Attachment Disorder In Adults

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox, NCC, LPC
Updated May 14, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include suicide, substance use, or abuse which could be triggering to the reader.
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Attachment disorders, as listed in the most recent version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the DSM-5, can only be diagnosed in children. This means that there are technically no diagnosable adult attachment disorders. However, adults may experience mental health conditions and disorders with similar symptoms to those diagnosed in children, including personality disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In addition, theories like attachment theory by John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth describe four distinct attachment styles that can be present throughout life.  

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What is attachment disorder?

Attachment disorders are conditions diagnosed in children as young as or younger than five. They can result from severe neglect, abuse, or other childhood trauma that may impact a child's ability to feel secure or form a secure attachment. The two attachment disorders children can be diagnosed with include the following: 

  • Reactive attachment disorder (RAD) 
  • Disinhibited social engagement disorder (DSED) 

Teens and adults cannot be diagnosed with an attachment disorder. However, they may be diagnosed with conditions that have similar symptoms to the above attachment disorders, including the following: 

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) 
  • Borderline personality disorder (BPD)
  • Dependent personality disorder 
  • Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD)
  • Antisocial personality disorder (ASPD)

Adults can also struggle with an insecure attachment style, which is not a disorder but is thought to be caused by attachment trauma in infancy and young childhood. 

What causes attachment disorders? 

Attachment disorders tend to have several possible contributing or causative risk factors. Children may develop attachment problems or an attachment disorder when they cannot bond with a caregiver. For example, a parent or caregiver may not meet a child's social interaction or affection needs. They may also be absent or classified as neglectful. 

Alternatively, this condition can be more prevalent in those who experience displacement in their youth, such as foster care or adoption. These situations, and others like them, may make it more difficult to form attachments healthily.

What are the risks of a childhood attachment disorder?  

Although attachment disorders are not often diagnosed after puberty, there's compelling evidence that untreated attachment disorders impact individuals well into adulthood. Reactive attachment disorder can be linked to a higher likelihood of clinical depression and depressive symptoms, as well as substance use in adulthood. Adults with an insecure attachment style may lack emotional awareness or unwittingly recreate unhealthy patterns from their family of origin. As a result, they can have the potential to pass their range of experiences along to their children. 

What are insecure attachment styles? 

According to attachment theory, there are three insecure attachment styles that adults can have based on their attachment to their parents or caregivers as an infant or child. Secure attachment is the fourth attachment style, categorized by secure and healthy relationship patterns. Below are the three insecure styles. 

Anxious attachment style  

An adult experiencing an anxious attachment style may struggle when trying to maintain close relationships due to a severe fear of abandonment and under-appreciation. This style can result from a caregiver who ran "hot and cold," such as switching from warm affection to cold rejection for no apparent reason while a child grows up. This caregiver may have also been emotionally needy, only showing love when it was in their interest. As a result, the anxious adult can distrust relationships but feel that they must live their life for the appreciation and support of others. 

Someone with an anxious attachment style may analyze the behaviors of others obsessively, replaying the same themes in their minds. In addition, someone with an anxious attachment style may crave control of situations and emotional relationships to avoid further feelings of nervousness or disconnection. They may be sensitive to rejection or idealizing 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 an adult experiencing an anxious attachment style. 

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Avoidant attachment style 

An 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 to shove those needs out of sight. 

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

This manifestation can result in nervousness surrounding relationship intimacy or a negative view of others. Those with avoidant attachment disorder may view others as untrustworthy or undependable while viewing themselves as "better" for not being "as emotional." They may use this mindset to defend themselves against perceived threats or dynamic instability. 

Disorganized attachment style

Someone with a disorganized attachment style may crave affection and intimacy but fear it simultaneously. They may show signs of anxious attachment when their partner is distant or trying to leave them and may show signs of an avoidant attachment when their partner wants to connect more profoundly. Switching back and forth between a desire to connect deeply and a desire to run away, these individuals may feel contradictory to themselves. 

A disorganized attachment style is often associated with experiences of prolonged childhood abuse or neglect and a disorganized parent. These experiences can lead those with this style to feel they cannot have healthy or meaningful relationships. 

Symptoms of an attachment difficulty 

Although adults cannot be diagnosed with an attachment disorder, below are a few signs they may be struggling with an insecure attachment pattern: 

  • Isolation and avoidance of the warmth and affection of others 
  • Difficulty acknowledging or processing positive emotions
  • Rigidity in social situations 
  • Potential substance use 
  • Numbness or difficulty experiencing empathy 
  • A possible lack of concern or respect for authority or rules
  • Distrust of others 
  • Impulsivity 

Attachment disorders can be diagnosed and treated during childhood. However, even if childhood AD has been left untreated, there may be hope for adults to treat insecure attachment styles. Studies have found that insecure attachment styles can be changed to secure with time, education, and professional support. 

How to find treatment 

One of the most effective ways to treat adult attachment issues is therapy to help one come to terms with their past's painful and traumatic events. Part of this work may consist of building a narrative explaining the causes of events and the safety of their current life.  

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 believe this story and carry it into their adult life, whether the parent meant to convey this message or not.  

The therapeutic task of adulthood, for some, is to create a new story that involves moving forward from the choices of one's caregiver. By evaluating the past hurt through this lens, those experiencing attachment challenges can choose to learn new patterns and behaviors that reflect healthy relationship patterns and desires.  

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Living with attachment disorder?

Alternative support options 

Living with an attachment difficulty as an adult can be challenging, as it may impact every relationship you form and your relationship with yourself. If you struggle to find support in your area, online therapy platforms like BetterHelp can offer support from home or any location with an internet connection. 

With online therapy, professionals can help you 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. In addition, you can choose between phone, video, or chat therapy session formats, allowing you control over how you receive support.  

Recent literature suggests that singular and family therapy sessions can be comparably effective when done virtually compared to more traditional, in-person formats. One study also noted possible benefits of affordability and inclusivity to those experiencing financial or family distress.  

Takeaway

Attachment disorders can cause disruptions in youth and adulthood. Early intervention can help preserve and repair damage caused by experiences that may have led to the formation of these conditions in childhood. For some, achieving a higher quality of life can be possible with the help of a licensed therapist or other supportive intervention.
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