What is Disorganized Attachment?

This brings us to a particular type of insecure attachment named the disorganized attachment style. It is often seen in people who have been physically, verbally, or sexually abused in their childhood.

A disorganized attachment style develops when the child’s caregivers – the only source of safety – become a source of fear.

In adulthood, people with this attachment style are extremely inconsistent in their behavior and have a hard time trusting others.

What causes disorganized attachment in children?

The disorganized attachment style is believed to be a consequence of childhood trauma or abuse. Perceived fear is the central aspect of its development.

The survival of the infant/child depends on the caregivers. The child knows that subconsciously, so he or she seeks safety in the caregivers. A problem arises when the source of safety becomes a source of fear.

If the caregivers show highly contrasting behavior, which is inconsistent and unpredictable, the child can start fearing his or her own safety.

The child does not know what to expect. Nor does the child know when the caregiver will meet their needs, if at all.

Another reason for fear is having or witnessing a traumatizing experience that involves the attachment figure.

For instance, the caregiver abuses the child (verbally, physically, or sexually) or the child witnesses the caregiver abuse someone else.

Either way, the child no longer trusts the caregiver. The child realizes that they cannot rely on caregivers to meet their physical or emotional needs. The caregivers, who should be acting as a source of safety, are not only unreliable, but they are also causing fear.

Children with a disorganized attachment style are not able to truly adapt to the caregivers’ behavior, as they never know what comes next.

Such children lack coherence in their own behavior towards the caregivers: they might seek closeness, but at the same time, reject the caregivers’ proximity and distance themselves, due to fear.

What do relationships with disorganized adults look like?

Adults with a disorganized attachment style fall into the “Cannot Classify” (CC) category. They lack a coherent approach towards relationships. On the one hand, they want to belong. They want to love and be loved.

While on the other hand, they are afraid to let anyone in. They have a strong fear that the people who are closest to them will hurt them.

Adults with a disorganized attachment style fear intimacy and avoid proximity, similar to individuals with an dismissing attachment style. The main difference for disorganized adults is that they want relationships.

These adults expect and are waiting for the rejection, disappointment, and hurt to come. In their perception, it is inevitable. 

They do not reject emotional intimacy; they are simply afraid of it. Adults with a disorganized attachment style continue to view the attachment figure (once, their caregiver, and now, their partner) as unpredictable.

They have trouble believing that their partner will love and support them as they are. These adults expect and are waiting for the rejection, disappointment, and hurt to come. In their perception, it is inevitable.

This mindset can turn into a form of self-sabotage, causing the disorganized adult to end a relationship prematurely.

It might also be a type of self-fulfilling prophecy. So, the disorganized adult expects and predicts that they will be rejected by their partner. Even when there are no such signs, he or she starts behaving in a way that leads to fulfilling the expectations (the end of the relationship).

It is also a self-fulfilling prophecy when an individual with a disorganized attachment style chooses partners that induce fear. Thus confirming their perception that they can’t trust other people (emotionally or physically), no matter what.

Disorganized adults tend to have a negative view of both themselves and others.

They are at a higher risk of developing mental health issues, such as substance abuse, delinquent/aggressive behavior, and abuse on their own children.

Can you change a disorganized attachment style?

Living with a disorganized attachment style is certainly not easy. Imagine playing a game that you never really understood the rules of.

You want to play with others, but no one ever taught you how. When it’s your turn, you make your move, but you never know what to expect afterwards. You keep losing without knowing why.

Fortunately, there are ways to heal. And it is important to do so for yourself, for your loved ones, and eventually, for your children.

A disorganized attachment style can cause a lot of distress and confusion when it comes to social interactions and intimacy. It can harm your relationships and lead you to lose someone you really want in your life.

Being around or with someone with this attachment style is also challenging. The unpredictability, suspicion, and lack of trust from that individual can be hurtful and frightening.

A caregiver with a disorganized attachment style raising a child is one of the key predictors of a child’s emotional development.

So, if you, as a parent, have an unresolved trauma or loss, you are likely to raise a child with a disorganized attachment style.

How to heal a disorganized attachment style in adults?

One of the key issues in people with this attachment style is fear of someone they trust hurting them. The easiest solution? Do not trust anyone. This, however, is not a very productive or fruitful solution.

Simply avoiding proximity will not heal the trauma or the painful childhood experiences. In order to learn to build secure relationships, you need to learn to trust people first.

This sounds easy, but for adults with a disorganized attachment style, it can be quite challenging. For this reason, it might be best to start off easy and not push yourself.

One way to start healing is through Ideal Parent Figure (IPF) therapy with someone you can trust, as he or she will offer a non-judging, accepting, calm, and predictable space for you to open up.


The Attachment Project: http://www.attachmentproject.com

Ainsworth, MD, Bell, SM.(1970). Attachment, exploration, and separation: Illustrated by the behavior of one-year-olds in a strange situation. Child Development, 41(1), 49-67. 

Bowlby J. (1958). The nature of the child’s tie to his mother. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 39, 350-371.

Bowlby J.(1982). Attachment and Loss: Volume 1 Attachment. 2nd ed. New York: Basic Books. 23 Jul 2021 

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