The Prevalence Of Attachment Disorder In Adults

Updated January 18, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Attachment disorder in adults can stem from several different reasons, including unresolved attachment issues in childhood or trauma that may occur later in life. Understanding what attachment disorder is and possible contributing factors can result in validation for those who experience this mental health condition and can result in a more understanding and empathetic society. 

Below, we’re exploring what attachment disorder is, the different manifestations one may experience and the role of therapy in supporting those who live with this condition. 

What Is Attachment Disorder?

Attachment disorder can be diagnosed in children as young as or younger than the age of five. It can be the result of severe neglect, abuse or other childhood trauma that may impact a child's ability to form a secure attachment. Because of these issues and the subsequent manifestations of attachment disorder, a person may find it difficult or impossible to form and maintain secure relationships in adulthood. 

Living With Attachment Disorder?

What Causes Attachment Disorder? 

There are many different possible contributing or causative factors to attachment disorder. Generally, children may 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. They may also be absent or classified as neglectful. 

Alternatively, this condition can be more prevalent in those who experience displacement in their youth (I.e., in the case of foster care) or in homes with a high child-to-adult ratio. 

What Can Attachment Disorder Cause? 

Although attachment disorder (AD) is not usually diagnosed after age five, there's compelling evidence that untreated AD can lead to problems later in life. Reactive attachment disorder in adults can be linked to a higher likelihood of clinical depression and substance abuse. Plus, those living with AD may carry their injured attachment patterns with them into adulthood. As adults with AD may unwittingly recreate the problems of their family of origin, they can have the potential to pass their range of experiences along to their children. 

Categories Of Insecure Attachment

While there are generally two categories of insecure attachment, we do want to note that everyone’s experience with attachment disorder can be deeply personal. Acknowledging this spectrum can result in validation for those living with the disorder and a higher prevalence of subsequent resources to support them. We’ve listed the two categories below, and the general characteristics of each

1. Anxious/Ambivalent Attachment Disorder

An adult experiencing anxious/ambivalent attachment disorder symptoms may feel over-involved and under-appreciated. This can result from a caregiver who ran "hot and cold," such as switching from warm affection to cold rejection for no apparent reason to the developing child. 

This caregiver may even have been emotionally needy, only showing love when it advanced their interest and otherwise remaining self-involved. As a result, the anxious/ambivalent adult can be distrustful of relationships, but life for them may revolve around them, nonetheless. 

They may analyze the behaviors of others obsessively, replaying the same things repeatedly. In addition, someone who is anxious/ambivalent may feel the need to be in control of every situation to avoid further feelings of nervousness or disconnection. 

They may be sensitive to rejection or idealize others, which can lead to the potential for a preoccupation or dependence on their significant other. 

Extreme emotions, or bouts of jealousy and possessiveness, may also be common experiences of the adult experiencing anxious/ambivalent attachment disorder.

2. Avoidant Attachment Disorder

The avoidant adult may have learned to detach from others in childhood when primary caregivers were distant, absent, or critical. The child may have done this out of the concern that they could not trust adults to meet their needs, which may have prompted them to learn how to shove those needs out of sight. 

As a result, an adult experiencing avoidant attachment disorder may not express needs to others or ask them for help, and they may also feel contempt for others who do express their needs. 

This type of manifestation can result in feelings of nervousness or intimacy in relationships or a negative view of others. Those with avoidant attachment disorder may view others as untrustworthy or undependable while viewing the self as "too good" for others. This can potentially be to defend oneself against perceived threats or dynamic instability. 

 Possible Symptoms Of Attachment Disorders 

There are a wide range of psychological effects that attachment disorders can cause in both children and adults.  These may include:

  • Feelings of isolation or being “closed off” to warmth and affection from others

  • Unable to acknowledge or process positive emotions, feelings of rigidity

  • Possible alcohol or drug use which may or may not lead to addiction

  • Feelings of numbness or a lack of ability to feel empathy

  • A possible lack of concern or respect for authority or rules

  • Possible feelings of distrust in others

  • Possible impulsivity

Attachment disorders can be diagnosed and treated during childhood. However, even if childhood AD has been left untreated, there is still hope for healing in adulthood or adolescence. Therapists can help someone struggling with AD to make peace with relational trauma and learn to open to others.

Seeking Treatment

One of the most effective ways to treat adults with this disorder is to help them come to terms with the painful and traumatic events of their past. Part of this work may consist of building a narrative that can explain potential reasons why these events may have occurred. 

This can be an important step to healing, as children can derive their sense of self through their caregivers' perception of them. For example: If a parent has conveyed the story that they are innately flawed and unworthy of love, the child may be likely to believe this story and can carry it into adulthood, whether the parent meant to convey this intentionally or not. 

Therefore, the therapeutic task of adulthood for many is to create a new story, so they can forgive their caregivers and understand their true worth. By evaluating the past hurt in this lens, those experiencing AD can choose to learn new patterns and behaviors that reflect this new understanding by building social skills and trust in others — such as learning how to communicate honestly and openly with partners and other people in their lives. 

Living With Attachment Disorder?

It's also worth noting that, during treatment, medication may be used in situations where patients are experiencing comorbid depression and anxiety disorder(s), which can be common for those with any attachment disorder.

What Does The DSM-5 Say About Attachment Disorder?

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) specifically recognizes Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) at the time of this publication, which can support many experiencing symptoms to seek the help they may need. At a future point in time, the DSM-5 may expand to recognize different subtypes or manifestations of AD to validate the experiences of a broader population.

How Can Online Therapy Support Those With Attachment Disorder? 

If you’re experiencing symptoms of attachment disorder, online therapy may be a helpful resource. Licensed therapists can work with you in the comfort of your own home or another safe space to address childhood trauma, support you in building coping skills and help you learn to reframe negative thought patterns so that you may experience a higher quality of life. BetterHelp can be a resource to help to connect you with licensed therapists. 

Is Online Therapy Clinically Effective For Those With Attachment Disorder? 

The presentation of therapy has varied across the past few decades. This may leave many wonderings how clinically efficient this form of delivery can be for those living with attachment disorder. Recent literature suggests that singular and family therapy sessions can be comparably effective when done virtually compared to more traditional, in-person formats. This specific study also noted possible benefits of affordability, accessibility, and inclusivity to those who are experiencing financial or family distress.  

Takeaway

The experience of attachment disorder can cause disruptions in both youth and adulthood. Early intervention can be helpful to preserve and repair damage caused by experiences that may have led to the formation of attachment disorder. Even if you've been struggling with attachment disorder for most of your life, reaching a higher quality of life can be possible with the help of a licensed therapist or other forms of supportive intervention. 

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Conclusion

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.

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