In the last blog titled “What Are Attachment Styles?”, we dove into the history behind how the four attachment styles were created. The attachment style theory was developed as a means to interpret the relationship between a caregiver and child, and how that relationship can influence the many future relationships of the child. It is thought that the way in which a child is treated at the beginning of life can heavily affect how they may be attached to future individuals as they evolve into more mature individuals. How a parent responds to the needs of the child, how available they are, and how sensitive, caring, and stable they approach the child all affect how the child may develop an attachment for them.
As previously mentioned, there are four main types of attachment: secure, anxious, avoidant, and disorganized. Secure attachment is the most common and most ideal attachment style to have. On the other hand, the least common type of attachment style is disorganized attachment. Any one person can completely identify with one attachment style and characterize it, or an individual may be more likely to have some traits of one attachment style and a few of another. It may not always be so cut and dry, but people typically tend to identify with the traits with one main attachment style and blend in with some of the others. In this blog, we will continue our discussion about the final two attachment styles: avoidant and disorganized. Both of these attachment styles are considered to be ‘insecure’ attachment styles, and may stand to cause some issues for individuals in their personal relationships. With the proper treatment, however, people have an amazing opportunity to unlearn unhelpful or even traumatic parts of their attachment styles.
Avoidant attachment is one of the three insecure attachment styles that a person can have. As the name suggests, those with avoidant attachment are more standoff-ish as compared to the other attachment styles, and research even shows that individuals with avoidant attachment styles are more common among groups of single people when compared to married individuals.
According to the Strange Study, babies with avoidant attachment styles will typically ignore and avoid their mother or caregiver. The Strange Study was an observational study done to witness the behavior of babies when their parent or caregiver leaves the room for a short period of time. In this study, babies and their caregivers would be in a classroom type setting where the child was free to play and roam around within the sights of the parent. Subsequently, the parent would leave and the child was left on their own for some time. Eventually, the parent returned to the room with the child. The objective of the researchers was to observe the behaviors of the child once the parent left and how they reacted upon the return of the parental figure. As for avoidant babies, they showed very little emotion when their parents left or returned to the room. These children do not tend to explore the room they are in no matter who they are with. In fact, these babies essentially treat the mother as if they are a stranger because they do not treat strangers very much differently than their caregiver.
Babies tend to form avoidant attachment styles as a result of their needs not being met by their caregivers. The caregivers of avoidant infants are typically more disengaged with their parenting, lack emotional and physical responsiveness to their child’s needs, and are generally dismissive. Because of this, children learn to believe that trying to get close to their caregiver is ultimately useless. They believe that trying to get to their caregivers is a set up for rejection and may believe that communicating their needs to their caregiver has no impact on their caregiver.
Individuals with avoidant attachment styles tend to avoid emotional vulnerability and intimacy with those around them in adulthood. They may undervalue the importance of having intimate, meaningful relationships as a way to protect themselves from getting hurt. Avoidant individuals believe others are untrustworthy and only need to depend on themselves. Because of these beliefs, individuals with avoidant attachment styles have a more difficult time creating intimate and deep connections with other people and even feel uncomfortable by the thought of being dependent on someone else. These individuals may have had inconsistent caregivers or other adolescent experiences in which their needs were neglected or ignored. They learn to believe that their needs are not important to other people, and that the only person they can count on is themselves. In result, avoidantly attached people may withdraw emotionally and physically from others in order to prevent more feelings of abandonment and rejection.
Some signs of an avoidant adult include:
- Pulling away from emotionally vulnerable situations
- Appearing unemotional or overly independent
- Distrust other people
- Valuing their own independence over creating emotional bonds with others
- Depend on only themselves for emotional support
- Avoid close friendships or meaningful relationships
- Do not respond to texts and messages
- Have a negative attitude toward other people
- Uncomfortable being touched by others
- Avoid/shut down during emotionally intimate conversations
Disorganized attachment, also known as fearful-avoidant attachment, is the fourth type of attachment style we will discuss in this blog. Research has shown that about 20-40% of the general population experience disorganized attachment to some kind of degree. For children that grew up in abusive households, however, about 80% of them have a disorganized attachment to their parent or caregiver. While avoidant and anxious attachment styles are also considered to be ‘insecure’ styles, disorganized attachment is the most harmful and least coherent style of coping that an individual can develop.
According to results from the Strange Study, children who displayed disorganized attachment styles did not have consistent reactions to their parent or caregiver when that individual entered or exited the study room. For example, a child with disorganized attachment may have either cried or not cried when the parent left the room, but upon their return the child had many different reactions. The child may initially want to approach the caregiver for solace, but then second guess their decision and pull back once again. They may run away from their parental figure, or even hit the caregiver upon their return. To be quite literal, the children had a ‘disorganized’ reaction to their caregivers exiting and entering the room, and ultimately became fearful of approaching their caregiver and felt increasingly anxious in their presence. This is problematic because a child’s first instinct is to seek comfort with a caregiver when they are scared. Unfortunately, sometimes caregivers are the source of their fear, and this creates a confusing reality for the child about who to turn to when they need help.
Research shows that parents who grew up with abuse in their own households growing up were more likely to raise children with disorganized attachments. Having their own experiences with abuse may have left caregivers with unresolved trauma that bleeds into their own parenting styles. Research done by Mary Main in the Adult Attachment interview showed that parents with unresolved trauma and bad childhoods do not necessarily create disorganized attachments between parents and children, but rather it is how they internalized or dealt with that trauma that affected their relationships. For this reason, the formation of disorganized attachments can become a cyclical process as one generation of caregivers passes down trauma to the next. If a caregiver is able to resolve their own personal childhood trauma, they become better equipped to form a secure attachment with their child.
Individuals who grow up with disorganized attachments may display unpredictable, confusing and erratic behaviors when dealing with others. Essentially, they develop a fear of having close relationships. Because their earliest relationships with a parent or caregiver were unpredictable and erratic, these individuals grow up with unhealthy coping mechanisms. They might have grown up feeling frightened of their parents, and this can lead them to feel confused and unable to interact with other people in a healthy way.
Adults with a disorganized attachment style often display very inconsistent behavior. They demonstrate both avoidance and anxiety when developing new relationships. For example, an adult with this attachment style wants to be independent from others and rely solely on themselves because they fear rejection and disappointment (similar to an avoidant attachment). However, their fear of being abandoned fuels their need for attachment, and they also display quite clingy behavior (similar to an anxious attachment). These adults are apprehensive of both intimacy and abandonment, and this can cause a storm of confusion for those that surround them. Get close, but not too close, and stay far, but not too far.
Signs of a disorganized attachment style in an adult include:
- Having conflicting views of other people (they are scared of certain people but are also comforted by them)
- Feeling cautious of other people, avoid getting too close
- Feeling suspicious of other people’s intentions
- Acting in an impulsive way
- Displaying extreme mood swings
- Showing aggression and hostility towards those they are in relationships with
- Being overly aware of ‘signs’ that someone will abandon them