Pop culture makes it look so easy. In reality, it can be very tricky to find a compatible romantic partner. There are so many possible reasons why you seem stuck when it comes to relationships. This process becomes even more difficult when you yourself feel unable to commit or afraid to accept it. Surely, you must wonder why things are this way. Disorganized attachment may lie at the root of your relationship struggles.
For many people, answers lie in the concept of attachment theory. At an early age, each of us learns how to bond in friendships and relationships. If these lessons do not promote a secure and flexible closeness, you may struggle in adulthood — especially if your attachment style is what we call “disorganized”.
What is Disorganized Attachment?
The term Disorganized attachment comes from an area of research in developmental psychology called attachment theory. It refers to a pattern of insecure attachment (early bonding) that can develop in childhood due to inconsistent or frightening caregiving experiences. One way to think of this particular type of attachment is by imagining a person who has an intensely felt conflict about closeness. This conflict is born of trauma and neglect.
A person with disorganized attachment feels pulled in two agonizing directions. They desperately long for for closeness and fear abandonment. But at the very same time, they feel strong physical impulses associated with the body’s survival system. So part of them clings in desperation, while another part of them fights, flees, freezes or submits.
Think of it like this; attachment style is a kind of a bonding template laid down in our early years. It reflect what the child learns about relationship. Attachement style is the habitual mode that a child uses to regulate:
- Physical and emotional closeness
- Emotional regulation.
So generally, a child with an avoidant attachment style will keep their distance, rely on self regulation skills, become alarmed and distressed with too much closeness. That child will downplay and minimize their needs. Inside, this child might be highly emotionally distressed, but they will appear calm, aloof and indifferent to intimacy. This is often because the child struggles with “alexithymia” (the ability to recognize and name their emotional states). This child has often been shamed, neglected or even been the object of impatience, frustration and criticism. This child learns to become rigidly self reliant and stay away from his caregivers. In effect, this is a little person who has given up on getting his/her needs met at all. The attachment system deactivates and the exploration system over activates.
This is quite different than a child who has an anxious pre-occupied attachment style. Such a child will become anxious and alarmed with too much distance. They will be prone toward being anxious, elevated and frustrated and will reach out to others for regulation. This child will amplify his needs and will always be scanning to find a connection. Because he has deficits in self regulation, meaning it’s really hard for them to calm and sooth themselves, he will often appear both needy and fussy. Children with an anxious attachment style are difficult to sooth, because underneath all that anxiety and frustration lies an even deeper fear. This young person is afraid of being abandoned and left behind. Settling down risks being ,invisible, ignored or left behind to die. This is a child who is hypervigilant and who resists autonomy, exploration and self reliance.
In disorganized attachment, the child’s attachment impulses get conditioned to fire right alongside the survival system. They are distressed and they are trapped. There is no good reliable way to feel safe. If this child turns to his parent for help, he may be attacked, ignored, punished, of shamed. If he stays away, he feels terrified, overwhelmed and unbearably alone. In an attempt at relief from overwhelming distress, this little person will also sometimes numb out and disconnect. This deep, intense conflict often displays itself in somatic symptoms like G.I. problems, pain, migraines and such.
So remember, a person with disorganized attachment style has a tortured mix of both highly anxious and highly avoidant behaviors. These lead to confusion and difficulty in forming healthy relationships, including romantic ones.
Let’s also point out that a healthy secure attachment parenting attachment style provides security, predictability and safety to an infant or child. Their parent and/or caregiver is reliable in meeting the child’s needs. A disorganized attachment may arise if the parent/caregiver is neglectful, displays extreme insensitivity, is under chronic high stress and:
- Creates a climate of fear or intimidation
- Doesn’t provide a safe space where an exploring child can return
- Leaves the child feeling unsure
- Behaves unpredictably and inconsistently
- Ignores a baby when it cries or seeks reassurance
- Teases or mocks the child
This dysfunctional approach to parenting creates a relationship in which the child is afraid of the very person it depends on for it’s survival. This attachment style is often passed down from generation to generation. The disorganized child grows into adulthood and displays the same unhealthy tendencies.
How Common Is Disorganized Attachment?
Research on disorganized attachment compiled by the National Institute of Health shows that approximately 15% of the general American Population qualifies as having a disorganized attachment style. 85% of maltreated children also do.
How Does Disorganized Attachment Impact Adult Relationships?
Adults with a disorganized attachment style want to love and be loved. However, they lean on counterproductive behaviors like:
- Not letting anyone get too emotionally close to them
- Being unwilling or unable to trust others
- Feeling deep shame and a sense of being unworthy of love
- Expecting rejection or abandonment
- Being unpredictable and expecting others to be dangerously unpredictable
- Choosing partners with marked insecure attachment styles
- Avoiding intimacy-because it is so triggering
- Intense emotions alternating with dissociation
- Sometimes being very critical and blaming toward their partners
A disorganized attachment style is tantamount to self-sabotage. You see warning signs even when they do not exist. An ugly breakup becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Feeling “doomed” to be alone feels like your fate. This can provoke more negative behavior — virtually guaranteeing that you will not find the commitment you crave.
In my practice, I’ve seen many hundreds of clients who have disorganized attachment styles. They frequently struggle with:
- Intense anger and rage (whether or not they act that rage out)
- Chronic Anxiety and fear
- Dissociative symptoms (numbing, derealization, depersonalization
- Unstable intense emotions
- A recurring sense of helplessness
- Being stuck in a submissive relational stance, for example: an extreme chronic people pleaser
Good News: You Can Change Your Disorganized Attachment Style
Most people are not aware of their attachment style. Thus, few people take the necessary steps to create positive change. But research shows that most people can change their attachment style. In the clinical literature, this is referred to as “earned secure attachment”. But in order to do this, it’s essential to work with a therapist on this process (more about that soon). Self help tools are great, but they are insufficient to the task of changing your attachment style.
Even so, there are some self-help steps to work on as a complement, e.g.
Mindfulness and Self-Awareness
A disorganized attachment style pulls you out of the present moment. You are too often dwelling on past hurts or fearing future betrayals. A mindfulness practice roots you in the only time that truly exists: the present. In such a state, you become more self-aware. You can identify and honor your needs. Meditation is a time-proven path toward more mindfulness. Talk to your therapist for more guidance on cultivating this life-altering skill.
Changing your attachment style is NOT an easy or quick task. Be patient with yourself. Also, practice patience with dealing with others. Your disorganized past has created many triggers but you do not have to react. That choice is yours.
Give yourself the nurturing love you need. This will help you prepare to accept it from others. Treat yourself with care and respect. Create daily routines related to healthy eating, regular sleep patterns, and physical activity.
Talk to a Mental Health Professional
In essence, disorganized attachment arises from a parent- child relationship that is frightening, or neglectful. If you had a high stress home life in your family of origin, then it’s important to get trauma informed care. If you seek help from a therapist it’s best to work with someone who has a strong trauma treatment background, and is steeped in attachment based treatment approaches.
Your weekly sessions can help you:
- Stop taking everything personally
- Increase your self-worth
- Practice being assertive when setting healthy boundaries
- Avoid manipulation
- Gain increased control of your emotions
If you want to heal from your disorganized attachment and your past, I would love to connect with you. Please read more about trauma therapy and contact me for a confidential consultation. Let’s get you moving on the path to recovery and lasting romance.