Disorganized Attachment: What It Is and How It Affects Adulthood

Disorganized attachment arises in response to traumatic experiences. Let's take a look at its characteristics and implications.
Disorganized Attachment: What It Is and How It Affects Adulthood
Laura Ruiz Mitjana

Reviewed and approved by la psicóloga Laura Ruiz Mitjana.

Last update: 24 February, 2023

When children go through an experience that causes fear, anguish, or frustration, they turn to their parents for support. Their response to this search helps to build the kind of attachment that the little ones show towards them and others. A caring and timely response generates a secure attachment; while a cold and unwelcome response can lead to a type of attachment known as “disorganized attachment”.

Disorganized attachment is a fourth type of attachment that Main and Solomon proposed during the 1980s. It complements other types of attachment, such as the already mentioned secure, avoidant, and anxious attachment. As is to be expected, this style of attachment has multiple implications in adult life, so we’ll review them hand in hand with its traits and possible causes.

The characteristics of disorganized attachment

Disorganized attachment, also known as “disoriented attachment,” was proposed by assessing children’s reactions to a situation of temporary abandonment and then the return of their parents in a controlled context (known as the “Ainsworth Strange Situation Procedure”). Experts describe 7 characteristic features of this type of attachment in the face of the said experiment:

  • Sequential displays of contradictory behavior
  • Simultaneous display of contradictory behavior
  • Undirected, misdirected, or directly incomplete movements
  • Involuntary movements, at the wrong time, and abnormal postures
  • Freezing or stillness when seeing the parent or caregiver
  • Apprehensive display from the parent or caregiver
  • Obvious signs of disorientation or disorganization after the return of the parent or caregiver

That is, the little ones react in a disorganized, disoriented, and even doubtful way after the return of their parents after a controlled abandonment. This gave rise to researchers Mary Main and Solomon Judith to suggest a new type of attachment style.

As they postulated in a paper from the early 1990s, the defining characteristic of disorganized attachment is the absence of a coherent strategy to respond to a caregiver in times of stress.

It’s a very irregular attachment style, as both its causes and its consequences in adult life can be very varied.

The causes of disorganized attachment

Disorganized attachment and childhood.
The response that parents have during difficult times in childhood can shape the types of attachments that they develop in the future.

The initial hypothesis about the development of disorganized attachment was that it was a consequence of experiences of abuse, violence, trauma, and so on during early childhood. For this reason, little ones express doubt when going to them in a situation that generates anguish or fear.

They see a figure that provides them with security and comfort; but also as one that can hurt them. This generates an ambiguity of approach and flight.

However, in an article published in 1999 in Psychoanalytic Inquiry, the authors proposed a second way to explain this style of attachment: Parents or caregivers who’ve had traumatic experiences or unresolved loss.

Although there’s no explicit physical or psychological abuse and violence, their threatening attitudes or behaviors alarm the baby and lead them to manifest disorganized attachment (approaching them and at the same time wanting to flee).

Although this type of attachment can manifest itself in contexts of explicit non-violence, the truth is that it’s more common in these settings.

Children who’ve experienced physical or psychological abuse, have witnessed traumatic events by their parents, have grown up in a dysfunctional family, or have had to deal with fights and conflicts are more likely to develop disorganized attachment.

The consequences of disorganized attachment in adult life

As expected, attachment style has multiple implications for a functional life. We’ll highlight some ways it can disrupt a subject’s emotional and social health.

The risk of developing personality disorders

Insecure attachments have been suggested to be a risk factor for the development of personality disorders. In fact, some experts have suggested it as a possible explanation for borderline personality disorder.

In addition to this, people with this attachment style have a higher risk of developing avoidant personality disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, antisocial personality disorder, and others.

Alterations in the perception of touch

A study published in Scientific Reports in 2020 found that people with disorganized attachment assimilate affective touch (caresses, hugs, and so on) as more unpleasant than people with secure attachment. This altered perception can make them shy away from this type of contact, as well as avoid manifesting it themselves.

Poor social adaptation

Disorganized attachment and shyness.
Socialization problems caused by disorganized attachment can persist for many years.

There’s also evidence that this attachment style leads to poor social adaptation in the subjects. They have problems fitting into society, making friends, maintaining a stable relationship, having a job, and so on.

This can lead them to resort to a withdrawn lifestyle and shy away from social contact, which in turn can lead to other complications (such as depression and others).

The risk of manifesting dissociative symptoms

Some experts have warned about the manifestation of dissociative symptoms as a consequence of disorganized attachment. Loss of memory, assuming a confused interpretation of reality, the perception that those who are part of their circle aren’t real, and the feeling of being separated from one’s own body and emotions are some characteristics of dissociation.

Unsurprisingly, a person with this attachment style can foster their child’s development during parenting. Given the consequences it has in adulthood, when there are drastic interferences in daily life, seeking professional help should be considered.

Specifically, psychological therapy may be the answer to the effects that early childhood experiences have had on attitudes, thoughts, and behavior in adulthood.

  • Hesse, E., & Main, M. Second-generation effects of unresolved trauma in nonmaltreating parents: Dissociated, frightened, and threatening parental behavior. Psychoanalytic Inquiry. 1999; 19(4): 481–540.
  • Levy KN. The implications of attachment theory and research for understanding borderline personality disorder. Dev Psychopathol. 2005 Fall;17(4):959-86.
  • Lyons-Ruth K, Dutra L, Schuder MR, Bianchi I. From infant attachment disorganization to adult dissociation: relational adaptations or traumatic experiences? Psychiatr Clin North Am. 2006 Mar;29(1):63-86, viii.
  • Main, M., & Solomon, J. (1986). Discovery of an insecure-disorganized/disoriented attachment pattern. In T. B. Brazelton & M. W. Yogman (Eds.), Affective development in infancy- 1986; 95–124.
  • Main, M., & Solomon, J. Procedures for identifying infants as disorganized/disoriented during the Ainsworth Strange Situation. In M. T. Greenberg, D. Cicchetti, & E. M. Cummings (Eds.), Attachment in the preschool years: Theory, research, and intervention. 1990; 121–160.
  • O’Connor E, Bureau JF, McCartney K, Lyons-Ruth K. Risks and Outcomes Associated with Disorganized/Controlling Patterns of Attachment at Age Three in the NICHD Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development. Infant Ment Health J. 2011 Jul;32(4):450-472.
  • Spitoni GF, Zingaretti P, Giovanardi G, Antonucci G, Galati G, Lingiardi V, Cruciani G, Titone G, Boccia M. Disorganized Attachment pattern affects the perception of Affective Touch. Sci Rep. 2020 Jun 15;10(1):9658.
  • Westen D, Nakash O, Thomas C, Bradley R. Clinical assessment of attachment patterns and personality disorder in adolescents and adults. J Consult Clin Psychol. 2006 Dec;74(6):1065-85.

Este texto se ofrece únicamente con propósitos informativos y no reemplaza la consulta con un profesional. Ante dudas, consulta a tu especialista.