How this attachment style shows up in our relationships
The disorganized attachment style is the most complicated and difficult to understand of the human attachment styles. Only 7% of the population fall into this group, whereas 20% of the population tend to be anxious and another 20% avoidant. It might be relatively rare, but 7% of the population means chances are we will connect with people who have this attachment adaptation at some point in our lives.
Those with a disorganized attachment adaptation most likely (though not always) experienced trauma early in their lives. This pattern can develop when someone grows up afraid of their parent or caregiver. There was a marked lack of safety early in life and a confusing level of chaos. Caregivers often set up double binds, with the message being something like this: “come here, go away.”
This mixed message leads to the crossing of wires and two very intrinsic human needs: the need to connect and the need to survive. As adults, this means as we move closer to our loved ones our bodies and hearts remember how dangerous connection can be. This sets off alarm bells that remind us of the message to “go away.”
In a way, someone with a disorganized attachment adaptation faces some of the most difficult challenges faced by both those with an avoidant and those with an anxious attachment style. Diane Poole Heller speaks to this in her book The Power of Attachment:
“In some ways, disorganized attachment is a combination of the avoidant and ambivalent adaptations, but it is mixed with fear-induced survival defenses switched on to deal with ever-looming threat.”
Here are 5 of the signs someone has a disorganized attachment style, summarized from Diane Poole Heller’s book The Power of Attachment. For a more thorough understanding of disorganized attachment, I recommend her book.
Orientated to focus on threats (real or not)
When someone grows up experiencing too much fear, a state of fear can begin to feel like a normal way of being. For these individuals, it might seem as though there is always a threat that they are focused on dealing with, particularly in relationships with others—whether that be with a partner, a boss, or even a stranger on the bus.
These threats may not be threats to their safety and they could even be imagined, but it is important to remember for folks with a disorganized attachment the fear is very much real.
When our brains are focused on survival, we can’t focus on anything else. For these individuals, then, it can be hard to access parts of their brain that are involved in human connection. We might look at someone living this pattern and judge them as “destructive” or “addicted to drama,” not realizing that for them this is actually what feels most like home.
Can be self-absorbed and controlling
I don’t think there is anyone who would want to be labeled “self-absorbed and controlling” and these are two traits, especially when paired, that most of us would view as unpleasant. It is important to understand that for someone with a disorganized attachment style, these are ways of being that emerged early as a result of conditions far outside of their control.
When someone has a disorganized attachment style their inner world is and always was filled with chaos. The level of intensity—both physiologically and psychologically—that comes with this can make it hard to not be self-absorbed.
If someone has a history of painful things happening to them when they didn’t have control (i.e. childhood), it is only natural and self-protective for them to need to have control as adults. In the words of Diane Poole Heller:
“Those of us with the disorganized adaptation can also unconsciously recreate trauma scenarios for ourself and people close to us, which may be another way of controlling connection and the relationship itself.”
These can be difficult behaviours to live with in an intimate relationship. At times, it may be in our best interest to leave the relationship. Remembering that these behaviours stem from painful and often, traumatic, childhoods may help us to understand that this behaviour is not about us and is certainly not our fault (or theirs).
Those who develop a disorganized attachment adaptation most likely had parents who sent mixed messages and were prone to extreme and sudden shifts in mood. It can lead these children to feel as though no matter what they do, they aren’t good enough. There is a sense that they are going to fail when confronted with life’s challenges—both big and small—and it can lead to someone avoiding challenges altogether.
Often these folks can struggle in school growing up, and later in the workforce as adults. This makes sense, as, as Dr. Poole Heller states:
“The physiological component of this symptom is similar to the response to threat: when you’re flooded with fear much of the time, it’s a lot more difficult to concentrate or to actively deal with problems.”
Secure attachment is like a secure base from which we can go out and explore the world. It doesn’t mean we are going to be safe all of the time, but it can give us the confidence to take risks. For those with a disorganized attachment style, that confidence is often not there and it can take a lot of work to begin to learn how to embody secure attachment in adulthood.
Two biological drives in conflict = confusion
We all have an instinctual drive to connect with others—humans are, after all, social creatures. We also have the drive to avoid dangerous situations for our survival. For those with a disorganized attachment style, these two drives conflict.
These folks grew up in homes where there was a drive to connect with their caregivers but those caregivers were also a source of fear or danger. There is no way out of this conflict, especially when one is a child and needs their caregivers to survive.
This is why disorganized attachment is so difficult to understand. These folks want closeness and intimacy, but this may in turn trigger feelings of threat that are rooted in childhood.
As with most of us with an attachment wound, the beginning of a relationship may go swimmingly. It isn’t until intimacy reaches a certain depth that we are triggered to expect intimacy to bring with it whatever we may have experienced in our earliest attachments.
This can be an incredibly difficult attachment style to understand and if we are in a relationship with someone with this pattern, we might be left feeling confused and frustrated. Yet, imagine what it would be like to live with two of your most basic drives in conflict with each other? For folks living with this attachment style, love can be the furthest thing from safe and this can lead to a cycle of pain and heartbreak.
When we begin to understand what is beneath how an attachment style shows up in our relationships as adults, we create space for a deeper connection. We welcome in patience, empathy, and love— qualities of connection that we all want and deserve. This is not to say we should stay in relationships that are hurting us, but it might help us to understand what that person might be going through and to remember it is not as much about us as we may be inclined to think.