Understanding Disorganised Attachment Style

At the heart of someone who suffers from disorganised attachment is unacknowledged trauma and traumatic experience.  There has never been a chance for the trauma to be processed, so it has remained within the person, continually disrupting them.  These traumatic shocks have remained fixed within the individual. They are part of an unstable emotional core, always vulnerable to chance events that will set the disorganised attachment patterns off again.

We are born primed to attach to our caregivers

Children are born with an innate tendency to relate to their caregivers.  A child’s survival depends on this. Children look for healthy mirroring from their parents to help them build up a constructive sense of themselves and a sense of the world around them.  Mostly, children get the mirroring they need. These are children who find healthy ways to adapt to the people around them.   And out of this, a sense of the world as predictable, stable and ultimately usable, develops.  These children develop confidence and they develop healthy patterns of secure attachment.

The problems start to arise when there is no consistent parent there, when the child cannot develop an organising strategy.

When attachment fails

There are other children who find themselves faced with parents who provide much less reliable mirroring.  These children are given inconsistent and unpredictable messages.  This is very bad for them and provokes disruption.  These children might be neglected or abandoned or simply left alone for too long.  They might get aggression when they were looking for affection.  They get shocks instead of love.  All of these things interfere with the capacity to relax and settle and develop creative responses to the world around them.

  • These children struggle or fail to be creative, to be spontaneous and to play.
People who have developed disorganised attachment are likely to have:
  • experienced traumatic loss
  • to have gone through traumatic bereavements without help
  • grown up in unpredictable and unsettling homes.

As a consequence their emotional systems don’t develop in ordinary ways. Their minds are being too overloaded by complicated, distressing experiences for that to happen.

And, because we tend to look to make meaning and to understand the world we live in, this sense of being left alone with great pain feels like rejection.  The child experiences traumatic loss followed by rejection.  This creates shame.  Consequence follows consequence and so people learn to keep their emotions hidden, not just from the world, but from themselves too.  It becomes very hard for them to express themselves.

Disorganised attachment is a way of understanding the way we attach and form relationships with others.  As a model it developed out of Mary Ainsworth’s work which developed out of John Bowlby’s work on Attachment Theory.

Disorganised attachment is a label that is considered for children who appear disorganised and disoriented in their styles of relating to care givers and parents.  For these children expressing emotions has become complicated.  They do not respond to people in a straightforward way.  For example they may have learned to resist crying and revealing emotions.  This can become the beginning of a pathway that goes onto become the basis of all kinds of unexplained medical conditions. This is a way in which disorganised attachment develops. Mary Ainsworth’s work on the strange situation was a way of observing attachments between primary caregiver and child.  It was a way of identifying attachment disorder in children with disorganised attachment.

It often follows that disorganised patterns of attachment get handed on from one generation to another.

If a parent was left to go through unrecognised or ignored traumas in their childhood home, it is possible that when they become parents they will respond to their own children in a similar way.

This is the kind of model of relating that Philip Larkin described in This Be The Verse (1974):

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.

They may not mean to, but they do.

They fill you with the faults they had

And add some extra, just for you.

… … …

Man hands on misery to man.

It deepens like a coastal shelf.

Get out as early as you can,

And don’t have any kids yourself.

But, it does not have to be this way

The cure for disorganised attachment is to find a way to come to terms with our own traumas and losses and unresolved tragedies.  If we can develop a better relationship with our own emotional histories and experience then it is likely that we may become better able to relate and form more organised and constructive relationships with others.

This is essential work.  If we ignore it we will likely remain stuck in our disorganised attachment patterns.  We may be able to start relationships, but we are unlikely to be able to develop lasting relationships.

Dating and Disorganised Attachment

It will be difficult to develop an ongoing relationship with someone who has disorganised patterns of attachment.  Things might look ok from the outset, but it will be very difficult for any continuity or predictability to exist.

These kinds of problems often bear similarities to people with narcissistic personality disorders.  Someone with disorganised attachment may come across as intriguing, somewhat detached or remote in an enigmatic way.  But you won’t be able to get much further unless the emotional issues at the heart of the person can be addressed.

Psychotherapy can address these issues.  

It takes time and commitment, but it can be done.  

It is possible to address the experiences that underlie the issues of disorganised attachment, and to develop more constructive ways of relating.

Typically, if these problems are ignored they lead, at best to lonely and unfulfilled lives.  The individual will end up alone.  They will be made too anxious by social relationships, and remain increasingly isolated within their unhappy and idiosyncratic worlds.

It is likely that there will be problems with adult attachments

When we have grown up with these kinds of disorganised attachments we don’t develop a sense of a psychologically secure base.  This has a consequence for our emotional stability.

Our mental health is built upon our early experiences of being securely attached.  When we have had a prolonged, or traumatic experience of disorganised attachment we are more likely to be vulnerable to emotional problems in later life.

Post traumatic stress, traumatic experiences can create problems with our ability to form quality attachments.

Contact me

Having the chance to speak in a confidential setting is often the key to developing a clearer understanding of how we may have become caught up in destructive narcissistic patterns of relating.

By giving yourself a safe space to look at these things you may start to discover a greater sense of possibilities, and this may be the beginning of developing a greater sense of understanding how to relate to yourself and others, how to start living more fully again, and how to start to have healthy relationships with yourself and other people.

The chance to reflect on ourselves, our feelings and experience can be powerful and transformative. Out of this, you may be able to develop a clearer understanding of how you and your sense of your problems have developed, and what you can change.

I have been working with people on issues such like this for more than twenty years.  My work is built around helping you to develop greater insight into who you are, and how you live. 

Contact me to arrange a free telephone consultation to discuss how my approach might help you.

Email: toby@tobyingham.com