The Prevalence Of Attachment Disorder In Adults
Updated December 09, 2019
Reviewer Dawn Brown
Attachment disorder in adults stems from unresolved attachment issues in childhood. In adulthood, a person experiences the inability or difficulties in forming secure relationships. Attachment style is one thing in psychology that does span generations. We can clearly see how the past influences the present and the future in terms of attachment style.
Attachment styles can span generations. In other words, we can clearly see how parents pass a particular attachment style down to their children and how they in turn pass it along to theirs. In adults, attachment disorder stems from unresolved attachment issues in childhood. Because of these issues, a person finds it difficult or impossible to form and maintain secure relationships. Therefore, therapy for attachment disorder centers around treating trauma and other issues from the past by helping people create new stories and change behavior patterns. We'll talk about various treatment options toward the end of the article.
What Is Attachment Disorder?
Typically, attachment disorder is diagnosed in children under the age of five. It's often the result of severe neglect, abuse, or other childhood trauma that impacts a child's ability to form a secure attachment. Specifically, children develop an attachment disorder when they're unable to bond with a caregiver. For example, a parent or caregiver may be unable to meet a child's needs for social interaction or affection. Alternatively, a child may frequently move from one foster home to another, making it impossible to bond with one particular caregiver, or the child might live in a home with a high child-to-adult ratio, resulting in a lack of attention and care from adults.
Although attachment disorder is not diagnosed after the age of five, there's compelling evidence that untreated AD leads to problems later in life. Adults who have suffered from AD seem to have a higher likelihood of clinical depression and substance abuse. Plus, they often carry their injured attachment patterns with them into adulthood. That's why adults with AD tend to choose spouses or partners who resemble one of their parents; subconsciously, they want to recreate their childhood and get it right this time. However, without understanding the reasons for their behaviors, they're seldom successful.
As adults with AD unwittingly recreate the problems of their family of origin, they pass their issues along to their children. Statistics show that about three-fourths of children whose parents were diagnosed with AD develop the disorder themselves.
Categories of Insecure Attachment
Generally, there are two categories of insecure attachment. Adults can be either avoidant or anxious/ambivalent.
The avoidant adult has learned to detach from others. This was a pattern learned in childhood when primary caregivers were distant or critical. The child could not trust adults to meet her needs, so he or she learned to shove those needs out of sight. Because they internalized the hopelessness of depending on anyone, they will not express needs to others or ask them for help, and they may also feel contempt for others who do express their needs. Usually, the avoidant will fear closeness in a relationship and thus has a negative view of others. He or she will view others as untrustworthy or undependable, while viewing the self as "too good" for others. Relationships for this person will be perceived as a threat to the person's sense of control and may not even seem worth it.
The anxious/ambivalent adult will usually feel overinvolved and underappreciated. This is the result of a caregiver who ran "hot and cold," often switching from warm affection to cold rejection for no apparent reason. This caregiver may even have been emotionally needy, only showing love when it advanced his or her interest. As a result, the anxious/ambivalent adult is distrustful of relationships, but life for them revolves around them nonetheless. He or she analyzes the behaviors of others obsessively, replaying the same things over and over again. In addition, someone who is anxious/ambivalent needs to be in control of every situation. They're also sensitive to rejection and tend to idealize others. In a relationship, the person will feel a preoccupation and dependence on their significant other, but finds them to be difficult to understand. Extreme emotions, jealousy, and possessiveness are also common features.
It has been postulated that approximately 50 percent of Americans could be diagnosed with Adult Attachment Disorder (AAD). This stems from a lack of a deep emotional connection as a child, which is carried into adulthood. While most people do not have full-blown AAD, it can be connected with the high divorce rate in America (52 percent) and the emotional detachment felt by those in Congress. Here are some other common problems experienced by people who suffer from AAD:
- Closed off to warmth and affection from others
- Unable to acknowledge or process positive emotions
- Likely to abuse alcohol or drugs
- Unable to feel empathy
- May abuse their children
- Lack of concern or respect for authority or rules
- Tend to be rigid (need to control everything)
- Distrusting of others
- Can be too impulsive
Ideally, attachment disorders need to be diagnosed and treated during childhood. However, if childhood AD has been left untreated, there is still hope for adults. The right counselor can help someone struggling with ADD make peace with a painful childhood and learn to open up to others.
The most effective way to treat adults who suffer from this disorder is to help them come to terms with the painful and traumatic events of their childhood. Part of this work consists of building a narrative that explains why these events occurred. This is important because children derive their sense of self through their caregivers' perception of them. If a parent has conveyed the story that they are innately flawed and unworthy of love, the child is likely to believe this story and carries it into adulthood, whether the parent meant to convey this or not. Therefore, the task of adulthood is to create a new story, so they can forgive their caregivers and understand their true worth.
Then, they have to learn new patterns and behaviors that reflect this new understanding by, for example, is learning how to communicate honestly and openly with romantic partners. Adults who missed a parental role model for functional relationships need to construct a "model" for relating to loved ones in a healthy way. If you're struggling with ADD, know that change can take time and may feel uncomfortable at first, but eventually, you can learn to open up to others and to give and receive affection in a healthy way.
It's also worth noting that, during treatment, medication may be used in situations where patients are experiencing comorbid depression and anxiety, which is quite common for those who have an attachment disorder.
Unfortunately, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) does not consider AAD to be a disorder in and of itself. However, the DSM-5 does recognize Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD), which affects a relatively small percentage of Americans compared to AAD. Unfortunately, this means that getting treatment for AAD is that much harder. Without an "official" diagnosis in the DSM-5, many people are still struggling with AAD today, but it's possible to find help.
Consider Online Therapy as an Option
If you're looking for professional mental health help, there are many resources available for you. BetterHelp offers affordable and convenient online counseling to those who are struggling with attachment disorders, among many other conditions. Our licensed professionals can work with you to address past traumatic events, provide you with coping skills, and help you change negative thought patterns. In addition, you can meet with your counselor from the comfort of your own home or wherever you have an internet connection. Read the following reviews to learn what others have to say about working with a BetterHelp counselor.
"Mark has been extremely attentive to everything that I disclose. He's not only provided me support but insight and encouragement to let me know I'm on a good path to self improvement and discovery. Furthermore, Mark has provided me valuable insight on my romantic relationship, specifically with learning more about the relationship dynamics and how to build a stronger, healthier relationship."
"I have been dealing with quite a slew of issues, but after working with Mackenzie, I feel significantly more able to go forward in my life with effective strategies that match my abilities and goals. Mackenzie guided me toward establishing healthier boundaries, being more self-reflective, relying on both emotions and logic when confronting issues, and finding concrete ways to alleviate stress and anger at issues outside of my control. She is an incredibly skilled and valuable resource."
Even if you've been struggling with attachment disorder for most of your life, it's never too late to seek help. With the support of friends, family, and a therapist who cares, you can overcome these struggles and learn to form healthier, stronger bonds with the people who are important to you.