The health of a person’s relationships is undoubtedly one of the strongest indicators of their overall happiness. Strong, low-stress interpersonal connections can help carry you through even the most difficult of seasons.
But absent or high-stress relationships can take the joy out of just about any personal victory. Most people know this to be true, so why is it that some seem to effortlessly thrive in their relationships, while others find themselves in one dysfunctional situation after another?
It is possible that the person who has difficulty finding or maintaining healthy interpersonal connections is struggling with an untreated attachment disorder. There is still much that is not fully understood about attachment disorder in adults, but some believe that these attachment issues could be the root cause of many common problems in adult relationships.
This article will attempt to define attachment disorder, discuss the possible causes and impacts of the three most common disordered attachment styles, and discuss the treatment of attachment disorders in adults.
What is an Attachment Disorder?
Attachment disorders are ongoing patterns of thought, belief, and behavior that prevent a person from forming or maintaining meaningful relationships with others. While attachment disorders are not clinically recognized or diagnosable in individuals older than five years, it is widely acknowledged that attachment disorders can impact adult life and relationships if not identified or addressed in childhood.
These maladaptive habits of relating to others may put you at a higher risk for developing an attraction to negative or abusive relationships, social isolation, anxiety, or mood disorders such as depression, and substance dependence or abuse.
A person’s ability to create healthy connections with others is usually determined in early childhood by their first important relationship. The relationship between an infant or young child and their primary caregiver lays the foundation for all subsequent relationships in that child’s life. Parents who are attentive, available, and reliable allow their children to form a secure, trusting attachment, which sets them up to relate to others in stable, healthy ways later in life.
Alternatively, parents who are distracted, absent, unreliable, or ill-tempered don’t allow their children to form this first secure attachment, which can lead to problems relating to others later on in life. The three main types of disordered attachments are known as avoidant attachment, anxious attachment, and disorganized attachment. All three of these disordered attachment styles will be discussed in detail later in this article.
What Does Secure Attachment Style Look Like?
A secure attachment style is the gold standard of relational approaches. People with this attachment style are able to connect with others in healthy, productive, secure ways. It is likely that they had a stable, nurturing start to life and are now able to use that early stability as a foundation on which to build new relationships.
If you have a secure style of attachment, you generally experience low relational stress and comfortably bond with others. You tend to have:
- healthy self-esteem
- the ability to handle conflict well
- a hopeful outlook
- a trusting view of others
In relationships, this means you are:
- able to thrive in intimacy
- are empathetic toward your partner
- are able to set and maintain healthy boundaries
- are able to manage the ups and downs of your relationship without damage to your self-esteem or overall outlook on life
Additionally, though people with this attachment style generally thrive in relationships, they don’t fear being alone.
What is an Avoidant Attachment Style?
An avoidant or avoidant-dismissive attachment style is a disordered approach to relationships that tends to develop when a child’s relationship with their primary caregiver is characterized by absence, unavailability, or rejection. This lack of consistent or predictable care and connection tends to force a child to “fend for themselves” and attempt to self-soothe in lieu of parental attention.
If unaddressed in childhood, this avoidant attachment style can lead you to have difficulty trusting others, avoid relational intimacy, and to overvalue autonomous independence.
If you have an avoidant style of attachment, you tend to:
- be extremely independent
- feel uncomfortable with your own emotions and those of others
- be unwilling to express your needs or ask others for help
- avoid emotional intimacy at all costs, often preferring flings and short-term romances to long-term relationship
- choose to connect only with people you believe are equally independent or will otherwise require little vulnerability from you
- view others as unreliable, untrustworthy, or unworthy of your time and effort
In relationships, an avoidant attachment style often means that you tend to:
- withdraw whenever your partner seeks to know you more
- keep an emotional distance or barrier between yourself and your partner by keeping secrets, dismissing their feelings, minimizing the importance of the relationship, or being unfaithful
- do whatever you can to maintain your independence and control even if it hurts the relationship
- default to detachment whenever a relationship becomes too intimate
Additionally, your relational partners may frequently find you to be angry, rigid, critical, or controlling. You tend to do well only in relationships with partners who make no, or very few, emotional demands of you.
What is an Anxious Attachment Style?
An anxious or anxious-ambivalent attachment style is a disordered style of attachment that tends to develop when a child’s relationship with their primary caregiver is characterized by inconsistency and intermittent engagement.
People with this attachment style often had parents who were at times fully available and attuned to their needs and at other times were unavailable, inattentive, or emotionally cold. The primary caregiver may have even been emotionally manipulative towards the child, only fully engaging when it served the caregiver’s own interests.
An anxious attachment disorder in adults tends to create difficulties with forming relationships that don’t revolve around the anxiously attached adult. These people also often find themselves bouncing from one insecure, dysfunctional relationship to the next. If you have an anxious attachment disorder, you tend to be:
- very sensitive to rejection, with a tendency to idolize others
- untrusting of others, though you desperately desire emotional intimacy
- anxious, self-conscious, and lacking in healthy self-esteem
- preoccupied with or obsessive about new relationships, becoming overly fixated on the other person
- criticized for being too clingy or needy in relationships
- controlling, critical, impatient, and frequently self-sabotaging
In relationships, an avoidant attachment style often means that you tend to:
- have difficulty respecting boundaries, as any space between you and your partner feels threatening
- derive a lot of your self-worth from the success or failure of your relationships
- be jealous or anxious when away from your partner and you may attempt to control or manipulate them to prevent them from spending time away from you
- need constant attention and reassurance from your romantic partner
- be prone to extreme emotions, often blowing small disagreements out of proportion
- blame others without reflecting on your own behavior
Adults with an anxiously disordered approach to relationships don’t like to be alone and are always looking for connection. Without addressing the motivations behind their disordered attachment style, these adults tend to only do well in relationships with strong, securely attached partners who are able to keep them in balance.
What is a Disorganized Attachment Style?
A disorganized, disorganized-disoriented, or fearful-avoidant attachment style is a disordered pattern of attachment that tends to develop when a child’s relationship with their primary caregiver is characterized by intense fear caused by trauma, neglect, or abuse.
These early experiences condition the child to view others as dangerous and threatening or simply unavailable. People with this disordered attachment style also tend to believe themselves unworthy of love and relational intimacy.
Due to the fearful environments that they started their lives in, people with disorganized attachment styles often do not learn how to self-soothe in effective ways. This means that, throughout their lives, they have difficulty feeling safe in the world and in relationships. If you have a disorganized attachment style as an adult, you may:
- consciously or unconsciously attempt to recreate the same dysfunctional or abusive environment you grew up in
- be confused or unsettled by your relationships with others
- vacillate between hating those you are in relationships with and loving them
- exhibit anti-social or other negative patterns of behavior including substance abuse, aggression, or violence
- be unable to take responsibility for your actions
- deeply desire closeness and connection with others, but view yourself as undeserving of it
- be self-involved and controlling
In relationships, a disorganized attachment style often means that you tend to be:
- emotionally withholding and ungenerous with your love and affection
- unresponsive or inattentive to your partner’s needs
- quick to anger
- extremely hard on both yourself and your partner
- distrustful, yet you have a great need for relational security
The disorganized attachment style can be the most volatile of these three disordered modes of attachment. Without treatment, adults with this attachment style are at a higher risk for developing issues with substance abuse, mental health, emotional health, or criminality.
How is Attachment Disorder in Adults Treated?
For adults who are struggling with the impacts of an untreated attachment disorder, counseling and therapy can help to majorly improve the quality of their lives and relationships. The primary therapeutic goals for people with attachment issues are to:
- Identify the things from the patient’s past that inform their current approach to relationships.
- Find new narratives and ways of understanding these past events.
- Use this new framework to change unhelpful behaviors and responses in the present.
These therapeutic goals may be accomplished through counseling, psychotherapy, couples therapy, or cognitive behavioral therapy. Your counselor or therapist may also recommend you try some self-management techniques in conjunction with your in-session work.
If you or a loved one are struggling to form or maintain healthy relationships, feel free to contact me or another mental health professional in our online counselor directory. Whatever the cause of your difficulties, a counselor will be able to evaluate you and form a plan of treatment to help you reach your relational goals. Don’t wait. Contact us today to schedule an appointment.
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