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What Is Disorganized Attachment Style? A Psych Explains

What we learn as children often seeps into how we behave as adults. One way this manifests is through the different adult attachment styles—which include secure, anxious, and avoidant styles—a framework that sheds light on how people relate to others through intimacy, usually largely informed by their upbringing. Those latter two styles are also referred to as insecure attachment styles, but there’s a third, oft-overlooked type, which psychologists call disorganized attachment.

Whereas people with an anxious attachment style may skew codependent, demanding, and over-analytical, avoidant attached folks are less likely to get close to others because they fear commitment and what it might entail in terms of being vulnerable. Disorganized attachment style, then, is a combination of both.

“Disorganized attachment style means that there is something seriously disrupted about that household to the point where the child doesn’t feel cared for,” says psychologist Aimee Daramus, PsyD. But, because attachment styles are learned behavior, it’s possible to unlearn hallmarks of insecure attachment that may be holding a person back in their relationships.

How to identify disorganized attachment style

Attachment styles function as the “overall pattern for how you have relationships,” says Dr. Daramus. For example, if you need a bit more reassurance from your partner because you didn’t often receive it growing up, you may fall into the anxious attachment style. But if you grew up surrounded by people who were unsupportive, you may have an avoidant attachment style, which might lead you to only want to rely on yourself rather than be in a relationship at all. If you find yourself experiencing a combination of both, though, you may have a disorganized attachment style.

People with disorganized attachment want to be in a relationship, but they still have trouble believing and acting like it will all work out, so they might have the tendency to bolt, Sanam Hafeez, PsyD, previously told Well+Good.

In order to understand what can lead to disorganized attachment, though, it’s key to know what doesn’t, says Dr. Daramus. People who have a secure attachment style, for instance, were likely met with love and support from their caregivers throughout their life, especially in frustrating or scary situations. This support lends itself to a sense of safety in a relationship, because they feel as though they can talk to their caregiver about anything. This serves as a blueprint for healthy communication and attachment in other relationships.

If, however, you didn’t feel that your caregivers were in your corner, it’s possible that you’ll have an insecure attachment style as an adult. “When parents are not supportive of your needs or when they’re overly harsh, that’s setting you up for an attachment problem,” including a disorganized attachment style, says Dr. Daramus. Now that you’re up to speed on what disorganized attachment is, you might be wondering how one acquires the insecure attachment style.

What might lead to a disorganized attachment style

According to Dr. Daramus, one reason someone might have a disorganized attachment style would be if they were forced to grow up faster than necessary. “When you get children trying to be adults, that’s when you get the disorganized attachment style, and there’s a lot of fear surrounding that,” says Dr. Daramus. That’s because you’re learning, as a child, that there won’t be anyone else to help solve your problems—and that can be detrimental to your mental health because it gives you a false sense of loneliness.

Adults with a disorganized attachment style might strongly desire closeness but pull away when they have that out of fear that someone else might take it away.

Adults with a disorganized attachment style might strongly desire closeness but pull away when they have that out of fear that someone else might take it away. But what might that look like in action? Dr. Daramus gives an example in which your partner with a disorganized attachment style asks you for help and you respond with something like, “Can it wait until after I get this project done?” Even when that person knows you care and are supportive, they might feel slighted and discouraged from asking for help in the future.

“A more secure attached person would say, ‘Yeah, that’s cool.’ or ‘Honestly, it’s a little more urgent than that,’ both of which are healthy responses,” says Dr. Daramus. “The disorganized person is going to experience that as rejection—a threat to the bond between you two.”

Whether they’re asking you to take a look at a work email or asking your opinion on their outfit, people with this form of insecure attachment will likely handle things themselves if they feel they’re being a nuisance. Dr. Daramus adds that “if they have disorganized attachment, the slightest discouragement is going to have them reverting to, ‘No, it’s okay. I’ll be able to do it myself.’”

Tips for overcoming a disorganized attachment style

First and foremost, Dr. Daramus says it’s helpful to see a mental-health professional. If you’re single and have identified your attachment style as disorganized, going to individual therapy is a great option, says Dr. Daramus. If you’re in a romantic relationship, couples therapy can also be helpful for you to get to the root of the issue (and work on it), which will make the relationship’s communication more vulnerable.

The next step for moving past your disorganized attachment is to spend time with folks who have a secure attachment style. That’s because people with secure attachment styles are more likely to ask for and receive help, be open about their emotions, and can serve as role models for others who have insecure attachment styles.

While you might consider it unideal to have a disorganized attachment style, try not to beat yourself up over it. Acknowledge that it’s not a choice you made for yourself and give yourself some grace as you introspect and work toward laying a foundation to have relationships that are as secure and healthy as possible.

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