Disorganized Attachment: What It Is and What It Looks Like

By Danielle Boland

Some people find that they experience a lot of anxiety and insecurity in their relationships. These overwhelming feelings can cause relationships to be confusing and difficult to navigate — they can make you want someone to care about you while also making you afraid that others will hurt or disappoint you. 

If you feel this way in your relationships, you may have a disorganized attachment style. Knowing more about your attachment style and learning how to address it can help you navigate your relationships in a healthier way. 

What Is an Attachment Style?

Attachment style is the psychological term for the emotional bond that is formed between parents and children during early childhood. The attachment style that develops in childhood has been found to influence relationship success and failure in adulthood. 

Many theorists in attachment theory believe that attachment is created through many interactions between parents and children. Attachment also depends on whether a child feels that their needs are taken care of and that they receive emotional and physical fulfillment. Parents become an attachment figure for a child, and the way the child responds when their attachment figure is away will show what their attachment behaviors are. 

There are four different types of attachment that someone can develop based on their experiences. These include:

  • Secure attachment
  • Anxious/preoccupied attachment 
  • Dismissive/avoidant attachment
  • Fearful/disorganized attachment

What Is Disorganized Attachment?

Disorganized attachment is when someone is a combination of both anxious and avoidant attachment types. They have a fear of intimacy and commitment. They may want to be in a relationship, but they have a fear of abandonment and also want to avoid being hurt. Someone with disorganized attachment may be clingy for affection and attention, but they also push people away because they have a hard time trusting others.

Disorganized Attachment vs. Avoidant Attachment

Disorganized attachment is often confused with avoidant attachment, but there are a few key differences that separate the two. Avoidant attachment style stems from a fear of intimacy, and it usually involves parents who were unavailable emotionally to a child. This creates a very self-reliant mindset in adulthood. People with avoidant attachment will choose not to be in romantic relationships or will only rely on themselves in relationships. 

People with disorganized attachment have a hard time deciding if they want to be in a relationship or if they can trust someone in a relationship. They are unsure how to act with others, and they often go between wanting attention or affection to being dismissive of their partner due to fear of being abandoned or hurt. 

What Does Disorganized Attachment Look Like?

There are some relationship traits and characteristics that are found in people with disorganized attachment. Some of these show up in childhood but are also found in adults. Disorganized attachment in a child can look like:

  • Attention-seeking
  • Avoidant behavior
  • Inability to communicate needs
  • Inability to self-soothe
  • Extreme focus 
  • Power struggle dynamic with caregivers
  • Being fearful all of the time
  • Ambivalent attitude

Disorganized Attachment in Adults

Disorganized attachment may be more obvious in adults and can show up in their personal and professional lives. Disorganized attachment in adults can look like:

  • Emotional instability
  • Being very clingy or dismissive, with no in-between
  • Being very suspicious of others’ behaviors or intentions
  • Instability in romantic relationships
  • Fear of abandonment
  • Fear of intimacy
  • Poor self-esteem
  • Fear of forming attachments due to trust issues

Disorganized Attachment and Relationships

Adults with a disorganized attachment style tend to be inconsistent in their relationships and have a push-and-pull dynamic. They don’t know how to interact with people romantically, as they want to be committed but also keep people at a distance due to fear of commitment.   

Attachment issues that develop in childhood can be hard to move past as an adult. The complicated relationships and emotional attachments from childhood can be hard to separate in adult relationships for people with disorganized attachment. A person may have a more negative mindset in regard to relationships and themselves due to a disorganized attachment style. 

What Causes Disorganized Attachment?

Disorganized attachment can occur when a parent responds to their child the same way their parents did. Disorganized attachment can also happen when a parent does not show up for their child in a consistent way. This can look like failing to respond to a child’s distress or being inconsistent in comforting their child’s fear or distress. 

An example of this can be when a child is left with a new babysitter and becomes upset. Instead of comforting their child and reassuring them, a parent will yell or discipline the child for being upset. This teaches a child that their feelings aren’t valid and that their parents will not comfort them when upset. 

Can You Change Your Attachment Style?

Although we are exposed to certain parenting styles and develop an attachment style in childhood, it does not mean we are unable to change our perception and understanding of how it affects us as adults. 

Knowing your attachment style is the first step in starting to change the long-term effects of your childhood. Doing activities and exercises that help you learn to trust others and yourself can be helpful in changing the way you respond to the attachment style you grew up with. Intimacy-building exercises, such as partner yoga or dance classes, can help you learn to trust your partner and build a foundation for healthier relationships overall. 

Treatment for Disorganized Attachment

If you have identified that you may have a disorganized attachment style, there are things you can do to help treat your insecurity and trust issues in relationships. Finding a therapist who specializes in attachment styles is a good start. A therapist can help you unpack why your attachment style is disorganized and develop ways to start rebuilding trust in others. If you are already in a relationship and are struggling due to your attachment style, seeking out a couples therapist can also be a helpful way to work through insecurity and trust issues. 

The Nobu app is another valuable resource that can help you work through issues stemming from disorganized attachment. The free app offers a variety of easy-to-use tools, including mental health exercises, mindfulness activities, journaling services and much more. For an additional fee, you can even connect with a licensed therapist to receive professional support for your mental health. To see for yourself how Nobu can help enrich your daily life, download the app today — available for free on Apple and Android devices.

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Edited by – Jonathan Strum

Jonathan Strum graduated from the University of Nebraska Omaha with a Bachelor’s in Communication in 2017 and has been writing professionally ever since. He has written, edited and published content for health care professionals, educators, real estate agents, lawyers and high-level university faculty… Read more.

Written by – Danielle Boland

Danielle is a licensed clinical social worker, currently living and practicing in central Connecticut. Danielle graduated from Columbia University in 2012 with a Masters of Social Work, and always had the goal of opening her own private practice. She specializes in women’s issues, maternal health and postpartum mental health. Danielle is passionate about empowering people of all ages and hopes to use her writing skills to provide more resources for those looking to improve their mental health… Read more.

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Medically Reviewed by – Dr. Angela Phillips

Angela is a licensed therapist and clinical researcher, and has worked in public, private, government, and not-for-profit organizations, across clinical and research-oriented roles. Angela’s clinical and research experience has included suicide prevention, cognitive behavioral… Read more.