Attachment disorders. Identifying your attachment type

Attachment is an inherent emotional motivator within each of us that connects us to other people. In our early years, each of us develops a model or type of attachment based, generally, on how our caregivers behave towards us.

14 August, 2023

There are “remarkable individuals” who experience relatively few problems in relationships compared to the overwhelming difficulties that occur universally

These “remarkable individuals” fall in love with someone who reciprocates their feelings, takes care of them, protects them, and remains loyal (even after various relationship crises, even ten years down the line). They are the ones whose relationships develop gradually, never encountering any chronic exhausting conflicts or any dramatic impasses ("it turns out she always wanted children, while he is willing to break up just to avoid having any kids", "she always wanted them to be happy, but he drinks/cheats/becomes emotionally or physically abusive/always emotionally distant and prioritizes his affairs over the relationship", "he cares for her as best as he can and strives to create a good life for them, yet she betrayed him in the very first moment of her emotional distress and confusion" and so on)

These “remarkable individuals” don't encounter "inappropriate men" or "inappropriate women." Well, they do meet them, of course, but they don't feel intuitively drawn to them and don't enter into prolonged romantic relationships with them, let alone have children with them. They choose those who could be considered suitable partners and don't feel boredom or a sense of not finding their soulmate in the process. These “remarkable individuals” are capable of getting acquainted successfully, when they know that there is no one in their current surroundings with whom a quality love connection could develop. They don't convince themselves after a breakup that they "no longer need relationships." They are confident that they need quality emotional closeness and will eventually find it, even if they are currently experiencing pain due to a specific individual and obstacles

If your romantic life has been significantly more joyful, passionate, sad, or tragic compared to these "remarkable people", chances are you have an attachment disorder or attachment type different from what is known as "secure attachment." I won't put on a white coat. Over my life, I've developed and strengthened some abilities associated with secure attachment, but my initial attachment type that formed by my teenage years was at least partly different. And my romantic life was more tragic and passionate before I managed to build it on different foundations. Therefore, people with attachment disorders are not those who are less fortunate than others. Attachment disorders are a part of my soul as well. And this part of the soul craves certain things and retains specific impressions about life.

It's dangerous to suppress it and impossible to ignore. The only option is to negotiate with it and build relationships while recognizing your unique characteristics and limitations. To do that, it's useful to understand your own characteristics and base your actions on that knowledge in order to build happy relationships.

Attachment disorders are, by the way, not as simple as merely engaging in rational self-convincing ("pull yourself together and finally choose the right man/woman and don't get bored with them, there's no need to indulge your disorders" – this approach, as far as I've observed, doesn't work). Artificial approaches for the mind don't work; they lead to either suppressing one's state, depression, or an inability to force oneself to behave "correctly." However, behaving naturally while avoiding immersion in the whirlpool of experiences that our early traumas lure us into is a challenging task. This is indeed complex; it's not an intellectual challenge, but one that demands creativity, inventiveness, and significant emotional self-work.

Traumatic experiences incline us towards reenacting what we've already undergone. A child who was emotionally lonely would find it easier to "get along" and will gravitate towards a partner who also causes them to feel left to themselves at the expense of closeness. Or, in the worst case, towards a partner where there's no reciprocity at all (the most radical and reliable way to remain left to oneself is to choose someone who doesn't need or care about you) or with whom the relationship will be more of a fantasy than "real." A child who experienced destructive aggression from adults in childhood might be drawn to destructively aggressive partners in romantic relationships. A child who was excessively sheltered and hovered over will also easily find conditions to repeat this scenario. And so on. When meeting new partners, we don't realize that we're repeating our previous experiences. On the contrary, we believe that things will turn out as we dreamed. That initial detachment in communication will soon transform into the ecstasy of intimacy and the closeness of two people who need time to open up and decide to trust. That activity, assertiveness, and strength will now finally be directed toward protecting and helping us, not controlling us, asserting their rules, and suppressing us. And when we encounter partners who aren't capable of triggering what traumatized us, we feel little attraction and concealed hopes for the future we always dreamt of during tough moments.

Historical background

The founder of attachment theory is considered to be J. Bowlby. He was interested in identifying patterns of family interactions that occur in healthy and pathological development. He studied how attachment difficulties are transmitted across generations. He believed that attachment behavior is a basic evolutionary survival strategy.

Mary Ainsworth joined J. Bowlby's research at the Tavistock Clinic and later expanded his theory, developing the experimental procedure for studying attachment behavior known as the "Strange Situation" (which she conducted in Uganda in 1954 with numerous mothers and infants). She played a significant role in advancing the notion that there must be several types of attachment.

Around the same time, also at the Tavistock Clinic, James Robertson made a documentary film in 1952 that had a significant impact on the public and professional community titled "A Two-Year-Old Goes to Hospital." The film depicted how children experience short-term forced separation and how loss and suffering influence very young children taken away from those who care for them. Spoiler: the filmmaker concluded that a typical week of the two-year-old's stay changed their attachment type. And maybe even irreversibly so. To understand the historical context, during those times when a mother became pregnant (or needed to be hospitalized due to her own health condition) with her second child, and the older child was two years old or less, it was a common and widely accepted practice to leave the older children, who were still very young, in special pre-hospitalization groups. However, in such groups, providing an "individual approach" and secure contact with an adult to whom the child could turn was impossible. The child was left to themselves, with sporadic and impersonal attention from caregivers. The film showed day by day how the child's basic sense of security in the world and relationships crumbled when the main source of that security (relationships with caregivers) disappeared inexplicably and suddenly.

The message of this film is not that children should never be left with others. Or that the child should be exclusively with the mother until the age of three, otherwise the child won't develop a good attachment. Instead, the message is that when a child is separated from their primary attachment figure, the conditions of their presence should be organized in a way that considers their needs and developmental aspects related to attachment. This ensures that significant harm doesn't occur in their development, even when there's a history of separation between mother and child. Similar significance, albeit slightly lesser, applies to leaving a child for short periods of time. It's not about eliminating such experiences, but rather about designing them with regard to attachment aspects. However, this topic is the subject of a separate discussion – how to organize leaving children with others at different ages and what changes it might or might not bring about.

In summary, after much research and mutual influence among the authors at the Tavistock Clinic, four attachment types were described.

Secure attachment

Individuals with this attachment type find it easier to develop intimacy and stable deep relationships. They are less prone to despair and fear of loneliness during periods between breakups and the start of new relationships compared to others. They can also experience vulnerability and less confidence after a breakup, especially if it was difficult, but they are more likely to believe that they can succeed in love even if there's currently no suitable person or if they need a pause to emotionally recover from past relationships. Among all attachment types, they fear needing help from their romantic partners the least and trust those they deem worthy and suitable for trust more than other types. If you possess this attachment type, it means that in the past, caregivers provided you with attention, care, and protection, which formed in you a sense of calmness, security, recognition by others, and even a sense of worth and value in this world. This helps to develop a high level of trust and mutual understanding with other people and the world around you in adulthood.

Secure attachment is formed when the experience of closeness with a significant other is not marred by anything. This doesn't mean that nothing bad should happen for secure attachment in relationships. Bad things happen in life. Bad things always happen, even in the best relationships, occasionally. However, not all negative events have a chance to change the attachment type. Some events that seem to people very ordinary and innocent can actually change the attachment type.

Here are examples of factors that can influence and change attachment types:

  • When my home was peaceful, I felt anxiety and fear, as if something bad was supposed to happen.
  • I was left alone for several hours or days without supervision, protection, or a supportive presence.
  • My parent or caregiver often left with their partner/girlfriend.
  • My parent or caregiver frequently consumed alcohol, drugs, or both in my presence.
  • As I was growing up, I often felt that no one paid attention to me or what I was doing. I was left to myself.
  • When I tried to break free from dysfunctional family dynamics, I was considered a traitor.
  • In my family, I learned that I am loved when I'm dependent on them and dissatisfied with myself.
  • Love and respect in my home usually meant pain, suffering, neglect, emotional, physical, sexual abuse, or their combination.
  • When I was really in a bad state, my family or caregiver would show me some form of love and care, but only then.
  • I learned that when I'm weak and "broken," I'm loved.
  • In my family, I learned to be dishonest and insincere because honesty always ended in my being emotionally drained and hurt.
  • In childhood, I experienced violence and alienation.
  • I experienced violence more than twice, and it was severe.
  • I experienced neglect during my childhood.
  • In childhood, I faced difficulties at school.
  • The following people in my life were inconsistent and untrustworthy:
  • Mother
  • Father
  • Sibling(s)
  • Other family members: ________________________.
  • Friends
  • Others: ______________________.
  • As I grew up, I was often surrounded by unfamiliar people.
  • When I formed an emotional connection with someone, that person usually destroyed it and betrayed me.
  • My parents or caregivers abused alcohol or drugs, or both.
  • I witnessed my parents or caregivers behaving aggressively towards others.
  • My parents or caregivers behaved aggressively towards me.
  • Chaos and conflicts were a common occurrence in the household where I grew up.
  • When my home was peaceful, I felt bored, empty, and didn't find my place.

Fascinating Statistics

An interesting fact is that individuals with a secure attachment type are probably not the most common participants in long-term psychotherapy. At least, from my practical experience in Moscow, I've come to this observation. Similar data were also presented at a seminar by Andreas Mitchell, where statistics were provided about the correlation between attachment type and individuals seeking psychological assistance (both short-term and long-term) within healthcare systems. Individuals with a secure attachment type can also suffer from various mental issues and face psychological difficulties, undoubtedly. And they willingly seek help for them. However, the number of clients with other attachment types often outweighs them. Quite often, it significantly outweighs them. Moreover, in the population, the percentage of individuals with a secure attachment type (in locations where such statistics were gathered) usually turns out to be predominant.

Still, what does this mean, and what could be the implications if you or your child have developed an attachment type different from secure?

Anxious attachment

As all types were originally deciphered, that is, through the characteristics defined by the founding authors and in later modifications of attachment theory, it's easy to find in open sources. Well, or maybe not very easy, but I'm prepared to return to this later. For now, I'll focus on what caught my attention during my clinical practice.

The most positive aspect of anxious attachment compared to other variations of insecure attachment, in my opinion, is that people with this type of attachment also, as they say, "know how to love." They can engage in relationships on a deeper level, invest in relationships, and believe in the significance of love for a well-rounded life. They allow themselves to fall in love and be vulnerable, just like people with secure attachment. In a sense, you could say that all the joys of love are accessible to people with anxious attachment. However, if the joys of love are accessible to people with secure attachment "with no consequences," then people with anxious attachment pay a high price for love, in the form of heightened anxiety.

During periods of solitude and not being in a relationship, individuals with anxious attachment feel an irrational level of inadequacy, which the absence of a relationship "proves." They live with the irrational fear of being alone forever (even if their age and context make such fears completely inappropriate).

When they're in a relationship, they worry that the relationship will deteriorate (if the relationship is currently perceived by them as good and happy), or that the unsatisfactory aspects of the relationship are due to them.

The fear of the relationship deteriorating generally concerns very significant things. Individuals with anxious attachment fear not the "trifles" that a partner might become less caring or more irritable due to certain life circumstances, or that both will become less dressed up for dates and less passionate about sex in a couple of years. They fear the essence itself. They fear being unloved and that someone else will be preferred over them in terms of love, essentially being unloved once again. These fears can often take the form of strong jealousy and/or paranoia. "Worked through" individuals with anxious attachment learn not to overly torment others with their jealousy and other fears. Less "worked through" individuals can involve their partners very strongly in their jealousy process and other fears, to the point of ruining the relationships they feared losing.

Another anguish associated with anxious attachment, which I want to talk about, is that if a relationship is in some way unsuccessful and unsatisfactory, or even openly destructive, a person might not leave such a relationship for a long time, experiencing that all the bad things are their fault, and therefore they must try to fix something. At the rational level, there can be a fairly high level of critical evaluation of the situation and "correct judgments" ("relationships involve both people," "I can't influence this," "I've done all I can," "I should protect myself and not allow myself to be hurt"). However, the reptilian archaic impulse can remain unconvinced ("I need to try again, as soon as I fix my mistakes, everything else will fall into place").

And the third issue with anxious attachment that I want to mention is that the thirst to experience closeness can be so strong that, compared to other people and especially with their partners, these individuals seem too "clingy," too attached, seeking the long-awaited stage of qualitative symbiotic connection that they missed out on in their early experiences (Berry and Jayne Weinhold*). However, the partners suitable for fulfilling the missed, inexperienced stage of development (Berry and Jayne Weinhold) can often be individuals prone to distancing themselves and unsuitable for creating the desired symbiotic connection, usually with an avoidant attachment style.

Avoidant attachment (codependent, distant)

In our society, people with this type of attachment often inspire admiration from others. They may appear self-sufficient and less emotionally vulnerable than the rest of us mortals. Only individuals with a highly positive experience of vulnerability and healthy interdependence don't envy their "invulnerability," as they know firsthand the unseen and heavenly rewards of allowing vulnerability. The psychological defenses of individuals with avoidant attachment are built around emotional regulation that doesn't rely on relationships (which, normally, should partly occur due to relationships even in adults, and even more so in children). The aim is to avoid relying on others, to not depend on anyone else, and to ensure that the most important things are done independently, without the need to trust another human being. This pattern was first mentioned in the works of Sigmund Freud. Freud described it as the shifting of libido from the "object" back onto oneself (Freud referred to people as objects in his texts). Such a shift can occur during one's lifetime if the experience of relationships with the object was unsatisfactory in some significant way. If this shift of libidinal energy has occurred, it is a completed narcissistic defense. 

Remarkably, "doing without relationships" for a person with avoidant attachment doesn't necessarily mean sitting alone at home (oh). These individuals usually do, more often than not, enter into relationships, but they do not fully engage emotionally in them. They practice various maneuvers to avoid closer emotional contact. The most popular strategies for "doing without" relationships and consequently realizing their emotional life in a roundabout way include success (which can turn into workaholism), creativity (sometimes resulting in detachment from close individuals), chemical (and non-chemical) dependencies, and promiscuity. Regarding the latter, this is not a typo. Multiple relationships help them be less dependent on each relationship individually and feel "safer" and more distant within the narcissistic logic. Another characteristic approach for people with this type of attachment is to open up to strangers whom they will never see again and not discuss the most pressing matters with those closest to them.

"Abuser, narcissist, psychopath, escaping from toxic relationships" – this story usually revolves around partners with an avoidant attachment style. However, not all individuals with avoidant attachment are "abusers and psychopaths" as the popular warning goes.

Prognostically for psychotherapy, avoidant attachment is the most challenging and resistant type to correction. People with this attachment style often pose the most difficult transference-countertransference challenge in client-therapist relationships. Sometimes it's even horrifying and hardly bearable. Its unbearable phase lasts for the first two to three years of therapy, which is considered normal and a "good result" according to specialized guidelines on this topic. However, this takes on such a tragic appearance only when it concerns a "clinically pronounced" form of attachment disorder with ambivalence towards significant others (in simple words, accumulated hatred towards early attachment figures, often caregivers, usually parents). If it's a smoothed-out type of avoidant attachment without clinical manifestations and accumulated hatred towards significant figures from the past, there won't be any emotionally challenging difficulties in client-therapist relationships. The person will describe a diffuse dissatisfaction with relationships (primarily romantic ones) throughout their life – quick loss of interest, the inability to discern what they want from relationships, and what meaning to attribute to them in their later stages when the thrill of new experiences has faded.

Unlike the anxious attachment type, the plight of individuals with avoidant attachment is their superficiality in relationships ("not knowing how to love") combined with inner emptiness. They choose never to truly get close to another person, to depend on someone other than themselves, and experience the joy of trust.

Fearful attachment

Fearful attachment is a blend of the two previous insecure attachment types. Typically, individuals of this type acknowledge and are aware of their desires related to relationships, and they yearn for them. However, in their real lives, they present themselves in a way that ensures a significant distance in relationships (up to the point of not entering romantic relationships at all). They resemble people with anxious attachment, with the difference that they prioritize the fear of pain from relationships, and their behavior is rooted in actively avoiding this pain and the potential dangers inherent in relationships.

Disorganised attachment

Disorganized attachment is mentioned when the ability to manifest attachment of any type is disrupted. Even a person with an avoidant attachment style has "attachment objects," opportunities for meaningful closeness with which they actively avoid (children, spouses, friends, parents, relatives). In the case of disorganized attachment, there is an even more profound malfunction in the workings of the psyche. This is not just "psychological defense and adaptation" as in narcissism; this is a change in scale, as if "a person normally has hearing, but in this specific person, they have innate or acquired deafness." Over years of working outside the clinic, collaborating with people who do not have radical organic changes in brain function, I can say that I have not encountered this type of attachment. I have encountered those who fit my descriptions of secure, anxious, avoidant, and fearful attachment well. However, I have observed elements of disorganized attachment in young children. For instance, when they, in a clearly unsafe environment for themselves, an unfamiliar place, start relying more on unfamiliar people they have just met than on their own parents. Or when a child older than three years displays the same attachment behavior pattern towards familiar (including parents) and unfamiliar people. These effects are not at all similar to the mechanisms of anxious or avoidant attachment; rather, they are best described by the terms "disorganization" and "dissolution of attachment behavior."

However, sometimes the term disorganized attachment is used in a milder sense. In this case, it would label individuals who behave less predictably in attachment aspects than the typical "anxious" and "avoidant" types. Or in situations where the behavior of these two classical insecure attachment types takes on a more unpredictably destructive nature. But in its softer meaning, personally, the purpose of using the term becomes lost for me. Moreover, the founding authors always emphasized that in the most severe cases, we can indeed observe the dissolution of attachment behavior.

If the disruptions are more apparent and noticeable, if they have a more radical impact on the quality of relationship-building, then, in my opinion, it's diagnostically more informative to discuss borderline personality disorder or other described personality disorders, or endogenous psychoses (schizophrenia and severe clinical depressions), and other mental disorders, rather than associating the term disorganized attachment with a "soft" meaning solely to demonstrate that there is "some serious clinical aspect," which consequently leads to greater unpredictability and inconsistency in attachment behavior.

This leads me to the point that, as always in psychology, if there is a term, it doesn't mean that all authors used it with the same meaning.

So, what should we do with all of this?

I've discussed how our formed personalities, our early experiences imprinted in our current modes of emotional attachment with others, especially in romantic relationships, cannot be ignored. However, we have the ability to know and take into account our early experiences when building relationships. We can develop, without suppressing what we have already acquired, some capacities and traits of secure attachment.

About me

Maria Dolgopolova – a certified clinical and a jungian psychologist (Moscow Association of Analytical Psychology, an IAAP training candidate studying in CGJung Institute in Zurich) with a background in gestalt therapy (Moscow Institute of Gestalt and Psychodrama, Gestalt Associates Training Los Angeles) and in psychoanalysis of object relations.

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