Attachment styles are having a moment. The internet runneth over with attachment style–themed TikToks, memes, hashtags, quizzes, and viral tweets. Suddenly it seems everyone from your mom to your high school principal can recite the four attachment styles—secure, anxious, avoidant, and disorganized—in their sleep. Still, misconceptions abound, especially about the elusive disorganized attachment style—the rarest of the four categories.
Despite its sudden ubiquity, attachment theory isn’t actually new: It was developed in the first half of the 20th century by British psychologist John Bowlby and came to prominence after WWII, as psychoanalysts studied the effects of trauma and separation on babies and young children. Today, many therapists use it as a tool to help clients understand their emotional impulses in romantic, platonic, familial, and professional relationships.
“Attachment theory helps you gain some awareness of how you typically show up in relationships,” says Lucie Fielding, sex educator and author of Trans Sex: Clinical Approaches to Trans Sexualities and Erotic Embodiments. She says the four attachment styles represent some of the ways that people innately resolve conflicts or respond to perceived threats or distress.
The caveat, though, is that these labels are by no means binding or static. She compares them to personality traits: We all have the capacity to be a little narcissistic, for example, but certain situations may bring that trait out of us more than others.
“We sometimes talk about the various types of attachments as if they’re horoscopes. It’s like, ‘Well, my sun sign is secure and my rising is anxious.’ And that’s just not the case,” Fielding says. “Different relationships can bring out different styles; these styles are all latent in us.”
Though there are four official attachment styles, they fall under two different umbrellas: secure and insecure. Anxious and avoidant qualify as insecure attachments, and disorganized is a hybrid of them both. Read on to learn more about the vanilla-chocolate swirl of emotional insecurity known as disorganized attachment style—what it means for your relationships, how to spot it in yourself and others, and how to heal from it.
What is disorganized attachment style?
Disorganized attachment style is a heady mix of the other two insecure styles: anxious/preoccupied and avoidant/dismissive. All three styles crave connection, but each has a different core fear associated with it. The anxious/preoccupied style, according to Fielding, is primarily afraid of abandonment. They present what we call “separation anxiety.” If there’s any kind of conflict in a relationship, Fielding says, a person who presents as anxious/preoccupied will attempt to resolve it by releasing tension and making accommodations that will discharge the situation.
The avoidant/dismissive style also craves connection, but “as soon as you get it, your defenses go up,” Fielding says. Jessica Fern, a clinical trauma professional and author of Polysecure: Attachment, Trauma, and Consensual Nonmonogamy, said this type of person fears “engulfment” above all else, or being swallowed up by a relationship. Fielding elaborates: “It’s not just like a simple fear of commitment,” she says. “It’s that they fear that their autonomy would be challenged.”
So where does that leave the disorganized style, sometimes referred to as fearful/avoidant? Unlike the other two insecure styles that have relatively predictable stress responses, a person who presents disorganized attachment tends to be without a coherent strategy for dealing with distress or perceived emotional threats. “They may show up as more anxious in certain relationships and more avoidant in others,” Fielding explains. “They may vacillate between those two styles and between different relationships, and they may even vacillate within one relationship. Sometimes they may have porous boundaries, sometimes those boundaries are going to be very rigid. And that’s going to shift through time.”
She says that when disorganized attachment shows up in childhood, it often looks like a kid who is eager for a caregiver to return, but as soon as they do, the kid acts out and does something to push them away. The central lesson of attachment theory is that those same patterns follow us into our adult relationships, too. If you were a tepid child, chances are your conflicted nature is still with you as a grown up.
Where does disorganized attachment style come from?
As with all attachment styles, disorganized attachments begin developing in people early, typically as young kids. “So often the stuff that happens to us in childhood, and in our relationships as we’re growing up, pattern us,” Fielding says.
Traditionally, attachment styles are associated with a person’s relationship to their parents or caregivers; but, while those relationships are typically the first kinds of bonds children form with other humans, attachment styles may form from all sorts of influences. In Polysecure, Fern writes about the impact that other relationships have on the development of a child’s emotional attachments—whether it’s friends, teachers, siblings, or even the physical environment they grow up in.
Also, as Fielding points out, our attachment styles indicate more than just our romantic instincts. “If your primary style of relating is informed by a more disorganized style, that’s not just going to play out in your sexual and romantic relationships. It will also play out in your professional relationships, in your friendships,” she says. Attachment styles manifest all over the place—across the full spectrum of our social and relational lives.
How can I identify disorganized attachment style in myself or others?
Fielding, who is queer and polyamorous, says the relationship milestones prized by typically dominant groups (cis/het, white, middle- to high-socioeconomic status) are often used as a “proxy” for secure attachment, but can sometimes obscure insecure attachment styles like disorganized.
“They might say, ‘Oh, we’ve moved in together. We should be securely attached now,’” she says. “But in the same way that having children or opening up your relationship because you’re in the midst of conflict is not going to solve things, it’s just going to create different problems or exacerbate the problems that are already happening.”
The truth is, most relationships, romantic or otherwise, start off as insecure, Fielding says, because you don’t yet know how much you can trust the other person. “It takes a while to build a secure attachment in a relationship. And sometimes the first relationship where we need to build secure attachment is our relationship to ourselves,” she says.
How can I heal a disorganized attachment style, and what do secure attachments look like?
To heal a disorganized attachment style, Fielding says the first step is discharging your shame. “If one of these insecure styles is predominant in your relationships, it’s not because you’re broken and it’s not like it will be the case forever. It doesn’t represent a failure,” she says.
An attachment style is just like any other label: It’s only useful so long as it’s helping you better understand yourself. It’s not a box or a hard definition of who you are, it only exists to give you some clues about how you tend to show up in your relationships.
So what might a secure attachment look like?
Fielding offers another childhood analogy. “[Secure attachment] is the child who may look back for a little bit to make sure the caregiver is still there. But ultimately, they’ll be like, ‘OK, I’m going to go off and play because I’m sure that my caretaker will be there when I get back. I can breathe, I can rely on my caregiver.’”
In adult romantic relationships, people with secure attachment styles will likely feel comfortable exploring outside the relationship—sexually or otherwise—but can always come back to that relationship’s secure and reliable base.
To foster greater security, Fielding calls for “an emotionally corrective experience,” or something that subverts your expectations for your relationships. This kind of experience is most often a product of therapy with a professional. “It’s like shifting the narrative,” she says. “You expect this to happen, but what if we subvert that? What if that doesn’t happen? It can be scary initially, but once it’s internalized and the embodied psyche is able to really observe it in the world and in other relationships, other attachment energies are possible or accessible.”
Basically, the best step to healing a disorganized or insecure attachment style is to turn inward and heal your relationship with yourself. “Developing an attachment-based relationship with myself means that, you know, not all of my partnerships or relationships have to be attachment-based,” Fielding says. And with that, you can become a little bit freer.
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