What Is Disorganized Attachment, And How Does It Work?

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia, LCSW
Updated June 2, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
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According to attachment theory, your early childhood experiences with your caregivers can influence the attachment style you develop. Secure and insecure attachment styles often impact people from childhood and into adulthood, influencing romantic relationships and social connections. 

There are generally four types of attachment styles: secure, anxious, avoidant, and disorganized. Attachment disorganization can develop when a child relies on support from a caregiver who’s also a source of fear.

In adulthood, this type of attachment style can look like desiring connection but being uncomfortable with emotional intimacy. It can be possible to heal a disorganized attachment style through therapy, particularly attachment therapy, which can be completed in person or online.

Learn about your attachment style

What is an attachment style?

According to the attachment theory first proposed by psychologist John Bowlby in the 1940s, human beings likely developed the capacity and need for emotional attachments as an evolutionary response to ensure the survival of the species. This initial theory has since been refined and evolved to better describe how people form patterns for emotional attachment. Bowlby and psychologist Mary Salter Ainsworth developed four attachment styles to classify the characteristics. 

Secure attachment style

People with this attachment style usually received responsive care and emotional warmth as children. Reliable support and care generally help these children grow into adults with a positive view of themselves and others. People with a secure attachment style can often depend on others to love and support them while providing the same treatment in return. 

Secure attachment styles are marked by a stable sense of trust and a healthy relationship with attachment figures committed to the child’s mental and physical health. This can lead to secure relationships in adulthood and a stable sense of self-sufficiency when interacting with romantic partners. 

Preoccupied attachment style (anxious attachment style)

Children who receive inconsistent care and support from parents or guardians often experience alternating emotional distance and loving warmth. In some cases, the child learns to see themselves as unworthy of love and support, a burden, or incompetent while trusting others to be capable and supportive. This can lead to anxious attachment styles. 

Dismissive attachment style (avoidant attachment style)

Parents or caregivers likely emphasized independence as a positive character trait during childhood, potentially leading those with this attachment style to rely on themselves frequently. They may have trouble trusting others, as they usually have a positive view of themselves and a negative view of other people. Their outlook may frame them as capable and worthy of love, but they often can't trust others to reciprocate. This can lead to avoidant attachment styles.

Fearful attachment style (disorganized attachment style)

Children raised with caregivers who fail to meet their emotional and physical needs often develop a disorganized attachment style. Experiencing indifference, fear, trauma, abuse*, neglect, or harsh criticism can make giving or receiving love and support complex. Those with this attachment style may see themselves as incapable of being emotionally vulnerable and unable to trust others.

According to clinical psychology, disorganized attachment may arise when a child's attachment figure displays contradictory mental states or behaviors. This may stem from unresolved trauma or mental health issues such as substance abuse.* In the Strange Situation Experiment, such children may display disorganized behavior characterized by unpredictable responses to stress.

The Strange Situation experiment was developed by Mary Ainsworth in the 1970s in her study of attachment theory. It has become an established assessment in attachment theory to observe children's behaviors through a series of introductions, separations, and reunions involving their primary caregiver and a stranger. The study typically involves 12-18 month-old children and their reactions to the caregiver's absence and return. The experiment identifies the main attachment types we’ve talked about, each reflecting different patterns of interaction and emotional responses. This assessment can provide valuable insights into early emotional bonds and their impact on later development.

What does disorganized attachment look like? 

When a child relies on physical and emotional support from a caregiver who is also a source of fear or distress, they may develop a disorganized attachment style. 

Disorganized attachment styles are often seen in people who experience abuse, neglect, or trauma at the hands of a parent or guardian during childhood. The abuse can be physical, emotional, or sexual. Below are several signs that you may have a disorganized attachment style:

  • You may experience mixed feelings about close relationships and not know how to relate to people. 

  • You may experience contradictory mental states, feeling uncomfortable with emotional intimacy yet desire close emotional relationships. 

  • Your viewpoint of yourself and your partner may be harmful. 

  • It may be challenging to trust your partner's intentions or that they will love and support you when you need them.

  • Though you seek emotional connections, you may often deny or suppress your feelings. 

  • You are likely uncomfortable expressing affection.

  • Repetitive behaviors, floods of emotion, rigidity, and freezing may be common experiences. 

  • You will likely feel uncomfortable when developing closeness with others and intentionally distance yourself. 

How disorganized attachment can affect personality

Many people with disorganized attachment styles develop extreme social and emotional insecurity, which can make it difficult to form and maintain healthy relationships as an adult. Disorganized attachment also frequently involves poor coping skills, difficulty controlling emotions, a tendency toward anger or violence, and contradictory behavior and mental states.

People with disorganized attachment styles often yearn for emotional intimacy and close relationships while simultaneously living with an intense fear of rejection from their partners. The fear of abandonment can be pervasive, potentially making relationships unstable due to the constant need for reassurance and the potential inability to trust a partner.

Disorganized attachment styles in children

Disorganized attachment in children may present as a lack of coping skills to manage stress, difficulty controlling emotions and controlling negative feelings, oppositional behavior, low self-esteem, poor social skills, an increased likelihood of developing anxiety and depressive disorders, and a greater chance of trauma-related conditions. 

Children who experience abuse or neglect during childhood may develop reactive attachment disorder (RAD), which can present as extreme anxiety or abnormal social behavior. 

Attachment disorder symptoms include:

  • Trouble managing emotional reactions

  • Difficulty or inability to trust others

  • Low self-esteem

  • Issues with anger or violence

  • An overwhelming need to be in control

  • Inappropriate social behavior

  • Aversion to being touched

  • Lack of guilt or remorse after misbehavior

Overcoming symptoms of an unhealthy attachment style

Maintaining healthy, functional relationships as an adult can be challenging when you experience symptoms of an unhealthy attachment style. While it can be difficult to change your attachment style, you can relearn behaviors with the support and guidance of a licensed mental health professional. It can be helpful to examine your childhood experiences with your therapist, exploring how they may affect your behavior and the way you think. 

According to a latent class analysis by the Society for Research in Child Development, “researchers have attended to disorganized attachment in infants and children, [but] they have infrequently focused on the character of disorganized attachment in adults.” As a result, it may be challenging for adults to understand how their attachment style impacts them, but therapists and mental health professionals can help shed light on many areas. 

For example, symptoms of disorganized attachment styles can manifest as a self-fulfilling prophecy within relationships. Individuals may exhibit challenging behaviors that may inadvertently drive their partners away. These behaviors may result in relationship dissolution, reinforcing beliefs that others will reject them.

Healing a disorganized attachment style

While it can be hard to heal from the past trauma that likely caused a disorganized attachment style, it can be possible to process your feelings and move forward with your life. You can “rewire” your brain and relearn how to relate to, trust, and feel safe with others. 

Attachment therapy

Attachment therapy usually centers on the interactions between children and their parents or childhood caregivers. Many children and adults can benefit from attachment-based family therapy to work through past issues and build healthier family dynamics. 

“Attachment-based therapy is an approach to therapy that specifically targets those thoughts, feelings, communications, behaviors, and interpersonal exchanges that patients have learned either to suppress and avoid or to amplify and overemphasize because of early attachment experiences,” said Peter C. Costello, Ph.D., author of Attachment-Based Psychotherapy in Practice. Working with a licensed clinical psychologist or a mental health professional who has a bachelor's or master’s degree might be helpful when addressing the negative aspects of insecure attachments and avoidant attachment behaviors. 

Learn about your attachment style

What to expect from attachment therapy

Therapy is usually a process, so one or two sessions aren't likely to provide much relief because it can take time to build up enough trust with your therapist to address the traumatic experiences that may have caused disorganized attachment. Attachment styles are not fixed, and an adult can shift their personality functioning toward secure attachment styles in loving relationships with work and dedication. 

For children, adolescents, and families

Children, adolescents, and families may seek therapy to address insecure styles of attachment. This might improve personality functioning in children with disorganized or avoidant styles of attachment. Here are some of the methods that might come into play: 

  • Daily role-playing to find healthy ways to manage conflict

  • Learning and practicing effective communication methods

  • Healing damaged family relationships and repairing emotional attachments

  • Attachment and Biobehavioral Catch-Up (ABC approach)

  • Actively working to create realistic expectations, clear family roles, and healthy family narratives

Attachment therapy activities for adults

Adults who would like to address attachment styles they learned as children may need to put in more time to overcome an extreme need for validation, a strong fear of closeness or abandonment, and volatile mental states resulting from childhood attachments. Here are some of the methods a therapist might use: 

  • Practicing unconditional self-compassion

  • Learning healthy, practical ways to communicate and resolve conflicts

  • Building trust with your therapist to improve emotional intelligence and literacy, facilitating open communication about your feelings

  • Adult attachment interviews, attachment style quizzes, or psychological surveys

  • Psychoeducation to learn about attachment styles and how they can affect you

  • Building insight into thoughts, feelings, and behaviors while raising your tolerance for stressful situations and emotional intimacy

Reach out for help

Disorganized attachment can make it difficult to form and maintain healthy relationships with the people in your life. If you consistently have trouble building positive, functional connections with others, consider speaking to your doctor or healthcare provider to discuss treatment options to help you heal and move forward. 

Benefits of online therapy

If you're an adult living with a disorganized attachment style that negatively affects your relationships and overall well-being, consider working with a licensed therapist online through a virtual therapy platform like BetterHelp. Therapy can help you address past trauma and find practical, healthy healing methods that empower you to overcome the emotional obstacles that can make it hard to maintain positive relationships. Completing therapy online can make it simple and convenient to attend sessions at times that work for your schedule.

Effectiveness of online therapy

According to recent studies, online attachment-based therapy can be as effective as in-person treatments. For many patients, the extra distance allowed by online treatment can make discussing personal details with their therapist easier. Attachment therapy typically delves into your past experiences and family connections while you build a trusting relationship with your therapist. Treatment may then shift its focus toward teaching effective methods to explore and communicate your feelings. 

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Takeaway

It can be possible for individuals to develop a disorganized attachment style if the people they rely on during childhood also function as a source of distress or fear. Signs of a disorganized attachment style can include having trouble trusting your partner, being uncomfortable with expressing affection, and intentionally distancing yourself even as you’re yearning for emotional closeness. Therapy can be an effective way to address a disorganized attachment style and potentially develop a secure attachment style. You can connect with a therapist practicing attachment therapy through an online therapy platform or in your local area.
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