What To Do If You Have A Disorganized Attachment

Updated August 10, 2021

Medically Reviewed By: Dawn Brown

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Disorganized Attachment 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 personality disorders in adults. This includes disorganized and organized 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 globally, while people with an insecure 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. This style 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. It is an attachment problem that develops due to an infant getting insufficient care and support in early childhood.

Unlike securely attached infants, a child with this 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 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?

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.

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

How to Recognize Signs of Disorganized Attachment?

Certain ways of thinking and behaving characterize this attachment:

Thoughts

 

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 attachment. The following thoughts (or similar ones) were associated with this kind of 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 this attachment style 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 This Attachment Style Can Affect You

This kind of attachment isn't just an intellectual notion. It 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.

Attachment-Based Therapy. What is it?

Attachment-based therapy for attachment that is disorganized (attachment-focused therapy) can help you create what is called an earned secure type of attachment. This is an attachment style you can create for yourself at any age with the right help.

Forming A Secure Attachment With Your Therapist

The first step in attachment-based therapy of any kind is to create a secure type of 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 a secure type of attachment.

You don't have to worry because you don't know how to form a secure type of 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 type of attachment, perhaps the first one in your life.

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. Your therapist can teach you to recognize instances of attachment that are disorganized behaviors from your childhood.

Then, you can explore the characteristics of your primary caregiver. Most often, the caregiver of a child with a 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 secure 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 secure 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 It's Affected By Attachment

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.

Thoughts about Others And How It Relates 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.

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.

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. 

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 type of attachment is a secure type of 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 and Attachment Styles to Others

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 attachments may have disorienting behavior. They’re not sure if or when their parent will return to care for their needs. You can share this 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 attachment that is disorganized 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 of Disorganized Attachment And Attachment Styles

If you have this kind of attachment, 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. When they cry, they’re unsure of what’s going to happen. In these conditions, children often dissociate. The child wants to have a secure type of attachment with their parent. But it’s not happening. They check out because it’s painful to come to terms with their absent parent. If you have these issues as a child, you can overcome them in therapy and practice 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 and Attachment Styles Matters

We don’t 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 doesn’t 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 won’t be a good caretaker. There is evidence a disorganized attachment will impact the child and the parent.

Securely attached people 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 to 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 various relationships, including friends, family, and romantic connections. 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. This kind of attachment often can’t be resolved. That’s why the parent or caregiver needs to work through their attachment parenting self-development issues in therapy. 

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 maybe crucial to your mental health, you can start with a counselor without making a considerable commitment. 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.


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