Define Attachment: Understanding The Word And The Theory

By ReGain Editorial Team|Updated July 11, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Dawn Brown, LPC

How Does Attachment Impact Your Life And Relationships?
This website is owned and operated by BetterHelp, who receives all fees associated with the platform.

The first modern studies of attachment began laying out the various attachment styles for infants. More recently, researchers have found similar attachment types in adults. Of all the attachment types, both for infants and those for adults, disorganized attachment is perhaps the most problematic.

What Is Disorganized Attachment?

Attachment is the deep, personal connection you have with another person. Infants attach to their primary caregivers. Adults may remain attached to their parents, but they also form attachments to romantic partners and close friends.

Organized Infant Attachments

Most types of attachment are organized. When something distressing happens, your parent, romantic partner, or close friend responds predictably.

When a securely attached infant is hungry, they cry, and their caregiver brings them food. An infant with an avoidant attachment has learned that crying won't make the caregiver bring the food faster. Instead, the mother rejects them. So, they avoid the mother. A resistant infant shows angry behavior when the mother finally brings the food.

Disorganized Infant Attachment

A disorganized attachment is different because the infant never knows what to expect. The mother might respond quickly and lovingly one time and ignore them the next. The primary caregiver exhibits strange or frightening behaviors. They mistreat them or even abuse them sometimes and care for them other times. The infant can't count on them, so their behavior is erratic. They may vacillate between behaviors that seem avoidant and anxious.

Disorganized Adult Attachment

Attachment styles can change during the lifespan, but the infant attachment style influences adult attachment.

Adults with disorganized attachment have the same root problem as disorganized infants. As infants, they've learned that they can't rely on others for consistent acceptance and care and that their caregiver will abuse them regardless of what they do.

Adults can choose who they attach to, but they usually choose partners that confirm their attachment beliefs. Usually, they search for someone who will exhibit frightening, frightened, inconsistent responses when they seek connection without even realizing it.

Once in a relationship, their disorganized attachment style informs the way they behave towards their partner. What's more, the person with a disorganized adult attachment tends to behave in ways that increase their insecurity.

How To Recognize Signs Of Disorganized Attachment

Certain ways of thinking and behaving characterize disorganized attachment. You might be able to recognize these signs if you have a disorganized attachment.


The way you think about attachment influences the types of attachment you're likely to form and how you function within those relationships. Paetzold, Rholes, and Kohn devised a test to measure disorganized attachment. The following thoughts (or similar ones) were associated with disorganized attachment:

  • Feelings of fear are common in romantic relationships.
  • Romantic partners try to take advantage of each other.
  • I don't know who I am when I'm with my romantic partner.
  • Romantic partners are scary.
  • Trusting a romantic partner is dangerous.
  • Most people have traumatic experiences with people they're close to.
  • Strangers aren't as scary as romantic partners.
  • I feel confused about romantic relationships.
  • I feel frightened in distressing situations.

In both romantic and nonromantic close relationships, you can have similar thoughts and feelings, as well as these:

  • You run hot and cold emotionally.
  • You can't make sense of your experiences.
  • You have trouble creating a coherent story of your experiences.
  • You feel the world is an unsafe place.
  • You may lack empathy.
  • You may dissociate from reality.

Anxiety and depression also happen frequently for people with disorganized attachment disorder.


The behaviors you display when you have disorganized attachment are often angry and aggressive. If you've acted in the following ways, attachment-based therapy can help you make changes:

  • Threatening people you're attached to.
  • When someone provokes you, you hit them.
  • If someone hits you, you hit back.
  • You're unpredictable.
  • When someone displays poor social skills.
  • You have a hard time maintaining a solid relationship.
  • You have trouble managing your stress.
  • You struggle with having and being a friend.
  • You may behave in ways others see as odd.

How Having Disorganized Attachment Can Harm You

Disorganized attachment isn't just an intellectual notion. It affects you in real ways throughout your lifetime. If you have a disorganized attachment, it can cause you problems in nearly every aspect of your life.

  • Your romantic relationships tend to be tumultuous.
  • If you exhibit violent behavior, you might end up in trouble with the law.
  • Depression, anxiety, and other mental problems may disrupt your life.
  • You may have trouble keeping a job or advancing your career.
  • Stressful events overwhelm you more easily.
  • Your relationships with your children will be problematic at best.

Attachment-Based Therapy

Attachment-based therapy, also called attachment-focused therapy, can help you create an earned secure attachment. This is an attachment style you can create for yourself at any age with the right help.

How Does Attachment Impact Your Life And Relationships?

Forming A Secure Attachment With Your Therapist

The first step in attachment-based therapy of any kind is to form a secure attachment with your therapist. This attachment can help you learn more adaptive ways of being in a close relationship with someone. It can also show you the benefits of secure attachment.

You don't have to worry because you don't know how to form a secure attachment. As your therapist works with you, they'll be the stable, consistent caregiver you need. They'll help you deal with your thoughts and behaviors in ways that benefit you and others.

In attachment-based therapy, the counselor gives you many examples of caring and acceptance, even when you feel you're unlovable and unworthy. This may be hard for you to understand or believe at first. With time, though, you can create that wonderful secure attachment, perhaps the first one in your life.

Identify Sources Of Disorganized Child Attachment

If you have disorganized attachment now, you likely had a disorganized attachment to your primary caregiver when you were young. Your therapist can teach you to recognize instances of disorganized attachment behaviors from your childhood.

Then, you can explore the characteristics of your primary caregiver. A child's caregiver with a disorganized attachment is often excessively frightened or extremely frightening to their child. You may see the signs in old photos or remember instances of feeling frightened of your caregiver. These memories can be valuable when you begin to face the challenge of creating secure attachments with others.

Resolve Past Trauma And Maltreatment Issues

Some people develop a disorganized attachment style due to traumas they experience as children or even adults. Your caregiver may not have caused the trauma, but in any case, your caregiver wasn't there for you when you needed them.

If your caregiver abused or neglected you when you were young, you'd need to make sense of those events and situations before you can go on to form secure attachments. You can't change them now. However, what you can do is to dispel your confusion about them by understanding yourself and them better.

Reworking Your Thoughts

When you form your first attachment, you also develop certain thought patterns about yourself and others. People with disorganized attachment styles tend to think negatively about both themselves and others. Therapy for disorganized attachment typically includes changing that thought.

Thoughts About Self

If you have a disorganized attachment, you usually have negative thoughts about yourself, such as:

  • I'm not worthy of love.
  • I'm incompetent.
  • I'm untrustworthy.
  • I can't control my actions.

In attachment-based therapy, you can examine those thoughts and evaluate them in light of your experiences. If you conclude that those thoughts are true, you can plan to change your behaviors to feel good about yourself. Remember, though; you want to improve yourself is a sign that you do have good in you.

On the other hand, if you see that negative thoughts about yourself are incorrect, your therapist can help you understand where the thought originated and how to change it.

You'll probably realize that some of your negative thoughts aren't completely wrong, only very exaggerated. In this case, your task is to find a more realistic middle ground that makes more sense to you.

Thoughts About Others

You probably have mostly negative thoughts about others if you have a disorganized attachment. You might think:

  • Others want to hurt me.
  • Others are frightening.
  • Others are unreliable.

It's very unlikely that you'll ever have completely positive thoughts about everyone you know. If you did, you wouldn't be living in reality. At least at certain times, some people do hurt us, frighten us, or disappoint us.

You don't need to pretend that everyone will always treat you kindly and fairly. What you do need is to find a sense that the world of other people is mostly safe. You might need to reevaluate your thoughts, or you may need positive real-life experiences with other people.

Improving Communication Skills

Because your caregiver or partner has failed to pay attention to your pleas for help, whether direct or indirect, it's natural that your communication skills aren't well-developed. Through therapy, you can learn to express your thoughts and feelings more clearly. When you do, relationships may start to make more sense to you.

You might realize that all your relationship needed was a steady flow of communication. Or, you might come to understand that the relationship you're in will never provide you with what you need from it. Your therapist can help you see how your choices can improve your mental health by allowing you to have better relationships.

Developing Earned Secure Attachments

An earned secure attachment is a secure attachment style that you create for yourself. One way to do this is by solidifying your personal story. Right now, you probably have a hard time telling anyone a consistent and coherent story of your childhood.

By explaining this story to your therapist, they can help you clear up your confusion, so you understand yourself better and in a more positive light. Eventually, you can clearly understand who you are and how you became the person you are.

Is Attachment-Based Therapy Right For You?

Attachment-focused therapy isn't for everyone. Some people need help with other issues before they deal with their attachment issues. Others have a secure attachment and have no serious unresolved issues. As a layperson, you might find it hard to determine for yourself whether you need help, and if so, what kind of help you need.

If you're not sure, you can talk to a therapist to understand better what your true problems lie. Starting therapy may seem like a major decision. While the choice is important and may be crucial to your mental health, you can start with a counselor without making a major commitment. Go to for online therapy with a licensed counselor on your schedule. You might have had a rough start, but you can overcome a disorganized attachment and live a healthy, happy life.

Helpful resources for relationships & more in your inbox
For Additional Help & Support With Your Concerns
Speak With A Licensed Therapist
This website is owned and operated by BetterHelp, who receives all fees associated with the platform.
The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.