining and stalking their
wives, breaking into their property, and threatening to kill them and/or their children and/or themselves. Notwithstanding similarities, there were also major differences in the profiles of these nine
cases, relative to the classic profile in femicide. For example, most children were killed by carbon
monoxide poisoning, whereas in Australia the primary mode of femicide is stabbing (Johnson, 2008;
Virueda & Payne, 2010). Unlike femicide, perpetrator unemployment, access to guns, and the
presence of a non-biological child of the perpetrator, were not common factors. Furthermore, there
was only one case of familicide-suicide, where the perpetrator killed his wife. Although women
reported being subjected to a range of violent behaviours by their partners, they did not describe them
as violent, or report violence to the Family Court. Women’s failure to recognise or name abusive
behaviours as domestic violence may explain under-reporting in the Family Court, providing an
argument for proactive, structured, and detailed assessments identifying all forms of domestic
Each of the secondary victims interviewed described perpetrators as having personality traits in
common, such as egocentricity, obsessiveness, pathological jealousy, lack of individuation and a need
to control, which made them difficult to live with, and which contributed to the relationship breakdown. These traits are consistent with BPD. When data from all sources were collated it became clear
that perpetrators’ mental health had deteriorated significantly following separation. Depression,
increased drug and alcohol consumption, escalating obsessiveness, stalking and increasing attempts to
control the victim were a common feature of this. One man rehearsed the offence, and two broke into
their ex-partner’s house to spy on them by hiding in the ceiling. In spite of these clear signs of
emotional disturbance, there was no evidence of the men receiving psychological or psychiatric
treatment, or in the cases that went to court, any psychological or psychiatric reports being ordered.
The single perpetrator interviewed indicated he had experienced childhood trauma which was
supported by the results of the Child Trauma Questionnaire (Bernstein & Fink, 1998). Secondary
victims also spontaneously reported childhood trauma in the lives of both perpetrators and their
partners. This is consistent with BPD, the reported profiles of perpetrators, and the difficulty women
had in leaving.

How might these research findings inform our understanding about this offence and guide effective assessment and prevention strategies? Families that come before the Family Court are a biased
population. In Australia, at least fifty percent of the Court’s cases meet the criteria for domestic
violence and/or child abuse (Chisholm, 2009; Moloney et al., 2007; Sheehan & Smyth, 2000). In
these cases there is often a refusal to accept the reality of separation, and a refusal to comply with
Court Orders, including Violence Restraining Orders. This often coalesces into highly litigious
behaviours characterised by emotionally charged allegations and counter allegations. Kaspiew et al.
(2009), found mediating couples also reported high rates of violence with 53 percent of men and 65
percent of women reporting they had been physically hurt or emotionally abused preceding separation.
Our alternative theoretical formulation for familicide-suicide is based on a synergistic combination
of attachment style, personality dysfunction, and hypothesised psychodynamic factors, as an explanation for the failure of perpetrators to manage the trauma of separation. Whilst other conceptual
formulations incorporating attachment theory and personality dysfunction have been proposed for

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domestic violence (Holtzworth-Munroe & Stuart, 1994; Mauricio & Lopez, 2009; Waltz, Babcock,
Jacobson, & Gottman, 2000), we offer explicit formulations, and analyses of the various attachment
themes, individual psychodynamics, defensive functioning, and finally behavioural sequelae that
represent risk factors to familicide-suicide based on our research. This formulation augments current
theories of familicide-suicide by incorporating what is known about the psychological process of
attachment, personality, and the neurobiology of trauma. We propose, in familicide-suicide, it is the
perpetrator’s lack of individuation that makes it difficult to separate, and increases the risk of lethality
to the “other” and to the self. The following diagram and discussion identify and articulate the
psychodynamic process leading up to and culminating in an act of familicide-suicide. They focus on
six fundamental psychosocial foci: symbiosis, separating, abandonment, attempts to reunify, realization, and finally the lethal solution.



The individual who has sustained abuse in childhood may not be able to adequately adjust to
future relationship breakdowns because of his need for symbiosis. He is psychologically unable to
experience co-existing disparate images of himself and his partner but rather has a single dominating perception at any one time (accompanied by a dominating affect). This compartmentalisation of experiences of self and others renders personality integration impossible and relational
dynamics highly chaotic and potentially explosive. When he feels good he feels good about her.
When he feels bad or rejected, his perception of her is tainted by his subjective experience. His
psychology oscillates between an intense need to fuse, possess and control, moving to the other
extreme, an acute desire to reject, abandon, and destroy. The overwhelming negative emotions
experienced when wanting to destroy, may lead to violent acting out behaviour, even to homicide,
suicide or homicide-suicide.

In relationships characterised by male perpetrated violence, the woman is usually the one who
precipitates the separation, even though she may have similar dependency needs to her partner. She
may have tried to leave a number of times, particularly when she sees violence escalating to potentially
lethal proportions, but has been cajoled and/or threatened until she returned. Loss of his partner causes
the man to feel fragmented and less than whole. (I am not in a relationship; therefore I do not fully
exist). He feels depressed and sees no future for himself. He regresses both psychologically and

Abandonment highlights the man’s poorly integrated sense of self, primitive defensive functioning
(i.e. splitting), and emotional regulatory dysfunction. He may at first deny the loss, but soon becomes
consumed with thoughts of retrieving the “other.” He is overwhelmed by destructive emotions such as
depression, anxiety, and rage that he feels unable to control, and defends against this by attempting to
control his environment instead. His attempts are primarily directed towards desperately seeking the
object of his attachment in order to reunite, control, and feel whole again.

He may use a variety of regressive defenses, manipulative behaviours and statements of acute need,
to emphasise his psychological vulnerability in an attempt to induce rescuing responses from his
partner and thereby achieve reunification. This may include threats, promises, suicidality, and stalking.
We believe stalking may be conceptualized as a subconscious pathological need for omnipotent
control of the “other,” manifested in a form of proximity seeking behaviour, that has its origins in the
infant’s need for symbiosis. This need for proximity and control may lead to multiple breaches of
restraining orders, and indicates a high risk to his partner.

When the man realises the woman does not intend to return he splits off the part of himself that
feels “all bad” (depressed) and projects it onto the source of the disequilibrium, his partner. This
projection is necessary since his narcissism will not allow him to accept that he owns these feelings

Sachmann and Johnson/FAMILICIDE-SUICIDE


and his need to control them must be achieved by controlling her. Thus, depression and rage exist
simultaneously. The threat is experienced most intensely, when he perceives there is no chance of
reconciliation. Up until that point even though a physical separation may have occurred, he may
believe that reconciliation is possible or inevitable. He remains hopeful of returning to the proximity
of the “other.” This may explain why in some cases familicide-suicide immediately follows separation,
in others may occur directly following a court order, and yet in others may not occur until after the
court process is complete. When all hope of reconciliation is gone the perpetrator’s co-existing rage
and depression lead to:

The lethal solution emanates from a retaliatory motivation, where the rage is expressed in murdering the children, to cause the maximum pain to their mother who at this time is experienced as “all
bad.” This explains why in familicide-suicide following separation (unlike familicide-suicide following financial loss or community shaming) the woman is rarely killed, even though there may have been
a history of homicidal threats, because by killing the children and not her, he will cause her enduring
pain. However, there is also a simultaneous depression with strong suicidal elements that emanates
from the feelings of rejection, loss, and emptiness. The self is “all bad.” It is an expression of defensive
omnipotent control aimed at destroying the relationships the woman loves most of all. In effect, having
control over life and death.

A complex problem such as familicide-suicide will not be successfully addressed with
reductionist theoretical explanations, simplistic solutions, or a checklist of hypothesised risk factors.
This article offers some of our research data, clinical opinions, and theoretical speculations concerning the origins of some of the dynamics contributing to familicide-suicide. It is by no means
presented as the definitive solution. The need for further research is clearly indicated. However, we
do propose there are some things the Court and the community can do better. The challenge for
couples with a history of complex trauma and personality dysfunction is to separate without feeling
destroyed, destroying one another and/or destroying their children in the process. Unfortunately, the
adversarial nature of the court process may escalate risk when couples are continually brought
together for counselling, hearings, conferences and mediation. The continual contact may amplify
reminders of unwanted separateness, exacerbate the conflict and increase the difficulty of resolving
personal feelings of abandonment in vulnerable clients, with escalating rage and depression.
Research has demonstrated that there are warning signs to familicide-suicide. (Johnson, 2005, pp.
131–132; 2006; 2008, pp. 141–174). These are a history of domestic violence preceding separation,
refusal to accept the finality of separation, narcissism, egocentricity, an obsessive controlling personality, pathological jealousy, a history of threats to harm self and others, including children, a
marked deterioration in mental health following separation, including but not restricted to depression, increased substance use and stalking (Johnson, 2005, pp. 62–64; 2006). The problem in Australian jurisdictions has often been that information pertaining to warning signs, in particular cases,
has not been available to decision makers, is partial or is filtered before it gets into court. Much of
the information lies with family members, rather than with professionals, and is not routinely
For every child who is murdered, there are many more who are sent into pathological family
contexts where they are emotionally abused and neglected, as a result of lack of information,
inadequate assessments and/or a naïve optimism. There are inherent inadequacies with psychological assessments that rely on psychometric tests and/or a one off interview that provide a static
measurement of personality characteristics. However, the risk factors with these individuals are not



static, but dynamic, relating more to histories of abuse, negative attachment dynamics within their
primary relationships, controlling behaviour, and in particular the level of symbiosis they require in
order to function and feel whole. The type of individual most likely to commit familicide-suicide
may never be formally diagnosed with a mental illness, and is far more likely to have traits in his
personality that meet the criteria for a Cluster B personality disorder (Johnson, 2005, p. 135). He is
likely to be highly manipulative, he is quite capable of participating in clinical interviews and
presenting a stable psychological picture, sufficiently to convince the professional making the
assessment that he is a low risk. It is only when confronted with a situation, which fundamentally
challenges his sense of self, augments his abandonment issues, his need for control, and resultant
defensive splitting, where the other is seen as “all bad” and therefore retaliation is justified, that risk
A new paradigm is required that has the capacity to respond more appropriately in terms of
assessment, treatment and disposition. Such a model would incorporate input from family members
and obtain information pertaining to risk that may otherwise not be heard. This paradigm would allow
for communication, collaboration, and referral between community agencies in an attempt to secure
better outcomes for families. Assessment needs to be focused on attachment characteristics, in
particular the level of disorganised attachment and their level of narcissism. Other important foci
should include their defensive functioning, attachment typology, experience of childhood abuse, any
historically demonstrated domestic violence behaviours, and Cluster B personality disorders. Do they
conceive of the possibility of a life without their partner? Or do they feel they cannot exist separately?
Do they have a need for omnipotent control? Are they pathologically jealous of their partner? It is
important that ongoing assessments are made throughout the court process and that these involve
members of the wider family system, not just the couple themselves, for the research has shown that
couples often have similar backgrounds and are therefore unable to recognise, risk.
When considering prevention, collaborative case management has more to offer than a model
where the Family Court operates in isolation. The child protection authorities need to be key players,
working with the court to ensure children’s safety in an ongoing way. There needs to be an extension
of professional input, to include clinical work with families, rather than singular, static, simple risk
assessments, with feedback to the court if concerns are identified. Careful consideration should be
given to those who supervise access, as family members whose life experiences may parallel those of
the perpetrator, are unlikely to perceive risk, or to be able to intervene effectively to protect children.
Finally, judicial decisions should be informed by comprehensive psychological profiles including
adult attachment assessments and a clear appraisal of the long-term antecedents. The judicial officer
may then be in possession of information that is more likely to promote effective preventative
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Mark Sachmann is an assistant professor in the School of Population Health, Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry at the
University of Western Australia. He teaches in the areas of mental health, counselling, psychological theory, and
research methods. His research interests focus on developing risk-factor modeling incorporating early childhood
trauma experiences and genetic temperamental vulnerabilities in the aetiology of personality disorders. He has 24 years
of experience in working with adult and adolescent psychiatric presentations, primarily specializing in severe personality disordered presentations (in both hospital and private practice settings). He is a clinical consultant for a number
of state government and private organizations throughout Australia. Over the last 16 years, he has trained hundreds of
clinicians all over Australia in the psychoanalytic approach to the diagnosis, management, and treatment of personalitydisordered presentations, in particular borderline personality disorders. He has authored a number of articles on the
aetiology and psychodynamics of personality disorders, the clinical management of suicidality, and the psychodynamics
of familicide-suicide.

Sachmann and Johnson/FAMILICIDE-SUICIDE

Carolyn Harris Johnson is a researcher and assistant professor in the School of Population Health, Faculty of Medicine
and Dentistry at the University of Western Australia. She is a social worker with 30 years of experience in the fields of
criminal justice, child protection, and the family court. She has been a consultant to Australian state and federal
governments on domestic violence and intrafamilial homicide. Her research interests include filicide, intimate partner
homicide, familicide, and the intergenerational transmission of trauma. Her groundbreaking research on familicide
following separation was published in the book, Come with Daddy (2005), and was influential in increasing professional
and community understanding of risk factors in familicide.