It’s well understood within attachment theory that everyone conforms to a certain attachment style depending on their upbringing and environmental influences. The most challenging of these both to live with and support someone with is the disorganised attachment style, otherwise known as fearful-avoidant. The most challenging of these to work with is disorganised attachment, because of the nuance and conflict involved, which is often rooted in serious childhood trauma relating to abuse, abandonment and neglect.
What is Disorganised Attachment?
To offer a succinct explanation of disorganised attachment, those who fit this criteria often have a strong desire for intimate connection. However, in tandem with this, they’ll also create walls around themselves to avoid getting hurt. So people with this attachment style will swing between two very distinct styles of attachment when presented with the opportunity to form new connections. That being a strong need to connect with others, coupled with the innate drive to survive – i.e. not get in hurt in the same way they were in the past. This creates a huge source of conflict within that person, which can often see them existing in a limbo state where no one choice can ultimately satisfy them. This then leads to a perpetual back and forth of pulling people in close only to push them away at the first sign that they might cause hurt.
What Does Disorganised Attachment Look Like in Adulthood?
For those people who aren’t aware they have a disorganised/fearful-avoidant attachment style, it can often be displayed in adulthood through “poor coping skills, a lack of coping strategies, erratic behaviour, difficulty dealing with issues in relationships and in real-life problems.” And it’s this patterning that creates such a challenging dynamic within their interpersonal and romantic relationships. And this is true of all forms of interaction from friends and partners to colleagues and even children. They’ll carry the same model of behaviour in all of these relationships, which is a cyclical pattern of approaching and withdrawing.
This can make forming romantic partnerships extremely difficult, even if someone is aware of their patterning. There’s still a need for an enormous amount of self-regulation – and co-regulation – within the relationship. So there’s a much greater requirement placed on those in connection to be fully present than in a relationship where it isn’t a factor. And this is in part due to the fact that the fearful-avoidant requires a lot of reassurance that everything is ok when they’ve shut down. As one of the many contradicting ticks of this disorder is the person will shut down and then fear that the person is abandoning them after they pushed them away. This then leads to ongoing mental rehearsals about the validity of the relationship and whether they’re even worthy or deserving of it. That ultimately means, the journey of the individual with disorganised attachment is one of rebuilding trust. And in fact, it’s more about building trust that has never been there in the first place, as it was often never present during the developmental stages of their life.
The Main Signs of a Disorganised Attachment Style
- Chaotic and unpredictable patterns in relationships
- Extreme fear of rejection and an inability to trust
- An increased need for closeness coupled with the tendency to push people away
- Potential for aggressive behaviour towards caregivers
- Fear of caregivers and people in connection
- Negative and low self-image and low self-esteem
- Deep-rooted shame
- Feeling unloved unlovable and unworthy of love
- Anxiety and depression
What Causes Someone to Have a Disorganised Attachment Style?
The reductionist answer to this question is that disorganised attachment is simply caused by a child’s need not being met. And that is entirely true – in part – but it doesn’t tell the entire story. There are two very distinct sides of the coin in terms of developmental trauma and that’s neglect and overt physical and emotional abuse. Both of them can individually create a sense of disorganised attachment within someone. But it’s also entirely possible for them to co-occur and create a more intense form of their attachment style, which can then bring in other co-morbid factors such as PTSD, C-PTSD and borderline personality disorder (BPD).
And so, again, it comes back down to that main thread of trust that presents within both a neglect and abuse scenario. As the parental figures or guardians in question have never provided that reference point of safety, nurture, care and unconditional love. Meaning, this lack of support then provides the blueprint going forward in all future relationships. It becomes the reference point for how fearful-avoidants interact with the world. Since there’s been no form of secure attachment style in childhood, it can’t be drawn on as an experience in relationships with their peers. The social response that we all take for granted aren’t as automatic for the fearful-avoidant. They need to be created through having a core group of friends and family that can support them in learning these skills.
How to Support Someone with Disorganised Attachment
The first thing you need to do to support someone with a disorganised style is to remove your ego from all decisions relating to your interactions with the person. Most often, the things that surface within these relational dynamics are not about you. Even when you’ve been the subject of intense projections and verbal abuse. It can often be the case that you’re simply serving as the avatar for the person who caused the majority of hurt for this person in childhood. And this can especially be the case if you’ve unknowingly triggered them. If you fall into language patterns or similar behaviour that was received in childhood, you then automatically assume the role of that person in the mind of the fearful-avoidant. And so, the need to detach from what’s being said on a personal level is an absolute necessity in order to 1) support the fearful-avoidant 2) not bring added weight into the exchange by projecting back at them, which can lead to escalation and further dysfunction.
The next key piece is trust. You need to understand that with a fearful-avoidant, you’re on a journey of building trust with them. Trust that has most likely never existed before – or at least in very small amounts. And so, you can’t expect a fearful-avoidant to open up to you and then remain open. The patterning of this type of attachment style means that they will open up to you because they want connection. But also, they will inevitably shut down. So there’s an expansion and contraction in terms of their willingness to be open. You could be going great for a week or two or even a month. And then, something might be said causing the walls in the fearful-avoidant to be raised again. And this will oftentimes, in effect, reset a large amount of the good will that’s been built between you. And in moments like this, the fearful-avoidant is largely needing a lot of reassurance around the validity of the relationships and that they are worthy of being in connection. And with this in mind, by knowing this pattern of push and pull, you can prepare yourself for the inevitable withdrawal and be able to respond constructively instead of leaning into ego and taking it personally. The idea is that you build up more and more trust in each cycle of expansion and contraction so, over time, the withdrawals and dissociations become less frequent.