Everyone wants to have happy healthy relationships. We want them so badly, in fact, that many of us become obsessed with how to do them “right.” In recent years, attachment theory has become a useful framework for many of us to understand how the relationships we formed early in life — with caregivers, in particular — impact our adult relationships. But I’ve noticed that one attachment style often gets left out of the pop cultural conversation — disorganized. So I asked psychologists to help me investigate: What exactly is disorganized attachment and why aren’t we talking about it?
For those unfamiliar, the basic idea behind attachment theory in relationships is that as adults, we tend to replicate the relationship patterns we experienced as children and that understanding the style of relationship we developed early on can help us have better adult relationships. Psychoanalyst John Bowlby coined the term “attachment theory” in the 1950s, was taken up by neo-Freudians, and the 2012 self-help book, Attached, by Amir Levine made it ubiquitous.
The three attachment styles most frequently discussed are secure, anxious, and avoidant. Here’s a quick overview: People with secure attachment styles are generally comfortable with intimacy, folks with anxious attachment styles are often worried in intimate relationships, and individuals with avoidant attachment styles have a tendency to shy away from intimacy.
People with disorganized attachment oscillate between these three styles. Adults with disorganized attachment have a difficult time trusting people and forming intimate relationships. They are often inconsistent in their behavior and often show signs of personality disorders or various mental health issues. Disorganized attachment is sometimes also called “fearful-avoidant,” meaning that these individuals want love and relationships, but are often scared by intimacy.
One of the reasons it isn’t often discussed is because it’s not as prevalent as the other styles. That being said, it’s not exactly rare, either. Recent research shows that between 20-40% of people in the general population show some degree of disorganized attachment, but 80% of people who survive childhood abuse demonstrate disorganized attachment.
Wait though, that’s actually no small segment of the population. Why isn’t it broadly discussed the way the other ones are? It could be largely because it’s scary to think about childhood trauma.
“We don't talk about it generally because, to be quite honest, the general population is not always capable of hearing about atrocities done to children,” says Jennifer Rhodes, a California-based psychologist. It’s even harder for many of us to consider how devastating the impact of childhood abuse can be on future relationships, she explains. In other words, it’s very daunting to explore the concept of how much childhood trauma can affect a person’s whole life. It feels like a trap, and it’s also antithetical to our American pull-yourself-up-by-your-emotional-bootstraps way.
“The disorganized style is about trauma,” Rhodes explains. “Disorganized attachment is a very severe classification usually reserved for those with the childhood experience of being institutionalized or who experienced extreme relational trauma, often in the first five years of life.” In other words, Rhodes says, children who develop disorganized attachment often do so as the result of abuse, and those children often end up in the criminal justice system, and we really don’t want to talk about that.
Our country, unfortunately, does not have a penchant for investing in the programs that help prevent people’s trajectory through the prison pipeline, Rhodes explains. Better mental health care obviously wouldn’t immediately dismantle these giant systemic issues, but Rhodes says that it could actually help traumatized children in ways that could change not just their personal relationships, but also the roles they end up playing out in society. “It’s a shame since the mental health community has brilliantly designed early intervention programs that can stop this outcome,” Rhodes says.
Are people with disorganized attachment just doomed, then? Absolutely not. “People can have significant trauma as children and grow up with secure attachment styles,” says Thomas Plante, a California-based clinical psychologist and professor of Psychology at Stanford School of Medicine. It takes emotional work to build coping tools, as well as a solid support system to heal from abuse. But, Plante adds, it is rare that people overcome some early traumas completely.
So, if you’re reading this and you’re worried that you have a disorganized attachment style and therefore will never heal or have healthy relationships, that’s not necessarily the case. Attachment styles are not neatly delineated boxes. It’s more like a matrix, and you probably have a certain degree of all the styles. Not only that, but your attachment style can change from relationship to relationship and throughout the course of your life. If you have a hard time forming intimate relationships, though, Plante says, you can have psychological testing done that will help you figure out how to proceed.
So, basically, our goopy pop cultural conversation about attachment styles doesn’t mention disorganized attachment much because most of the people that conversation is geared towards are people who don’t want or need to think about mental health or childhood trauma with any degree of urgency. “We don't talk about it in the context of adult dating because anyone classified with such an attachment style would be under the care of mental health professionals,” Rhodes says. Or in jail, I might add. In any case, Rhodes says, “they would likely not be dating in the way the general population is.” And since people with disorganized attachment are less likely to be on Tinder, we seem to have swiped left on addressing them altogether.