What To Do If You Have A Disorganized Attachment

Updated August 10, 2023by Regain Editorial Team

Worried You May Have Disorganized Attachment?

Disorganized Attachment Introduction

The first modern studies of attachment theory was originated in the 1940s by psychoanalyst John Bowlby who looked at the relationship between juvenile delinquency and attachment styles for infants. More recently, researchers have found a similar form of adult attachment types. In this article, we discuss disorganized and organized attachment, which are the negative and positive ends of the attachment theory spectrum, along with the effects that negative attachment has in relationships. 

Ainsworth Theory Of Attachment

Psychoanalyst John Bowlby continued his research in attachment, spending decades developing a complex theory of attachment while working with fellow research psychoanalyst Mary Ainsworth. However, it was Ainsworth who is known for creating the gold standard for classifying differences in infant attachment patterns called the “Strange Situation”. In this experimental technique, an infant was subjected to increasing levels of stress, beginning with the child being in a strange setting, followed by the entrance of an unfamiliar person, and finally two brief separations from their parent. Ainsworth would observe the infant’s reaction to evaluate how securely or insecurely attached they were attached to the parent. 

According to the Ainsworth study of attachment, attachment styles are characterized by specific behaviors in children that cause them to seek or avoid the comfort of and proximity of their primary attachment figure. The attachment studies conducted by Ainsworth primarily involved the observation of perceived attachment between infants and their mothers. It stands to reason that attachment styles will be similar for all primary attachment figures. According to attachment theory, attached people fare better globally, while people with an uncertain attachment style often report ongoing issues in relationships throughout their lives.

Of all the attachment types, both for infants and those for adults, a disorganized attachment is perhaps the most problematic. Accordingly, this style and personality disorders often go together.

What Is Disorganized Attachment?

According the American Psychological Association, attachment is the emotional bond that develops between an infant and their parent figure or caregiver reflected by a calmness when in the presence of their primary caregiver. Disorganized attachment is an attachment problem that develops due to an infant getting insufficient care and support in early childhood. 

Unlike attached infants, a child with this style will also develop an uncertain attachment style. As a result, they will develop an uncertain attachment to their caregiver. This will cause an infant to shy away from their primary attachment figure -- instead of clinging to them for safety. A disorganized style of attachment and personality functioning will follow them into adulthood relationships. One of the signs of attachment that is disorganized and personality disorders in adulthood is the tendency to shy away from close relationships. These are unhealthy attachments.

What Are The Different Kinds of Attachments?

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. These attachment styles last into adulthood, especially if these adults have had a particularly difficult childhood with improper parental attachments. The following section discusses the different attachment styles as they develop from infancy to adulthood.

Infant Attachments

Organized Infant Attachments 

Healthy attachment styles are organized. When something distressing happens, your attachment figure (a parent, romantic partner, or close friend) responds predictably. These predictable behaviors have a significant impact on the infant's style of attachment. Unpredictable behaviors result in disorganized attachment forming. As parents, it is important to know how to foster fixed attachment since this style will predict the relationship success of the child when they become an adult.

When an 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 Attachment In Infants

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. These behaviors are the result of a disorganized style of attachment.

Adult Type of Attachments

Disorganized Attachment in Adults

Attachment styles can change during the lifespan, but the infant attachment style influences the adult type of attachment. Adults with disorganized attachment have the same root problem as disorganized infants. As infants, they have learned that they cannot rely on others for consistent acceptance and care and that their caregiver will abuse them regardless of what they do.

This can explain why loving someone with avoidant attachment or disorganized attachment can be quite challenging. Often, without even realizing it, they search for someone who will exhibit frightening and inconsistent responses when they seek connection. Once in a relationship, their attachment style informs the way they behave towards their partner. Concomitantly, the person with a disorganized adult type of attachment tends to behave in ways that increase their uncertainty and feelings of stability in a relationship.

Recognizing Signs Of Disorganized Attachment

Certain ways of thinking and behaving characterize this attachment:

Thoughts

A person’s attachment orientation that stems from childhood experience will most likely influence the type of attachment you are likely to form as an adult and how you function within those relationships. The thoughts of a person with disorganized attachment reflect in their relationships and play out in outward reactions. For example, Paetzold, Rholes, and Kohn devised a test to measure attachment to help identify thought patterns that a person with disorganized attachment experiences. The following thoughts (or similar ones) were associated with this kind of attachment:

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  • 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 are 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, someone with disorganized attachment can have similar thoughts and feelings, as well as these:

  • Running hot and cold emotionally

  • Unable to make sense of your experiences

  • Having trouble creating a coherent story of your experiences

  • Feeling the world is an unsafe place

  • Lacking in empathy

  • May dissociate from reality

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

Behaviors

The behaviors you display when you have this attachment style may often be angry and aggressive. If you have acted in the following ways, attachment-based therapy can help you make changes:

  • Threatening people with whom you are attached

  • When someone provokes you, you hit them

  • If someone hits you, you hit back

  • You are unpredictable

  • You may display poor social skills

  • You have a hard time maintaining a stable 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 This Attachment Style Can Affect You

Disorganized attachment is not simply an intellectual notion, but affects you in real ways throughout your lifetime. If you have this kind of 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

What Is Attachment-Based Therapy?

In attachment-based therapy, the counselor gives you many examples of caring and acceptance, even when you feel you are unlovable and unworthy. This may be hard for you to understand or believe at first. With time, though, you can create a healthy pattern of attachment, perhaps the first one in your life. The following are steps that you make take when working through attachment-based therapy:

Identify Sources Of Disorganized Attachment In Children

If you have an attachment that is disorganized now, you likely had this attachment to your primary caregiver when you were young. Cases of reactive attachment disorder (RAD) can happen if the child was not able to establish good relationships and healthy attachments with the primary caregivers. Your therapist can teach you to recognize instances of attachment that are signs of disorganized behavior from your childhood.

Then, you can explore the characteristics of your primary caregiver. Most often, the caregiver of a child with this style is either 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 attachments with others.

Resolve Past Trauma And Maltreatment Issues

Some people develop this attachment style due to traumas they experience as children or even as 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 attachments. You can't change them now. However, you can dispel your confusion about them by understanding yourself and them better.

Reworking Your Thoughts And How It Relates To Attachment

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

Thoughts About Self And How They Are Affected By Attachment

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

  • I am not worthy of love.

  • I am incompetent.

  • I am untrustworthy.

  • I cannot control my actions.

In attachment-based therapy, you can examine those thoughts and evaluate them considering 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.

Thoughts About Others And How They Relate To Attachment

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.

While it is very unlikely that you will ever have completely positive thoughts about everyone you know., when you are managing an attachment disorder these thoughts compound.  If you did, you would not be living. At least at certain times, some people do hurt us, frighten us, or disappoint us.

Improving Communication Skills

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Worried You May Have Disorganized Attachment?

Because your caregiver or partner failed to pay attention to your pleas for help, whether direct or indirect, it is natural that your communication skills are not well-developed. Through therapy, you can learn to express your thoughts and feelings more clearly. 

You might realize that all your relationship needed was a steady flow of communication. Or you might come to understand that the relationship you are 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.

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 come to a clear understanding of who you are and how you became the person you are.

Explaining Disorganized Attachment And Attachment Styles To Others

Opening about about your life experience with attachment can be difficult, not to mention painful. You may want to tell people why you are unable to deeply connect, but speaking this truth can hurt. How to explain that you want to be close but feel far away instead?  Attachments tend to influence how our adult relationships will play out. If you have issues attaching to others, there are ways to explain these concerns to them, keeping in mind that some people have beliefs about attachment that do not hold up to reality.

For example, some people may believe that a person’s issues can be solved when they meet the “right partner.” Your ability to have a healthy attachment style does not change overnight. For example, disorganized attachment developed in childhood because their caregiver did not consistently care for their needs. This causes a child to display disorienting behavior. If someone does not understand why your attachment behavior changes dramatically sometimes, try to explain your past to help improve their understanding of you. If you feel comfortable, you can explain how the attachment to your parent (or parents) was disrupted which can causes you to feel uncertain in adult relationships and be afraid relationship attachments.  When explaining your relationship issues to others, you can draw upon childhood memories to illustrate why you are afraid to get attached. Again, only if you feel comfortable in doing so. 

Getting Help For Disorganized Attachment

If you are managing disorganize attachment, know it is possible to have healthy relationships with others. You can overcome your obstacles in connecting in relationships in therapy where you learn coping skills and strategies in managing your feelings of dissociation or emotional detachment when they arise.  Your method of attachment often will not change, but you can learn to work with your style. A therapist will determine the degree of disorganized attachment you have and teach you how to work with it in relationships.

Why Treating Disorganized Attachment And Attachment Styles Matters

Of course, we do not want attachment that is disorganized developing in any child. Unfortunately, some factors in it happening are out of an outside observer’s control. The only person who can ensure that the style does not develop is the parent who monitors their actions. A parent who has a disorganized attachment may express being fearful of being there for their child and will not be a good caretaker. Fortunately, there is evidence a disorganized attachment will impact the child and the parent.

There is evidence a disorganized attachment can develop into an earned attachment. Accordingly, it is important to discuss any attachment issues in therapy where you can learn to form healthy bonds despite your traumatic upbringing. Consider talking to a licensed mental health professional to work through your attachment issues so you can form valuable relationships in your life.

Understanding Disorganized Attachment As A Parent

You may not understand disorganized attachment in yourself. That is understandable, and you can work on awareness in therapy. You may see your disorganized attachment expressed in various relationships, including friends, family, and romantic connections. You may also see disorganized attachment develop with children at a young age. Once you notice the signs, it is crucial for you, as the parent, to seek help in therapy. This kind of attachment often cannot be resolved without appropriate therapeutic intervention. Working through these challenges will positively affect their attachment parenting self-development which will reflect through their children. 

Is Attachment-Based Therapy Right For You?

Attachment-focused therapy is not for everyone. Some people need help with other mental health symptoms before they deal with their attachment challenges. Others may have had a problematic childhood with inappropriate parenting and have no severe unresolved problems. 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.

Regain is one way to find additional support if you are looking for strategies to cope with disorganized attachment. You can examine the fearful thoughts that arise in your relationship and evaluate them under the safe guidance of a professional therapist. They will help you to understand these thoughts and help develop a plan to help your change your behaviors to feel good about yourself. In attachment-based therapy, you create strategies to grow a healthy pattern of attachment with those close to you. 

With Regain’s online therapy support, you can find someone to talk to about your concerns, questions, thoughts, and feelings, all from the comfort of your home. If you are unable to meet with a therapist in-person, be confident in knowing that research supports the efficacy of online therapy. For example, online therapy has been shown to be as effective as in-person therapy, with people showing improved mental health disorder symptoms with regular talk-therapy sessions. Do not hesitate to set up an appointment with a therapist, especially if you are feeling like you cannot manage it on your own.  

Takeaway

Do I need therapy to cope with attachment issues? If you are not sure, you can talk to a therapist to understand better what your true problems lie. Starting therapy may seem like a significant decision. While the choice is important and maybe crucial to your mental health, you can start with a counselor without making a considerable commitment. You might have had a rough start, but you can overcome a disorganized attachment and live a healthy, happy life.

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