The Prevalence Of Attachment Disorder In Adults

By Nadia Khan

Updated August 30, 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.

What Is Attachment Disorder?

Typically, attachment disorder is diagnosed in children under the age of 5. It is often the result of severe neglect, abuse, or other trauma in childhood that impacts the child's ability to form a secure attachment.

Children develop attachment disorder when they are unable to bond with a caregiver. This could happen for a number of reasons. The caregiver may be unable to meet the child's needs for social interaction or affection. The child may move frequently 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 5, there is 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/or substance abuse. They often carry their injured attachment patterns with them into adulthood. Subconsciously, adults with AD tend to choose spouses or partners who resemble one of their parents so that they can recreate their childhood and get it right this time. But without an understanding of the reasons for their behaviors, they are seldom successful.

As adults with AD unwittingly recreate the problems of their family of origin, they pass their problems along to their children. Statistics show that about three-fourths of children whose parents were diagnosed with AD as children 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 if primary caregivers were distant or critical. As the child could not trust adults to meet her needs, she learned to shove those needs out of sight. Because he has internalized the hopelessness of depending on anyone, he will not express his needs to others or ask them for help. She may also feel contempt for others who do express their needs. The avoidant will fear closeness in a relationship and thus have a negative view of others. He or she will view others as untrustworthy or undependable, meanwhile 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 engaging in.


The anxious/ambivalent adult will 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. The adult caregiver may even have been emotionally needy, only showing love when it advanced his interest. As a result, the anxious/ambivalent adult is distrustful of relationships. He analyzes the behaviors of others obsessively, replaying the same things over and over. She has a need to be in control of every situation. He or she is sensitive to rejection and often idealizes others. For this person, life revolves around relationships. The person will feel a preoccupation and dependence on the relationship, but see the significant other as difficult to understand. Extreme emotions, jealousy, and possessiveness are also common features.


Adults Affected

It has been postulated that approximately 50% of Americans are diagnosable with Adult Attachment Disorder (AAD). This stems from a lack of a deep emotional connection as a child that is then carried into adulthood.

It is highly interesting that this disorder can be seen in society today. While most people do not have full-blown AAD, it can be connected with the high divorce rate in America (52%) and the emotional detachment felt by those in congress. Find out more on the political connection here.

Here are some other common problems experienced by those who suffer from AAD:

  • Closed off to warmth and affection from others
  • Unable to acknowledge or process positive emotions
  • Abuses alcohol and/or drugs
  • Unable to feel empathy
  • May abuse their children
  • Shows no concern or respect for authority or rules
  • Rigid, needs to control everything
  • Distrusts others
  • May be too impulsive


Ideally, attachment disorders need to be diagnosed and treated during childhood. But if childhood AD has been left untreated into adulthood, there is still hope. The right counselor can help make peace with a painful childhood and learn to open up to others again.


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. Children derive their sense of self through their caregivers' perception of them. If a parent has conveyed to them the story that they are innately flawed and unworthy of love, then the child believes this story and carries it into adulthood. The task of adulthood is to create a new story which allows you to forgive your caregivers and to understand your true worth.

The next step is to learn new patterns and behaviors that reflect this changed understanding. A big part of the process 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. Change can take time and may feel uncomfortable at first. But over time, you can learn to open up to others and to give and receive affection with them.


DSM-5 Involvement

Most unfortunately, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) does not recognize AAD as a disorder in and of its own. The DSM-5 does, however, recognize Radical Attachment Disorder (RAD), which affects a relatively small percentage of Americans as compared to AAD.

What this means for those with AAD is that getting treatment is much harder. This is something that many people struggle with and can get help for. However, because of a lack of "official" diagnosis in the DSM-5, many people are still struggling with AAD today.


Getting the Help You Need

If you find yourself in need of professional mental health help, there are many resources available for you. While AAD is a difficult diagnosis, there are professionals who can help you. This diagnosis is not to be taken lightly. Seek professional help to confirm a diagnosis of AAD.

As an example, BetterHelp is a company that offers online counseling and therapy.

This company strives to provide mental health help for those who want to avoid the stigma associated with seeking help for illnesses that cannot be readily observed. This company is also professional, affordable, and convenient. Find out more at their website.

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