What To Do If You Have A Disorganized Attachment

Updated July 31, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Dawn Brown

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Introduction

The first modern studies of attachment theory began laying out the various attachment styles for infants. More recently, researchers have found a similar form of attachment types in adults. In this article, we discuss disorganized attachment and personality disorders in adults. This includes organized attachment and disorganized attachment, which are the negative and positive ends of the attachment theory spectrum.

Ainsworth Theory of Attachment

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, securely attached people fare better in the world while people with insecure attachment styles often report ongoing issues in relationships throughout their lives.

Of all the types of attachment, both those for infants and those for adults, disorganized attachment is perhaps the most problematic. Disorganized attachment and personality disorders often go hand-in-hand.

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. Disorganized attachment is one of the attachment problems that develop as a result of an infant getting insufficient care and support in early childhood.

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

Organized Infant Attachments

Healthy attachments are organized. When something distressing happens, your attachment figure (which is 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.

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

Disorganized Adult Attachment

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

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

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.

Thoughts

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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.

Behaviors

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 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 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 what is called an earned secure attachment. This is an attachment style you can create for yourself at any age, with the right help.

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Forming A Secure Attachment With Your Therapist

The first step in the attachment-based therapy of any kind is to create 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. Most often, the caregiver of a child with a disorganized attachment 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 secure attachments with others.

Resolve Past Trauma And Maltreatment Issues

Some people develop a disorganized attachment style due to traumas they experience as a child or even as an adult. 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. What you can do, though, 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 style tend to think negatively about both themselves and others. Therapy for disorganized attachment typically includes changing that thought.

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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 work with a plan to change your behaviors so that you can feel good about yourself. Remember, though, that the fact that you want to improve yourself is a sign that you do have good in you.

If, on the other hand, 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. Some people, at least at certain times, 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 the choices you make 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 come to a clear understanding of who you are and how you became the person you are.

Explaining Disorganized Attachment to Others

When you have disorganized attachments, it can be challenging to explain them to others. You want to tell people why it’s hard to connect. It can be painful to want to be close to someone 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. Some people have beliefs about attachment that don’t hold up to reality. For example, they might believe that a person’s issues can be solved when they meet the “right partner.” Attachment often can’t change overnight. It’s something that developed in childhood. A child who has disorganized attachment may have disorienting behavior. They’re not sure if or when their parent will return to care for their needs. This is something that you can share with people in your life who don’t understand your attachment results. It’s a sad situation for a child who wants to connect with their caregivers. The attachment to their parent is disrupted. That can cause people to feel insecure in adult relationships and be fearful of getting attached. A parent needs to focus on the attachment with their child to develop a healthy bond. When that doesn’t happen, it results in issues with future relationships. The best predictor of disorganized attachment is inconsistent care from a parent or guardian. When explaining your relationship issues to others, you can draw upon childhood memories to illustrate why you’re afraid to get attached. 

Understanding the Origins

If you have a disorganized attachment style, it’s possible to have healthy relationships with others. Before focusing on having functional adult connections, it’s essential to understand how attachment originates. A child is a disorganized component in the attachment model. They can’t become connected with their parents if they’re unable to predict their caregiver’s behavior. A child may engage in disorienting behavior because they’re confused about whether or not their parent will care for them. The parent sometimes meets their needs, and other times is checked out or absent. A clear example of this happens with babies. A child with disorganized attachment will get upset when their parents don’t come from them when they cry. An infant is too young to fully understand why their mother, father, or guardian isn’t responding to their calls. The child develops a disorganized attachment. When they cry, they’re unsure of what’s going to happen. In these conditions, children often dissociate. The child wants an earned secure attachment with their parent. But it’s not happening. They check out because it’s painful to come to terms with their absent parent. The attachment with their parental figure is so meaningful that they can’t bear to face that it’s not consistent. If you have these issues as a child, you can overcome them in therapy, and by practicing coping skills in relationships. Attachment often won’t 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 Matters

We don’t want disorganized attachment 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 doesn’t develop is the parent who monitors their actions. A parent who has disorganized attachment expresses odd behavior at times. They may be fearful of being there for their child. Maybe they’re scared that they won’t be a good caretaker. There is evidence a disorganized attachment will impact the child and the parent. It’s unfortunate, but we see this in studies. A child with disorganized attachment often won’t learn to connect with others easily. They can learn to form relationships that last, but it will take effort. There’s a concept called “disorganized adaption.” It means that a person accepts that they have difficulty forming connections with others and adapts to their surroundings. It can happen in childhood or later on. A child demonstrating their disorganized adaption could manifest in struggling to talk to others. There are “earned secure attachment people.” They are aware that their childhood was less than ideal. They accept their circumstances and try to move past them. There is evidence a disorganized attachment can develop into an earned secure attachment. That’s why it’s important to discuss these issues in therapy. That way, you can form healthy bonds despite your traumatic upbringing. Just because you have an attachment issue doesn’t mean you can’t form healthy connections with others. Consider talking to a licensed mental health professional work through your attachment issues so you can form valuable relationships in your life.

Understanding Disorganized Attachment

You may not understand disorganized attachment in yourself. That’s understandable, and you can work on awareness in therapy. You can see your disorganized attachment expressed in a variety of relationships, including friends, family, and romantic connections. If you’re a parent, you want to avoid attachment-related problems. There are things you can do to make sure your child develops a healthy bond with you. You can see disorganized attachment develop with children at a young age. Once you notice the signs, it’s crucial for you, as the parent, to seek help in therapy. Disorganized attachment often can’t be resolved. That’s why it’s vital for the parent or caregiver to work through their attachment parenting self development issues in therapy. Disorganized attachment often won’t present until later in life. You may be surprised to see how common disorganized attachment is in people. Out of all the attachment styles, you may be unfamiliar with this type of bond. When surveyed, attachment people with disorganized relationships. 20-40 percent of individuals have a form of disorganized attachment, while 80 percent of kids who have suffered abuse display this type of bond. The disorganized attachment results are surprising to many people. You may believe you have a secure bond with your caregivers, and no issues bonding with adults. This is something you need to speak about with a licensed therapist to find out more.

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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 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.

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 significant decision. While the choice is important and may be crucial to your mental health, you can start with a counselor without making a considerable commitment. Simply go to ReGain.us 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.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ's)

What is a disorganized attachment?

Disorganized attachment is a psychological condition that results from receiving inconsistent treatment from a primary caregiver in infancy, which may lead to insecure, anxious, and/or avoidant behaviors in relationships in adulthood.

What is disorganized attachment in adults?

Disorganized attachment in adults is the result of disorganized attachment in infancy. As adults, they have internalized their learned belief that relationships are unpredictable and insecure, and they may project that belief on to their partners or seek out that behavior. Attachment between a parent and child can influence ways patterns or behaviors affiliated with attachment develop and display throughout a person's life. For example, behaviors related to attachment developing from a parent that was never responsive will likely show up in romantic relationships.

What does disorganized attachment look like in adults?

Attachment expressed in children is different than attachment expressed in adults. Adults with disorganized attachment may have negative thoughts about themselves and others, which can lead to dysfunctional relationships. They may have poor expectations of their partners because of how they were treated in infancy or childhood. This can lead to insecurity, avoidance, or a combination of both in personal relationships.

Do I have disorganized attachment?

Symptoms of disorganized attachment are often noticeable in your internal thought patterns and ideas. Some thoughts and opinions you may hold if you suffer from disorganized attachment may include:

  • The belief that fear is a common part of close personal relationships
  • The belief that romantic partners will always try to take advantage of you (this may lead you to lashing out at your partner, being suspicious of them, or causing problems first because you assume they will do it to you later)
  • Your personality may change significantly around your romantic partner, or you may believe that you need to put on a mask as a defense mechanism
  • You may be extremely reluctant to trust a romantic partner or friend
  • You may think that traumatic experiences among personal and familial relationships are common among most people
  • You may think romantic partners are more frightening than strangers
  • You may feel anxious, confused, and stressed about your relationships, even the positive and healthy ones.

Some other symptoms of disorganized attachment include but are not limited to:

  • Threatening or lashing out at people who you are attached to
  • A reluctance or complete rejection of vulnerability, even with your closest relationships
  • Reacting with physical violence or rage
  • Behaving in an erratic or unpredictable way
  • Struggling with good social skills
  • Finding it very difficult or impossible to maintain a stable, healthy relationship
  • Issues with stress and anxiety
  • Issues with being a good friend or keeping a good friend
  • Inconsistent, toxic, or tumultuous romantic relationships
  • Problems with the law or issues with violence
  • Problems with maintaining a job or advancing your career
  • Having serious problems with depression and anxiety
  • Being easily overwhelmed
  • Having negative relationships with your own children

If you recognize the symptoms in this article as something you experience, then you may have a disorganized attachment.

The best way to determine whether you have disorganized attachment is to speak to a therapist. The therapist can help you discover the root of your disorganized attachment and guide you to healthier relationships and thought patterns.

Can Disorganized attachment be cured?

When thinking about psychological conditions, it is helpful to replace the word "cured" with "resolved". Disorganized attachments come from unresolved feelings of insecurity and are perpetuated by years of thought patterns and behavior. Uncovering the source of a disorganized attachment may be frightening, and unlearning how you process this attachment can be a challenging, lengthy process.

However, resolving past trauma is the first and most important step to having healthy relationships with family, friends, and romantic partners. Working with a therapist can help you learn why you have a disorganized attachment, and he or she can provide guidance as you learn to positively rework your thoughts. It is absolutely possible to resolve the source of a disorganized attachment and relearn positive thought patterns and communication skills.

What are the other attachment styles a person can have?

There are a total of four known attachment styles. The four attachment styles are anxious-avoidant, anxious-ambivalent, disorganized, and secure. Though it originates in the 1950s, our understanding of attachment and attachment styles has grown substantially over the years. Adult attachment interview researchers have created a research tool called the Adult Attachment Interview (AAI), which assesses adult attachment and provides people with information regarding attachment, attachment style, and attachment issues. If you search for "basics what is attachment," you will find more information about attachment styles and attachment patterns, including disorganized style attachment.

What is insecure Disorganized attachment?

Insecure disorganized attachment is the psychological condition that results when a primary caregiver acts negatively in response to an infant's need. The infant learns that they cannot rely on the primary caregiver and they begin to distance themselves emotionally. This thought pattern can manifest in adult life when one has trouble maintaining relationships because they distance themselves from their partners, or they feel insecure that their partner will abandon them. Disorganized attachment arises from fright often, and predisposes us to anger in some cases. Disorganized style attachment can impact a person very significantly, but when we talk about attachment at times, it becomes apparent what a forgotten attachment style disorganized attachment is. If you believe that you may have disorganized style attachment, anxious attachment, avoidant attachment, or any specific concerns related to attachment that are affecting your life, seeing a mental health provider can help. Insecure attachment predisposes individuals to difficulty in relationships at times, but developing healthier, more secure attachment is possible for people with insecure attachment, and many people succeed in becoming secure or more secure if they choose to decide to work on their concerns related to attachment. Difficulties with attachment are often treated effectively by counseling or therapy.

What helps disorganized attachment?

Therapy has been proven to help adults with disorganized attachments. Therapy can help you address the source of your disorganized attachment, as well as help you recognize how it manifests in your life. This may include how you perceive yourself and others, how you interact with your current or past partners, and your general behaviors and emotions. Awareness is typically the first step in addressing psychological conditions. Once you begin to realize how your disorganized attachment influences your life, you can begin to make conscious choices against it. 

Making positive choices can be difficult as you may perceive them as dangerous or threatening to your emotional well-being. This is why it is important to build a support network of trusted individuals that will encourage you to make these positive choices. If you have a severe disorganized attachment, you may not feel as though you have anyone in your life that you can trust with your emotional well-being. In this case, it may be helpful to engage in attachment-based therapy. This allows you to form a secure attachment with your therapist. For some, this may be the first secure attachment of their lives. This can open the door to forming secure attachments with others.

What are the signs of attachment disorder in adults?

Some signs of attachment disorders in adults include trouble maintaining relationships, insecurity and/or avoidance in relationships, trouble expressing emotions, inability or difficulty trusting others, feeling as though you lack safety, trouble managing anger and stress, anxiety, and depression. While attachment disorders are generally recognized in children, many adults struggle with attachment. In fact, research indicates that only about 50% of adults have a secure attachment style.

How do adults overcome attachment disorder?

Adults can overcome attachment disorders by first recognizing the source of the disorder, which is often neglect or abuse in infancy or childhood. However, adults can develop disorganized attachment in adulthood as well in response to trauma or unhealthy relationships. Recognizing the source will allow you to realize how this trauma affects you in everyday life. Becoming aware of the effects of your attachment disorder will allow you to make more positive decisions. Therapy is an incredibly useful tool when making these realizations and choices. The therapist will engage in a discussion of your past and provide guidance in difficult situations.

What does secure attachment look like?

Secure attachment forms when an infant's needs are met in a predictable, healthy way. This occurs if the caregiver responds to an infant's cries with a loving, gentle tone and addresses the cause of the cries. Individuals with secure attachments grow up feeling confident that their needs will be met, and experience less insecurity and trust issues in personal relationships. They won't experience an extreme or unprecedented fear of abandonment and will form stable bonds with others.

Is disorganized attachment the same as fearful avoidant?

Like disorganized attachment, the fearful-avoidant style is rooted in insecure attachments formed in infancy. Fearful-avoidant is a type of disorganized attachment.

Those who are fearful-avoidant desire intimacy, but may feel like they are undeserving of it. They may also not trust intimacy, as they have had an important relationship that is hallmarked by a traumatic event and/or unmet needs.

The fearful-avoidant may pursue a close relationship, but then pull away if they begin to achieve emotional intimacy with their partner. In contrast, disorganized attachment includes fearful-avoidant, but also encompasses those who are entirely avoidant, entirely insecure, or a combination of both in relationships.

How are people's attachment styles determined?

A number of factors play into attachment and attachment style. Much of how we form our attachment style is attributed to the attachment between parent and child, hence why many parents decide to learn about attachment parenting. The attachment the parent shows to the child and the availability to meet the child's need that the parent displays is what can make someone securely attached. Abuse can also impact attachment. For example, some of those who were abused have a disorganized attachment style, so that's not always the case. Attachment can be passed between a parent and child as well; sometimes, the way that a parent shows attachment to a child will be influenced by their own attachment style or other factors in their lives. Some parents have difficulty parenting for secure attachment because they struggle with something that impacts their ability to engage in attachment parenting or because they're unaware of how attachment styles form. Attachment parenting involves making it a priority to respond to your child's needs. For example, if they cry, you must come into the room and engage with them to ease distress. It also involves feeding, physical touch, and physical proximity.

Is disorganized attachment a mental health condition?

A disorganized style of attachment is not a mental health condition or diagnosis. However, someone with any attachment style, including disorganized attachment, can struggle with a variety of medical, mental, or developmental diagnoses, including Asperger's, autism, bipolar disorder, eating disorders, or a personality disorder such as borderline personality disorder. That said, personality disorders theory research shows that conditions such as Borderline Personality Disorder and the way a person's attachment expresses can go together or influence one another. If you're struggling with a condition such as depression, Asperger's, autism, bipolar disorder, eating disorders, or other diagnoses, there is help available to you. Anxiety attachment and other battles can most certainly go together, and if that's true for you, it's important to reach out for help so that you can develop secure attachments and strengthen your bonds with others. Therapy doesn't just help with mental health conditions. It can also help people who identify with attachment styles such as disorganized style attachment, anxious preoccupied attachment, or avoidant attachment. Unhealthy attachment can heal with the help of an attachment expert psychologist, therapist, or counselor. Reach out to a mental health provider in your local area today, or utilize the online services at a website like ReGain to start your path of developing healthier more secure attachments.


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