What is disorganized attachment?
If your own or your partner’s attachment style is disorganized, you’re in the right place. Today, we take a closer look at defining what disorganized attachment is and examples of what it looks like in relationships.
Ready to learn all about the disorganized attachment style and ways to heal it? Let’s dive in.
What is disorganized attachment?
Disorganized attachment is one of the four attachment styles. These are unique blueprints for how you've learned to give and receive love from your childhood, usually formed from interactions with our primary caregivers. These traits carry through to our adult romantic relationships.
The four attachment styles are:
- Anxious: Adults who struggle with feelings of unworthiness
- Avoidant: Adults who avoid commitment rooted in feelings of fear
- Disorganized: Adults with insecurity and unpredictable behaviors
- Secure: Adults with a positive self-image and who are open to romance
An adult’s attachment style is a good indicator of how much closeness or space they desire when it comes to emotional intimacy. Knowing your and your partner’s attachment style is a key step in understanding your relationship.
Today, we’re focusing on #3 from above (but you’ll see it involves #1 and #2!). So, what is disorganized attachment?
What does disorganized attachment feel like?
Disorganized attachment is a combination of both anxious attachment and avoidant attachment. That means the person has both high anxiety and high avoidance in relationships.
This is usually due to trauma or neglect from their childhood and may stem from a parent’s unresolved trauma or loss. Such experience may have led the parent to display dissociative behaviors toward their infant.
You see, the primary purpose of attachment styles is to increase the likelihood that people survive their childhood. That’s a reason why disorganized individuals develop these characteristics and outlooks on life.
Disorganized attachment can also be referred to as “anxious-avoidant” or “fearful avoidance.” I refer to those with disorganized attachment as “Spice of Lifers.” Let me explain why.
Individuals with disorganized attachment are usually desirous of love and affection, while at the same time terribly afraid of it. Spice of Lifers experience highs and lows at such depths that it’s hard for them to know what “steady ground” looks like.
For example, they may see their partner as a place of safety one moment, then suddenly view them as a villain the next. Their perspective changes from hot to cold so they live with higher levels of contrast in their romantic experiences.
That’s where my name “Spice of Lifers” comes from. It is the contrast in life that forces us to expand and to grow. I believe the pain many Spice of Lifers feel is evidence of an even greater calling for spiritual expansion.
I explain more in this short video:
When dating, Spice of Lifers experience fast cycles of anxiously yearning to be in a relationship and wanting to avoid and dismiss loving feelings altogether. It’s because of this roller coaster that Spice of Lifers tend to attract insecure partners who mirror their inner conflict.
And oftentimes, those in a disorganized relationship trigger each other.
So, what does the roller coaster of disorganized attachment look like in adults? That’s next.
What does disorganised attachment look like in adults?
Let’s look at an example of disorganized attachment with the story of Sandy.
After being single for a while, Sandy started dating and met someone special. At first, they got along really well. Great conversation. Good sexual chemistry. It was easy laughs and good times.
But, unfortunately, it didn’t last long.
Although Sandy wants love and affection, she is struggling internally with getting closer to her partner in two ways. First, she has a fear of being rejected and abandoned. Second, she is terrified of being over-controlled and invaded.
As intimacy deepens, jealousy takes over and she starts to distrust and doubt her partner as she searches obsessively for signs of infidelity.
Soon, she's picking fights and testing the limits of her partner’s affection. She’s convinced the relationship will end and wonders why she even liked them in the first place. Sandy shuts down.
Sandy’s partner starts to feel confused and frustrated by her "moodiness." Her partner feels backed into a corner, and may start doing the things she’s accused them of - just to spite her.
Eventually, this leads to an ultimatum and the relationship ends.
Sandy feels like she messed up a good thing and she starts to think, “What have I done?” She texts the ex and they reconnect - and it starts all over again.
Sandy’s inner monologue sounds something like this:
“In getting to know someone, I fear they’ll set high expectations and I’ll fall short. I’m worried a partner won’t give me enough space or want more than I can give them, so I’ll lose interest and cause them pain. At the same time, I am afraid they’ll leave or lose interest in me so I’ll get hurt. As we get closer, I always just mess things up.”
Why do those with disorganized attachment behave the way they do?
For a moment, let’s dive into the science behind disorganized attachment. Disorganized attachment can relate to the shutting down of the dorsal vagal nerve. This is derived from polyvagal theory.
Normally, the dorsal vagus serves a very positive function. It helps the body gently go back and forth between stimulated states and relaxed states.
However, when the sympathetic nervous system is too aroused, the dorsal vagus nerve can shut down the entire system, and we go into freeze.
It’s a survival mechanism, and it’s commonly observed in individuals that have experienced trauma and shame, in their childhood and/or early adulthood.
In short, this means that many anxiously attached individuals will sometimes feel avoidant, and many avoidantly attached individuals will sometimes feel anxious, but the presence of a dissociative “shut down” qualifies disorganized attachment.
Basically their system can short circuit causing them to dissociate or numb out, because their source of comfort is also their source of threat.
This is why “Sandy” all of a sudden can’t remember why she liked her partner so much. The more intimate things get, the greater the inner conflict grows between feeling deeper love and deeper fear until finally the feelings just switch off.
Her attachment system determined the relationship is a threat; it can’t take the stimulation anymore so it cuts out.
This is why disorganized partners abruptly end relationships only to come crawling back later. It’s not a place of manipulation as much as it is working from a place of confusion.
How do you know if you have disorganized attachment?
How can you tell if you have a disorganized attachment style?
- Fear being rejected and hurt by loved ones
- Feel a depth of emotion and passion that is hard to contain
- Have a polarizing personality that’s hot or cold, but rarely in the middle
- Are very critical of yourself and see things in white and black
- Feel a hungry desire to feel seen and heard, but don’t feel like you fit in anywhere
- Hear people tell you that you’re moody or “too intense”
That said, instead of only focusing on negatives, it’s important to take into account the strengths of Spice of Lifers too.
- Creativity appeals to you, even if you wouldn’t describe yourself as “artistic.”
- You understand poetry and resonate with music and lyrics.
- You are empathic and can read a room better than others.
- You are a very persuasive person and know how to get the job done.
- You are a great defender of the underdog or have a deep understanding of the anti-hero of a story.
- You show genuine and authentic compassion for others, and others are drawn to you for it
Now you know what disorganized attachment is. But how exactly does it affect your relationships?
What is disorganized attachment in relationships?
Within a relationship as a Spice of Lifer, you are probably capable of great emotional depths but feel overwhelmed by them. People tell you you’re “too intense” and it leaves you feeling lonely and isolated.
You don’t want to burden others with your problems, but you internally know that you need to connect with someone. This leaves you feeling confused about what your true needs really are, especially in a relationship.
Meanwhile, you tend to see life through black and white thinking. You have a tendency towards becoming a polarizing provocateur in a community or judging others. This mentality may make you feel left out in social or group situations.
It's important to realize that your critical voice is most frequently used on yourself. This self-criticism makes it hard for you to see and accept the gray areas in others, as well. You might hold an unambiguous standard of perfection.
When you find someone special and feel in sync, you feel like love swallows you up whole. Your wildly creative nature expresses your feelings and partners are smitten with you, at first.
After some time, this excitement fades and reality sets in.
Eventually the unavoidable, boring routines of life steal your partner’s attention. This can be upsetting and make you start to question the foundations of the entire relationship.
As intimacy deepens, the less dazzling it becomes. You may start to doubt your partner’s affections and begin searching for problems or signs of infidelity to justify this change in heart.
For example, you may sneak into their phone to read texts, or obsessively check their social media. On the other hand, you may start to feel bored and second-guess why you like your partner.
As you turn from hot to cold, your partner doesn’t understand why you can’t trust them. They might say things they don’t mean, in anger, or accuse you of being “too emotional.”
These negative reactions just confirm your suspicions that your partner is flawed. So, you break up - only to regret your decision later.
Within my online community, a few self-identified Spice of Lifers wrote some statements about how they feel in relationships:
- “I'm on both ends of the spectrum... terrified of abandonment, and terrified of being someone’s everything and feeling trapped or controlled. It’s a little bonkers!!”
- “Fear of being overrun, dominated, used and guilted into the distance/closeness they want. I fear losing my sense of self.”
- “I think my biggest fear is that I won't ever truly feel ‘safe’ in a relationship with a romantic partner, in spite of having established safety within myself.”
If you resonate with these statements, let’s continue learning about disorganized attachment and dating.
Disorganized attachment and dating: How you might be sabotaging your relationships
Now that you know what disorganized attachment looks like in relationships, let me explain what it’s like dating. More specifically, what goes wrong.
Here are 10 ways that Spice of Lifers tend to sabotage their relationships.
1. Excessive contact followed by withdrawal
Disorganized partners (like anxious attachments) may cling to their partners in a constant need to feel secure. They initiate non-stop communication then obsess over response times, inventing scenarios as to why they may not text back immediately. These looming fantasies generate self-doubt and a sense of abandonment and rejection. This causes them to “switch off.”
2. Keeping score
Sometimes, Spice of Lifers excessively give so much love, time and attention to their partner, they don’t feel it’s reciprocated. They struggle to understand that everyone has different boundaries and standards for closeness. This stems from the idea that disorganized attachments focus primarily on what they do and mean to someone else, because they typically don’t feel worthy enough on their own.
3. Acting hostile
This sabotaging trait follows closely after keeping score. Hostility is often communicated by using a harsh tone of voice, rolling one’s eyes or declaring a passive aggressive “I’m fine.” After a hostile interaction, those with a disorganized attachment might apologize through an extravagant gift or tearful apology. While it’s genuine, they feel they’ve lost control of the relationship and want to reassert their position to avoid the fear of abandonment.
4. Emotional manipulation
A common example of emotional manipulation are contradictory statements. For instance, “I feel like we’re soulmates, but we can’t possibly make this work.” Oftentimes, these statements are actually an anxious partner bidding for their partner to take a stand. A contradictory statement is like a soft ultimatum, manipulating the partner to act.
5. People pleasing
Spice of Lifers continuously work to please their partner and may put their own wants and desires aside. Eventually, the disorganized person burns out. This sabotages a dating relationship because it’s a passion killer. When partners authentically voice their desires, regardless how they may be perceived, they step into power - a healthy one. People pleasing only lasts so long and ends many relationships.
6. Saying you’re not ready to commit, but acting like a committed partner
Those dating a disorganized partner may claim their behavior, emotions, and communications all prove that they are in love, so it drives them crazy that they refuse to act like it. Spice of Lifers are afraid to define the relationship because this “label” might create too high of an expectation and they don’t want to subject themselves to a vulnerable position.
7. Saying you want committed relationship, but not acting like it
On the flip side, Spice of Lifers may act the opposite of the previously mentioned. They feel indecisive and confused about their emotions, so they use their words to keep their partner in suspense. Meanwhile, they don’t act like a committed partner to reserve the right to leave if they want. In short, they want the connection of a partner, but safety from being abandoned.
8. Focusing on the flaws in your partner
One of the most terrifying aspects of a relationship for a Spice of Lifer is revealing and accepting each other’s flaws. Why? They carry a deep-seated feeling of worthlessness and being undeserving. To reveal their flaws would mean they could be rejected or abandoned. Other Spice of Lifers may cling to the idea of a perfect partner, so any flaws are hard to accept. Their roller coaster of seeing life as black and white makes it difficult to accept the gray area.
9. Pining for the “one that got away”
Part of what characterizes disorganized attachment is a difficulty with remaining fully present in the moment with your feelings and needs. This causes disorganized partners to adopt a fantasy life and start to idealize past partners. Once they put exes on this pedestal, their current partner will never live up to it, even though they are probably quite similar.
10. Hyper or hypo sexuality
Spice of Lifers tend to experience a split between the mind and body, head and heart. They tend to over-intellectualize everything or live in the fantasy of reality, rather than experiencing it. This disconnection may cause a disorganized partner to be hypersexual. They want to exert a sense of control over their emotions. So, they derive pleasure from body contact because it feels safer than seeking emotional contact. On the other hand, Spice of Lifers may become unaffectionate because sexual contact stimulates too many feelings for them.
These are all ways in which you might be sabotaging your new relationship and dating life. We’ll look at how to heal your attachment style below, but first, let’s take a look at how disorganized attachment affects relationships.
Disorganized attachment in marriage
In marriage (or long term partnerships), Spice of Lifers will often continue down the emotional roller coaster. Disorganized individuals may become polarized by the attachment style of their partners, especially over time.
For example, if their long-time partner is more anxious, they could adopt more avoidant tendencies and vice versa.
This type of a relationship often turns into a cyclical unhealthy situation, in what is called “the anxious-avoidant” trap. Thankfully, you can escape this trap and overcome disorganized attachment.
How do you heal disorganized attachment?
Can you heal from disorganized attachment? YES! One of my students, Joe, is evidence of that. Thanks to my arts-based exercises, he was able to work on his disorganized attachment style.
Jitka is another example of overcoming it. When she realized that she needed to work on her attachment style, Jitka found my course, which was the start of a life changing process for her.
To overcome disorganized attachment, a Spice of Lifer must work through the confusion they have about the conditions of love.
For example, your personal boundaries have often been abandoned, so you must learn to establish these.
And to move towards secure attachment, you must allow more spaciousness within you to make more informed decisions.
What does this mean?
Security is the relationship you have with your own insecurity. If you can learn how to connect to your own insecurities and form self-acceptance, all of those uncertain feelings begin to dissipate.
There is no quick fix to this. This process is achieved through witnessing, observing and becoming tolerant of your own insecurities - and continued practice.
In the end, to overcome disorganized attachment, you must retrain your mind to have a healthier outlook like a secure attachment style does.
In this short video, I share more about what this looks like:
Over to you!
There it is. Now you know all about the disorganized attachment style and how Spice of Lifers act in relationships.
You’ve made an important step in learning more about disorganized attachment. Understanding how attachment styles affect you and your partner will help you show up to your relationship in the best way.
The process takes time, but it’s a journey well worth your time.
Now, I want to know: What’s your top question about disorganized attachment?
Let me know in the comments below.