August 28, 2019

Disorganized Attachment


Of all of the attachment styles, disorganized is the least common, and as such I’d say, the least researched. In my last few blogs, I have taken a closer look at the secure attachment style and two of the three insecure attachment styles (anxious and avoidant).

Disorganized attachment is the third insecure attachment style. Those with this style make up only about 3-5% of our society’s population, according to Levine and Heller‘s book Attached, whereas people with the secure attachment style make up roughly half and the anxious and avoidant attachment styles each account for about 20-25%.

Because so few people seem to fit the disorganized attachment style, there really hasn’t been much written about it, especially in regards to adult attachment. Let’s take a look at what we do know, starting with what the disorganized attachment style looks like.

What does disorganized attachment look like?

Disorganized attachment, also sometimes called ambivalent attachment, is often described as the rare combination of both the anxious and avoidant attachment styles. If you’ve read the blogs on those attachment styles, you know that they are extremely different. The behaviors of an anxious attacher are basically the opposite of the behaviors of an avoidant attacher. Because those two styles are so different and yet co-exist in this last attachment style, “disorganized” or, “ambivalent,” are perfect descriptors.

The disorganized style is characterized by both anxious and avoidant behaviors which are enacted in different ways, sometimes at different times, and often without any noticeable pattern or reason why. Their behaviors and attachment patterns can feel random and, of course, disorganized. Not only can this be confusing for attachment figures, like caregivers or romantic partners, but it’s also very confusing for the attacher! I picture it kind of like a (not fun) game of tug of war within the attacher- one part of them wants to cling to the relationship and one part wants to back away and put up barriers. The result is a disorganized or ambivalent method of attaching.

How might one develop a disorganized style of attachment?

We know that attachment as a child does not necessarily determine your attachment as an adult, but it can still be helpful to understand how disorganized attachment could start. It can even just be helpful to get a picture of disorganized attachment within a caregiver-child relationship to help us better understand and then translate how that could play out in adult-adult relationships as well.

Disorganized attachment in children typically occurs when the child’s caregiver responds to their needs or stress in unpredictable ways. Such caregivers might be abusive or negligent, might sometimes meet the child’s need but other times yell at and scare the child, while still other times ignore the child completely. When the caregiver responds inconsistently or unpredictably, the child can’t learn an efficient strategy for relating to the caregiver and/or for getting their needs met. They can’t figure out the right behavior or action to get their needed/desired response, so their behavior, too, can become unpredictable.

What do disorganized attachers need?

Like any other person, someone with disorganized attachment needs healthy attachment figures. Perhaps even more so than other attachers, disorganized attachers need stability, security, and consistency- which can be hard to give someone who is reacting in seemingly contradictory or ambivalent ways!

As we’ve briefly discussed, disorganized attachment often results (at least in children) when children experience extreme trauma. If someone has learned that love and attachment figures are unpredictable, they will likely be slow to trust. However, once they can attach in a healthy way to someone who proves consistently to be reliable, predictable, safe, and responsive, their attachment can become more and more secure. As a disorganized attacher, you need and crave attachment just like everyone else, even when your behavior may suggest otherwise.

Because the disorganized attachment style is often the product of trauma, disorganized attachers are likely carrying a lot of trauma, hurt, and confusion.

If you feel like you tend to attach in a disorganized way, or if you feel like you are struggling in a relationship with someone who fits this attachment style, give us a call. It can be tough to navigate, but it is so important to process, and there is so much potential for growth!

Written by therapist Clair Miller

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