You are on page 1of 14


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 characteristics.

• 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.


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 trans- ferable 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 non- paternity 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

Sachmann and Johnson/FAMILICIDE-SUICIDE 101

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 misunder- standing 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 inte- grated (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 repre- sentations. 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 dis- orders 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; Holtzworth- Munroe & 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 disso- ciation, 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 com- promise 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 inter- related 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; Holtzworth- Munroe & 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 inter- preted as violent attacks on the self, leading to the self-feeling “all bad” resulting in a depressive

Sachmann and Johnson/FAMILICIDE-SUICIDE 103

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 observ- ing traits in perpetrators for years prior to the offence, particularly when partners attempted to leave. 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 attach- ments. 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

Sachmann and Johnson/FAMILICIDE-SUICIDE 105

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


Couple used

Had current

Father had access to children

History of

Evidence of

History of threats to kill

Family Court

court dispute

domestic violence























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 sub- stances 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, intimi- dation, 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 them- selves. 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 violence. 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 break- down. 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 effec- tive 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 sepa- ration. Our alternative theoretical formulation for familicide-suicide is based on a synergistic combination of attachment style, personality dysfunction, and hypothesised psychodynamic factors, as an expla- nation 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

Sachmann and Johnson/FAMILICIDE-SUICIDE 107

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, realiza- tion, and finally the lethal solution.

foci: symbiosis, separating, abandonment, attempts to reunify, realiza- tion, 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 domi- nating perception at any one time (accompanied by a dominating affect). This compartmentalisa- tion 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 emotionally.


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 109

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 mur- dering 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 follow- ing 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 con- cerning 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 per- sonality, 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 depres- sion, increased substance use and stalking (Johnson, 2005, pp. 62–64; 2006). The problem in Aus- tralian 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 accessed. 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 psychologi- cal 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 escalates. 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 interventions.


Alder, C., & Polk, K. (2001). Child victims of homicide. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders fourth edition (DSM-IV-TR). Washington, DC: Author.

Babcock, J. C., Jacobson, N. S., Gottman, J. M., & Yerington, T. P. (2000). Attachment, emotional regulation, and the function of marital violence: Differences between secure, preoccupied and dismissing violent and nonviolent husbands. Journal of Family Violence, 15 , 391–409. Bernstein, D. P., & Fink, L. (1998) Childhood trauma questionnaire: A retrospective self report. San Antonio, TX: The Psychological Corporation and Harcourt Brace and Company. Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and loss: Volume 1: Attachment. London: Hogarth Press. Bowlby, J. (1973). Attachment and loss: Volume 2: Separation, anxiety and anger. London: Hogarth Press. Butler, J. (2002, July 22). The “love” that kills. The West Australian. Retrieved from Factiva. Campbell, J. C., Webster, D., Koziol-McLain, J., Block, C., Campbell, D., Curry, M. A, et al. (2003). Risk factors for femicide-suicide in abusive relationships: Results from a multisite case control study. American Journal of Public Health,

93 , 1089–1097.

Chisholm, R. (2009). Family courts violence review: A report by Professor Richard Chisholm. A.M. Barton: Commonwealth of Australia.

Sachmann and Johnson/FAMILICIDE-SUICIDE 111

Commission on Domestic Violence. (2006). 10 myths about custody and domestic violence and how to counter them. Washington, DC: American Bar Association. Crockenberg, S. B. (1986). Are temperamental differences in babies associated with predictable differences in care giving? In J. V. Lerner & R. M. Lerner (Eds.), New directions for child and adolescent development: Vol. 31. Temperament and social interaction during infancy and childhood (pp. 53–73). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. Daly, M., & Wilson, M. (1988). Homicide. New York: Aldine De Gruyter. Dow Jones. (2011). Factiva. Available at Dutton, D. G., Saunders, K., Starzomski, A., & Bartholemew, K. (1994). Intimacy-anger and insecure attachment as precursors of abuse in intimate relationships. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 24, 1367–1386.

Dutton, D. G., Bodnarchuk, M., Kropp, R., Hart, S. D., & Ogloff, J. R. P. (1997). Wife assault treatment and criminal recidivism:

An 11-year follow-up. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 41, 9–23. Dutton, D. G. (1998). The abusive personality: Violence and control in intimate relationships (2nd ed.). New York:

Guilford. Dutton, D. G., & Kerry, G. (1999). Modus operandi and personality disorders in incarcerated spousal killers. International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, 22 , 287–299. Elisha, E., Idisis, Y., Timor, U., & Addad, M. (2010). Typology of intimate partner homicide: Personal, interpersonal and environmental characteristics of men who murdered their female intimate partner. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology. 54, 494–516. Ewing, C. P. (1997). Fatal families: The dynamics of intrafamilial homicide. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. Fantuzzo, J. W., & Lindquist, C. U. (1989). The effects of witnessing conjugal violence on children: A review and analysis of research methodology. Journal of Family Violence. 4, 77–94. Fitzpatrick, C. (1994, August 23). Doting father became killer. The West Australian. Fonagy, P. (2001). Attachment theory and psychoanalysis. New York: Other Press. Gondolf, E. W. (1988). Who are these guys? Toward a behavioral typology of batterers. Violence and Victims, 3 , 187–


Gregg, N., & Moore, T. (2004, November 25). A father’s love that went so horribly wrong. The Courier Mail. Hamberger, L. K., Lohr, J. M., Bonge, D., & Tolin, D. F. (1996). A large sample empirical typology of male spouse abusers and its relationship to dimensions of abuse. Violence and Victims, 11, 277–292. Holtzworth-Munroe, A., & Stuart, G. L. (1994). Typologies of male batterers: Three subtypes and the differences among them. Psychological Bulletin, 116, 476–497. Holtzworth-Munroe, A., Bates, A., Smutzler, N., & Sandin, E. (1997). A brief review of the research on husband violence:

Part I: Maritally violent versus nonviolent men. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 2 , 65–99. Holtzworth-Munroe, A., Meehan, J. C., Herron, K., Rehman, U., & Stuart, G. L. (2000). Testing the Holzworth-Munroe and Stuart (1994) Batterer typology. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 68, 1000–1019. Howe, D. (2005). Child abuse and neglect, attachment, development and intervention. Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. Huss, M. T., & Langhinrichsen-Rohling, J. (2000). Identification of the psychopathic batterer: The clinical, legal, and policy implications. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 5 , 403–422. Huss, M. T., & Langhinrichsen-Rohling, J. (2006). Assessing the generalization of psychopathy in a clinical sample of domestic violence perpetrators. Law and Human Behavior, 30 , 571–586. Huss, M. T., & Ralston, A. (2008). Do batterer subtypes actually matter? Treatment completion, treatment response, and recidivism across a batterer typology. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 35, 710–724. Johnson, C. H. (2005). Come with daddy: Child murder-suicide after family breakdown. Crawley, Australia: University of Western Australia Press.

Johnson, C. H. (2006). Familicide and family law: A study of filicide-suicide following separation. Family Court Review, 44 ,


Johnson, C. H. (2008). Killing the other killing the self: A distorted strategy for survival. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). The University of Western Australia. Kaspiew, R., Gray, M., Weston, R., Moloney, L., Hand, K., Qu, L., & the Family Law Evaluation Team (2009). Evaluation of the 2006 family law reforms. Melbourne, Australia: Australian Institute of Family Studies. Koziol-McLain, J., Webster, D., Mcfarlane, J., Block, C., Ulrich, Y., Glass, N., et al. (2006). Risk factors for femicide-suicide in abusive relationships: Results from a multisite case control study. Violence and Victims, 21 , 3–21. Liem, M. C. A. (2010). Homicide followed by suicide. An empirical analysis. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Utrecht University, Netherlands. Liotti, G. (1999). Understanding the dissociative processes: The contribution of attachment theory. Psychoanalytic Inquiry, 19,


Liotti, G., Pasquini, P., & The Italian Group for the Study of Dissociation. (2000). Predictive factors for borderline personality disorder: Patients’ early traumatic experiences and losses suffered by the attachment figure. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, 102 , 282–289. MacEwen, K. E. (1994). Refining the intergenerational transmission hypothesis. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 9 , 350–


Mahler, M. S., Pine, F., & Bergman, A. (1975). The psychological birth of the human infant. New York: Basic Books.


Main, M., Hesse, E., & Hesse, S. (2011). Attachment theory and research: Overview with suggested applications to child custody. Family Court Review, 49 , 426–463. Malmquist, C. P. (2006). Homicide: A psychiatric perspective (2nd ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Publishing. Mauricio, A. M., & Lopez, F. G. (2009). A latent classification of male batterers. Violence and Victims. 24, 419–440. Meloy, J. R. (1998). The psychology of stalking: Clinical and forensic perspectives. San Diego, CA: Academic Press. Moloney, L., Smyth, B., Weston, R., Richardson, N., Qu, L., & Gray, M. (2007). Allegations of family violence and child abuse in family law children’s proceedings: A pre-reform exploratory study (Research report no. 15). Melbourne, Australia:

Australian Institute of Family Studies. Retrieved from Owen, M. T., & Cox, M. J. (1997). Marital conflict and the development of infant-parent attachment relationships. Journal of

Family Psychology, 11, 152–164. Perry, B. D. (2002). Childhood experience and the expression of genetic potential: What childhood neglect tells us about nature and nurture. Brain and Mind , 3 , 79–100. Perry, B. D., Pollard, R. A., Blakley, T. L., Baker, W. L., & Vigilante, D. (1995). Childhood trauma, the neurobiology of adaption, and use-dependant development of the brain: How states become traits. Infant Health Journal, 16, 271–279. Reitzel-Jaffe, D., & Wolfe, D. A. (2001). Predictors of relationship abuse among young men. Journal of Interpersonal Violence,

16 , 99–115.

Roizen, J. (1993). Issues in the epidemiology of alcohol and violence. In S. E. Martin (Ed.), Alcohol and interpersonal violence:

Fostering multidisciplinary perspectives. (NIAAA Research Monograph No. 24) (pp. 3–36). Bethesda, MD: National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Rutter, M. (1995). Clinical implications of attachment concepts: Retrospect and prospect. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 36 , 549–571. Sachmann, M. (2001). The aetiological significance of early childhood trauma and temperament in the pathogenesis of borderline personality disorder. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). The University of Western Australia. Schore, A. N. (2001). The effects of early relational trauma on right brain development, affect regulation, and infant mental health. Infant Mental Health Journal, 22 , 201–269. Schore, A. N., & McIntosh, J. E. (2011). Family law and the neuroscience of attachment, part I. Family Court Review, 49,


Sheehan, G., & Smyth, B. (2000). Spousal violence and post separation financial outcomes. Australian Journal of Family Law,

14 , 102–118.

Siegel, D., & McIntosh, J. E. (2011). Family law and the neuroscience of attachment, part II. Family Court Review, 49 , 513–520. Stake, R. E. (1989). Case studies. In N. K. Denzin & Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.), The handbook of qualitative research (pp. 236–247). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. Tweed, R. G., & Dutton, D. G. (1998). A comparison of impulsive and instrumental subgroups of batterers. Violence and Victims , 13, 217–230. van der Kolk, B. A. (2003). The neurobiology of childhood trauma and abuse. Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North

America, 12 , 293–317. Van Ijzendoorn, M. H. (1995). Adult attachment representations, parental responsiveness, and infant attachment: A meta-analysis on the predictive validity of the Adult Attachment Interview. Psychological Bulletin, 117, 387–403. Virueda, M., & Payne, J. (2010). Homicide in Australia: 2007–08 National Homicide Monitoring Program annual report (AIC Reports Monitoring Reports 13). Canberra, Australia: Australian Institute of Criminology. Retrieved from http://

Waltz, J., Babcock, J. C., Jacobson, N. S., & Gottman, J. M. (2000). Testing a typology of batterers. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 68, 658–669. Watts, K. (1998, October 24). Finger of blame pointed at family court. The West Australian. Retrieved from Factiva. Websdale, N. (2010). Familicidal hearts: The emotional styles of 211 killers. New York: Oxford University Press. Wilson, M., Daly, M., & Daniele, A. (1995). Familicide-suicide: The killing of spouse and children. Aggressive Behavior, 21,


Winnicott, D. W. (1965). The family and individual development. London: Tavistock Publications.

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 person- ality 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 personality- disordered 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 113

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.