Attachment style forms a big part of how people behave in relationships, with insecure attachment patterns limiting one’s ability to form healthy partnerships.
A disorganized attachment style can be chaotic and confusing — as these inconsistent behaviors can make long-term relationships seem out of reach. However, once you fully understand your attachment style, it’s easier to develop strategies for secure partnerships in the future.
So, do you have a disorganized attachment style? Don’t write off your happy ending quite yet, learn more about what this attachment style means and how it could be affecting your romantic relationships from the experts!
Attachment theory is one of the most popular and empirically grounded theories related to parenting which was devised by John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth.
This theory places a special emphasis on the role of attachment in predicting a child’s later social and emotional outcome. Therefore, childhood experiences with an attachment figure or primary caregiver directly influence one’s intimate relationships in adulthood.
“Attachment theory is based around how we learn to connect with others from birth, including significant influence in how those around you connect and disconnect from each other,” says Moraya Seeger DeGeare, a licensed marriage and family therapist and In-House Expert at Paired.
“Childhood attachment heavily influences how you connect with your close friends and adult romantic partners.”
According to these theories, these early childhood experiences directly impact your ability to form emotional connections later in life. For example, if your primary caregiver reacted sensitively and lovingly to your needs as a child, you’re more likely to develop a secure attachment — facilitating healthy close relationships as you move through life.
However, if these behaviors were absent, individuals are more likely to develop insecure attachment styles. Although these attachments manifest in different ways, without a secure base or sense of safety from childhood, it’s naturally more difficult to form healthy relationships.
Disorganized attachment style
These are the four recognized adult attachment styles, but there are also variants of these patterns such as fearful-avoidant attachment or dismissive-avoidant attachment. These attachment patterns display slightly different signs, with everyone reacting differently depending on their own individual experiences.
Disorganized attachment is a type of insecure attachment that is formed through negative childhood experiences, leading to inconsistent and self-destructive patterns in adult relationships.
Early studies developed the idea of disorganized attachment to account for the conflicted, disoriented, or fearful behavior shown by infants toward their caregivers, with later empirical research labeling this as disorganized attachment.
Within the ‘Strange Situation’ study, children with disorganized attachment reacted with fear or anxiety to their caregivers, viewing their parents as a cause for alarm. This trained reaction in young children carries into adulthood, with fear and inconsistency dominating all future intimate relationships.
"When you view others as unpredictable, unreliable, and with inconsistent partnerships, you may ultimately feel like you have to go it alone and make choices based on this worldview and your belonging in it,” says Seeger DeGeare.
Therefore, this attachment style is similar to avoidant or anxious behaviors, with all of these insecure patterns making it difficult to form long-lasting romantic partnerships.
Disorganized and avoidant attachment styles share some similarities, even though their childhood manifestations differ.
“Behaviors and motivators associated with anxious and avoidant attachment styles are also present in disorganized attachment,” says Seeger DeGeare.
“Both styles are preoccupied with being left, leading to a tendency to withdraw inward to process emotions and lower self-esteem.”
So while avoidant attachment emphasizes independence, disorganized attachment is more chaotic and inconsistent reflecting an underlying fear of rejection.
According to Bowlby’s theory, one’s attachment style is directly influenced by your early experiences and relationship with your primary caregiver.
Studies show that beginning at approximately six months of age, infants come to anticipate specific caregivers’ responses to their distress and shape their own behaviors accordingly.
“When a child reaches for a parent, it is often to get a need met, such as being hungry,” says Seeger DeGeare.
“But there is also an underlying question being asked: "Can I trust you? Will you be here for me? Am I someone that people want to comfort, feed, and love?" Of course, a child is not asking those questions directly. Instead, they may ask for something, snuggle, cry, throw a tantrum, or smile while painting on the floor.”
If a parent or caregiver consistently responds in a positive way, the child views this person as a source of comfort and safety — impacting their overall view of emotional intimacy in close relationships and leading to a secure attachment style.
“The way caregivers respond to a child's request sends a message about how the world responds to them. This is because, in a child's early years, caregivers are their entire world,” says Seeger DeGeare.
According to research, one pathway to a disorganized style of attachment includes children’s exposure to specific forms of distorted parenting and unusual caregiver behaviors that are ‘atypical’, such as frightening or sexualized behaviors.
In these cases, the parental figure acted as both a source of fear and of comfort, triggering confusion and disorientation in later romantic relationships.
“When those who are supposed to keep a child safe and nurture them are the cause of harm, whether through abuse or neglect, it teaches the child that the world can be a scary place, even those who are supposed to love them can cause harm,” says Seeger DeGeare.
“This can be a confusing message. Early attachment trauma due to abuse can lead to disorganized attachment in adult relationships.”
If children were exposed to aggressive behavior or sexual abuse in their early years, this infiltrates the source of safety a parent is supposed to provide — with these traumatic experiences naturally impacting how they form relationships in later life.
Therefore, this disregard for a child’s needs means these individuals have a hard time with emotional intimacy, making it difficult to cope with relationship hurdles in healthy ways.
There are a number of signs that can indicate a disorganized attachment style in adult relationships. In order to understand these signs, it’s important to recognize early childhood behaviors and how these shape later relationships.
Early studies located a number of behaviors that they used to identify disorganized attachment in children. These included a sequential and simultaneous display of contradictory behavior patterns, mistimed movements, slowed movements, and a number of other disorganized indicators.
These signs in children evolve into specific behaviors in adulthood, with this type of attachment visible in a number of different ways.
Although it’s helpful to identify these signs, you should not label someone’s attachment pattern without the help of a mental health professional — especially since some insecure attachments such as avoidant or anxious attachment styles display similar behaviors.
Relationships by nature are naturally exposing, as you’re required to open up to your partner in order to form a healthy and reciprocal relationship.
Due to the fears associated with their primary caregiver, individuals with disorganized attachment want to protect themselves from these behaviors. This leads to a fear of emotional intimacy, with these situations triggering chaotic or inconsistent emotional responses.
As the name suggests, disorganized attachment results in a lot of often chaotic and conflicting behaviors. These inconsistencies can make it difficult to sustain a healthy relationship, as behavior can differ greatly from day to day.
For example, individuals with this attachment style may display codependent tendencies, wanting to constantly be around their partner. Then, this may completely switch up later on, with avoidant behavior replacing these patterns.
This attachment style is characterized by a lot of different fears, which tend to disrupt any healthy patterns.
People with this attachment style have a great fear of rejection, with anxiety over their partner’s behavior stemming from these worries. Since they’re afraid their partner may leave them, this can result in a myriad of behaviors, either they will become very anxious and clingy or will completely distance themselves from their partner.
These reactions fit with both anxious and avoidant behaviors, with disorganized attached people able to display both behaviors — often flip-flopping between the two.
Due to their unresolved traumas or issues, they may have an inability to emotionally regulate when in relationship distress, resulting in emotionally charged outbursts.
These outbursts are quite self-destructive, damaging the relationship even though that may not be the intention.
Stemming from their upbringing, disorganized attached individuals tend to have very low self-worth and lack self-esteem.
Due to this, they tend to select partners who feed into this negative view of self — with toxic partners confirming their greatest insecurities. This triggers a constant cycle of negativity, affecting the individual's mental health and making it hard to see beyond this behavior.
Although insecure attachment styles can make intimate relationships more difficult, it doesn’t mean you have to abandon all hope for healthy relationships.
“We often speak of secure attachment as the ideal attachment style, but it’s vital to remember that attachment styles are not fixed and they’re so deeply impacted by the early years of someone's life,” says Seeger DeGeare.
“Meaning your attachment style is not your fault, you have done nothing wrong and all attachment styles have their value and unique qualities they bring to relationships.”
Acknowledging your own attachment style makes it easier to recognize these patterns in your romantic relationships — working towards healthier coping strategies. However, it’s important to be patient as these patterns are instilled in us from early childhood and can’t just disappear or be “fixed” overnight.
Loving someone with a disorganized or avoidant attachment style can be more difficult, but love from a securely attached individual can help to heal their inbuilt attachment tendencies.
“If you have someone in your life with disorganized attachment and over the years you have come to be close, trusted, and feel secure with them, know that is such a gift,” says Seeger DeGeare.
“You must be a steady and lovely human who has been patient and loving. You have provided them a corrective experience that the world can be kind, caring and that they are worth being patient to get to know.”
With patience and understanding, insecurely attached individuals can heal from their early childhood experiences and go on to form healthy relationships with their loved ones.
“Attachment-related behaviors can vary from person to person based on the trust in the relationship,” says Seeger DeGeare.
“So while you may feel secure with your intimate partner of many years, you may still have many indicators of disorganized behavior with other people in your life.”
Therefore, healing from a disorganized attachment style is a process that requires constant patience and perseverance in order to overcome inbuilt reactions. With a stable and secure partner by your side, who has been made aware of your struggles, this process can be made easier.
Or, if you feel you require more support, it can be helpful to seek help from a professional or attend couples therapy with your loved one.
Even though a secure attachment style may be the most desirable, it doesn’t mean that insecurely attached individuals can’t have satisfying relationships.
Therefore, even though they may display it in different ways, insecurely attached individuals are just as entitled to a happy ending.
“We all have opportunities for love in our lives, regardless of what we have experienced,” says Seeger DeGeare.
“Part of our personal growth involves deepening our self-awareness and healing as best we can. Unfortunately, many people are trapped in systems that prevent them from healing attachment wounds fully.”
Toxic or unhealthy relationships in adulthood can do further damage to one’s attachment style, with these partnerships confirming their greatest fears.
“However, anyone can shift their attachment style to a more secure one through a strong, healthy relationship,” says Seeger DeGeare.
“This requires building trust and open communication as you cultivate a fulfilling relationship with your partner. Remember, your past experiences do not limit you or define the rest of your life. Take comfort in the knowledge that there are many paths to healing attachment wounds.”