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What Is Disorganized Attachment in Relationships?

Disorganized attachment is an insecure attachment style characterized by avoidant and fearful behaviors. Also known as fearful-avoidant attachment, this style often stems from abuse, neglect, or trauma in childhood. 

Disorganized attachment in relationships leads to a range of erratic behavior. People may seem disoriented, fearful, and ambivalent in their interactions with their partner. This can lead to problems with healthy boundaries, emotional regulation, intimacy, and other important aspects of relationships.

Continue reading to learn more about the characteristics of the disorganized attachment style, why this attachment pattern happens, what disorganized attachment in relationships looks like, and some of the steps you might take to help overcome it.

Understanding Disorganized Attachment in Relationships

Attachment theory suggests that the early interactions between children and their caregivers set the tone for the emotional bonds that impact a person’s future relationships. Children create attachments, which are emotional bonds, with their caregivers. This ensures a child’s physiological, safety, security, and comfort needs are met.

The bond children forge during these earliest stages of their lives also impacts their understanding and expectation of future relationships, which can affect how they interact in adult interpersonal relationships.

Researchers John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth suggested that there are two main types of attachment: secure and insecure.

Secure Attachment

Secure attachment happens when caregivers are responsive and consistent. They meet a child’s needs promptly and reliably. This allows children to feel safe and secure as they explore the world. They learn to trust that the world is safe, that they will be cared for, and that their needs will be met. This allows them to later form close, intimate relationships that are built on trust. 

Insecure Attachment

Insecure attachment happens when caregivers are inconsistent, neglectful, or unreliable. Different forms of insecure attachment can emerge, including anxious, avoidant, and disorganized attachment.

Signs of Disorganized Attachment In Relationships

A disorganized attachment style in relationships can lead to behaviors that others may find difficult to understand. Some of these behaviors can include:

  • Erratic, unpredictable behaviors such as wanting to be very close and then suddenly being extremely distant from other people
  • Fear and anxiety when others try to get close
  • Wanting closeness with partners but feeling too anxious or avoidant to get close
  • Fearing intimacy and vulnerability
  • Feelings of low self-esteem and depression
  • Fear of abandonment
  • Having problems regulating emotional reactions
  • Difficulty trusting your partner
  • Problems establishing and maintaining boundaries
  • An inability to form and maintain a healthy, stable relationship
  • Feeling as if you don’t deserve to be loved

Disorganized attachment is the least common attachment pattern but the most extreme and disruptive. The conflicting desire to be close to someone else while fearing such closeness makes the disorganized style different from anxious or avoidant attachment.

What Disorganized Attachment in Relationships Looks Like

Disorganized attachment in relationships looks different in children and adults. Kids with a disorganized style may seem frightened or confused by their caregivers. When separated from a parent, they may cry for them to return but then avoid the parent once they return.

Adults with this style may have a strong desire for care and comfort from their partner but withdraw whenever the other person tries to get close. They avoid intimacy yet constantly fear that they will be rejected or abandoned.

What Causes Disorganized Attachment in Relationships?

Disorganized attachment in relationships stems from caregiving that is traumatic or abusive. Children learn to fear their caregiver, which leads to variable behaviors. Children and adults with this style respond to relationships with a mixture of disoriented, fearful, ambivalent, and avoidant behaviors.

Disorganized attachment in relationships is directly linked to inconsistent care in childhood, marked by abusive, traumatic, neglectful, and frightening interactions with caregivers. 

Researchers suggest that while fear of caregivers is a key factor, the emergence of this attachment pattern is complex and may also involve other factors as well. Extreme aversive rejection, traumatic events, emotional dysregulation, and infant temperament are other factors that can also play a role.

Factors that are connected to the development of a disorganized attachment pattern include:

Abuse and Trauma

Children who are abused by parents and caregivers are more likely to develop disorganized attachment in relationships. This can include direct abuse, but it can also involve trauma caused by witnessing domestic and family violence. Children need proximity and protection from a primary caregiver, but the unpredictability, lack of trust, and fear that mark this relationship lead to disorganized, disoriented behaviors.

Parental Trauma

Parents who themselves experienced trauma and abuse as children may struggle to provide the consistent care that their children need in order to thrive. They may lack models of effective parenting styles, and their own trauma responses may make them struggle to respond consistently and effectively to their children.

Disruptions in Care

When attachment figures are in and out of a child’s life due to substance use, incarceration, mental illness, and other struggles, it is hard for caregivers to provide the consistent and reliable care that kids need.

Poverty and socioeconomic conditions can also lead to stress that makes it difficult for parents to provide coherent care. This makes it more likely for kids to develop a disorganized attachment style.

Family History

Disorganized attachment in relationships can also be transmitted through families with a history of attachment problems. Having parents and grandparents with insecure attachment styles increases the risk that offspring will also exhibit such patterns unless parents take steps to address their own attachment issues.

Effects of Disorganized Attachment in Relationships

Disorganized attachment can have serious effects on adult romantic relationships. People with this style may desperately crave close connections but feel unable to engage in the vulnerability, trust, and intimacy required for such relationships.

Some ways that a disorganized attachment style might affect your adult relationships include:

Fear of Intimacy

If you have this style, you might find intimacy very difficult or even frightening. It requires making yourself vulnerable and sharing your innermost self, which is incredibly hard to do if you feel like you cannot trust others due to your early life experiences.

The result is that you might either avoid intimacy entirely or find ways to sabotage your relationships if others start to get too close.

Sending Mixed Signals

The disorganized style can cause you to send out mixed signals in relationships. You might shift from craving closeness to suddenly pushing your partner away. This can be very hard for others to understand, leading to confusion and frustration.

Problems Regulating Emotions

The early trauma that contributes to a disorganized attachment style also makes it harder for people to regulate their emotions. You might experience emotional outbursts, feelings of emotional numbness, impulsivity, and sudden mood swings. Such problems can become worse when you start to feel anxious, angry, or afraid due to the complex feelings you experience in your relationship.

Lack of Trust

Because of your early experiences with caregivers, you may find it very hard to trust others, even the people who care the most about you. Thanks to this lack of trust, you might constantly worry that your partner will leave you or misinterpret their signals as rejection or criticism.

Negative Relationships

In some cases, people may unconsciously seek out partners who display the same abusive, rejecting, and neglectful behaviors that they experienced as children. This can lead to repeated negative experiences in relationships, which makes it even harder to trust others in relationships.

How to Tell if You Have Disorganized Attachment in Relationships

Learning more about your own attachment style can give you insights into certain feelings and behavior patterns that might emerge in your relationships. Some signs that you might have disorganized attachment in relationships include:

  • You tend to have very mixed feelings about being in a relationship; you might crave the connection but fear getting too close.
  • Your partners are often confused by your behaviors in the relationship; you often display behavior that oscillates between hot and cold.
  • You find it hard to depend on your partner and fear making yourself vulnerable in the relationship.
  • You often find yourself drawn to people who are unstable, unreliable, and volatile, which means you find yourself often repeating unhealthy relationship dynamics from your childhood.
  • You have a history of sabotaging your relationships or looking for reasons to break-up in order to avoid closeness or rejection

Attachment Style Quiz

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Do you feel like you always need to be in a relationship?

How do you feel when your partner shows their emotions?

How often should someone tell you that they love you?

How do you feel about emotional intimacy?

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Do you feel like your partner understands you?

How do you feel if my romantic partner isn't around when you need them?

What's your greatest fear about your relationship?

How comfortable are you with relying on your partner?

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How do you think your partner feels about you?

Do you tell your partner what you really think and feel?

How do you feel about being affectionate with your partner?

How would you describe your relationships?

What Is My Attachment Style? Take the Quiz
Your Attachment Style: Secure
Based on your quiz answers, you have a predominantly secure attachment style. People with secure attachments tend to feel comfortable with themselves and their relationships. Securely attached individuals tend to have happier, long-lasting relationships. You feel comfortable sharing your feelings with your partner and are able to turn to your partner for support. While this quiz cannot fully describe every aspect of your attachment style, it can provide a basis for understanding more about your romantic attachment style.
Your Attachment Style: Avoidant
Based on your quiz answers, you have a predominantly avoidant attachment style. People with avoidant attachments tend to have difficulty with close, intimate relationships. You may feel uncomfortable sharing your thoughts, feelings, and ideas with your romantic partner. In some cases, you might even come up with excuses to avoid intimacy. While this quiz cannot fully describe every aspect of your attachment style, it can provide a basis for understanding more about your romantic attachment style.
Your Attachment Style: Anxious
Based on your quiz answers, you have a predominantly anxious attachment style. People with anxious attachments tend to worry more about romantic relationships. You may worry that your partner does not feel the same way about you as you do about them. You may also be concerned that your partner will leave you. In some cases, those with an anxious attachment style want to become very close to their partners but worry that this will scare the other person off. While this quiz cannot fully describe every aspect of your attachment style, it can provide a basis for understanding more about your romantic attachment style.

Dealing With Disorganized Attachment in Relationships

Once you recognize that you have a disorganized attachment style, taking steps to manage it can lead to healthier, stronger relationships. Some strategies that can help you deal with these difficult behavior patterns include:

Talking to a Therapist

First and foremost, consider talking to a therapist who has experience treating attachment-related issues. Such professionals can help you make sense of your attachment behaviors, process unresolved trauma, and develop more effective coping strategies.

Types of therapy that may be helpful include attachment therapy, cognitive-behavior therapy (CBT), and trauma-informed therapy.

Work on Self-Awareness

In order to understand how disorganized attachment affects your behavior and relationships, it’s important to develop a greater sense of self-awareness. This is something you can work on in therapy, but there are also strategies you can use on your own to become more aware of your thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and motivations.

Meditation, mindfulness, and journaling are a few self-help strategies that can help you become more aware of your attachment-related patterns.

Create Healthy Boundaries

Boundaries help define what each person expects and will accept in a relationship. Healthy boundaries can help people with disorganized attachment patterns develop healthier relationships while protecting their own emotional well-being. For example, your boundaries might focus on the amount of emotional support and validation you might expect in a relationship.

Such boundaries should also clarify what type of behaviors are appropriate if those needs are not met. Boundaries also might focus on issues such as communication, physical touch, and time spent together.

Develop New Coping Skills

Learning new coping skills can help you respond more adaptively when you experience feelings of distress, anger, fear, or anxiety in your relationships. Rather than responding impulsively, overreacting, or withdrawing, you can respond in ways that don’t damage your well-being.

Skills like deep breathing, affective labeling, emotional acceptance, and grounding exercises can be helpful.

Learn Secure Attachment Behaviors

You can also take steps to help promote more secure attachment patterns in your relationships. This may be difficult at first, but over time, it helps cultivate a greater sense of stability and security in your relationship. Secure behaviors you can practice with your partner include being emotionally responsive and communicating openly. As you both work on being consistent and dependable, your ability to trust your partner will grow over time.

Treat Yourself With Compassion

Acknowledging your past experiences and understanding how they have shaped your current behaviors is important. When you are struggling, focus on treating yourself with kindness and compassion.

Remember that you are worthy of love. Past experiences may have shaped you, but those difficult events are not your destiny.

By seeking supportive relationships and working on building more secure patterns, you can have healthy, fulfilling relationships that will stand the test of time.

Key Points to Remember

  • Disorganized attachment is an insecure style caused by inconsistent caregiving, leading to conflicting behaviors and emotions in relationships.
  • People with a disorganized attachment style may exhibit fearfulness, ambivalence, and difficulty trusting others.
  • This attachment style is associated with a history of trauma or abuse in childhood and can create problems with relationships and emotional regulation in adulthood.
  • It is possible for people to develop a more secure attachment style by engaging in therapy, building self-awareness, setting boundaries, developing coping skills, and practicing self-compassion.

Sources:

Duschinsky R. (2018). Disorganization, fear and attachment: Working towards clarification. Infant Mental Health Journal, 39(1), 17–29. https://doi.org/10.1002/imhj.21689

Paetzold, R. L., Rholes, W. S., & Kohn, J. L. (2015). Disorganized attachment in adulthood: Theory, measurement, and implications for romantic relationships. Review of General Psychology, 19(2), 146–156. https://doi.org/10.1037/gpr0000042

Steven Rholes, W., Paetzold, R. L., & Kohn, J. L. (2016). Disorganized attachment mediates the link from early trauma to externalizing behavior in adult relationships. Personality and Individual Differences, 90, 61–65. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2015.10.043