Attachment Styles and Impact

Posted on March 13, 2015

Building on last week’s post, I want to go deeper into the impact of the attachment (caregiver/child) relationships on the individual. Attachment is so critical because it sets a template for all our relationships to follow and a lens to view key dynamics such as whether people are dangerous or safe, how men should treat women and women treat men, what a romantic relationships should look like, how to interact with those in authority positions, and many more key drivers of our personality and how we relate to the world. In this post we’ll look at the four major attachment style with particular attention to the disorganized style which often results from attachment trauma.

Modern attachment theory really started with John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth whose experiments, the Strange Situation being the most famous, help bring forth the attachment styles and then the impact of these styles throughout the life span. Three of the styles I’ll describe briefly before turning to a more detailed description of the disorganized style.

Secure attachment: Consisting of around 60% of the population, a secure attachment is really the goal of any parent. Secure attachments develop when there is enough safety and attunement between caregiver and child to allow for a natural development of the mind’s ability to regulate emotional, cognitive, and social energy and information. In addition this safe base allows the child to begin a lifelong process of exploring life and the world appropriate to its developmental stage. Common characteristics of a secure attachment are: reaching intellectual potential, development of healthy relationships, ability to regulate emotions, development of strong self-esteem, and the ability to appropriately sharing feelings with others.

Anxious – Avoidant Insecure attachment: Consisting of approximately 20% of the population this style and we believe is often caused by the needs of the child not being met by the attachment figure. The anxious – avoidant child has not established a safe secure base and therefore fails to explore the world and relationships in healthy ways and this insecurity bleeds over into other relationships as well. Common characteristics of anxious – avoidant insecure attachment include problems establishing and maintaining intimacy, an aloof, controlling, and hard to connect with in relationships, and unable/unwilling to share thoughts and feelings in appropriate ways.

Anxious – Ambivalent/Resistant Insecure attachment: Consisting of around 10% of the population and is often the style adapted when the caregiver is unpredictable, angry, or helpless in their role. The child, as a result, fails to develop a safe and secure base and this insecure attachment leads to high levels of anxiety, a reluctance to become close to others, and a constant worry that their friends and romantic partners do not truly love or care for them. There still needs more research done on this style to better define it as different from disorganized attachment as both style share many common characteristics (Ainsworth, 1990; Main & Solomon 1990).

A quick note before leaving the subject of attachment.  A disorganized attachment or attachment trauma is not a life sentence.  With treatment and work a person can restructure their brain and actually become stronger due to hardships experienced earlier in life.  People are only victims of attachment style when they don’t get the treatment needed to heal and grow.

This leads us to the disorganized attachment, which consists of approximately 10% of the population. Disorganized attachment results when the child views the caregiver as a source of fear and danger. The child’s biology develops to manage a reality where their caregiver becomes both source of survival and danger.  As the child matures and is less dependent on the caregiver for survival they will start to withdraw emotionally and often physically by running away from the person who failed to provide support they needed developmentally.

Most often a disorganized attachment develops when the child experiences attachment trauma or betrayal trauma discussed in the previous post. Trauma with the attachment figure eliminates the opportunity to establish a secure base; however the child’s innate need for one is still very strong. A disorganized relational template sets up the child to seek caregivers to replace the safety and security that was lost due to attachment trauma.

People with disorganized attachment often seek a secure base through gangs, sexual relationships with much older and unhealthy partners, or joining peer groups organized around drugs or crime.  Unfortunately some people with disorganized attachment spend their entire life looking for a secure based in dangerous and abusive relationships that recreate the trauma they experienced with their attachment figure.  

Without the opportunity for the brain to develop in a safe and secure environment the traumatized person will live in a world that is unsafe and therefore full of anxiety and fear.  A healthy parental figure helps us regulate emotions.  Eventually the brain develops the autonomy to regulate emotional states and can differentiate real threats from ordinary stress.  Absent this developmental step, those with disorganized attachments do not develop the ability to self-regulate leading to explosive and impulsive reactions to stress. The person is left living in a world that is filled with threats to their survival without the ability to respond appropriately.

The development of a disorganized attachment style results in a chaotic mix of relational behaviors that often contradict each other often leaving those around the trauma survivor, including the helper, confused and frustrated. While a small percent of the population has developed a disorganized attachment, this traumatized population is overrepresented in the mental health, public health, prison and welfare systems.  Unfortunately many of these systems developed to manage the behaviors associated with disorganized attachment and are not equipped to help the individuals establish a healthy model for relationships and heal from their childhood experiences.

The first disorganized behavior set is help seeking behavior mixed with disengagement.  One day these clients are in desperate need the helper’s time and empathy and seem to be working hard to meet expectations.  Then they disappear or present extremely withdrawn the next time the helper sees them. At its core this is a re-creation of their relationship with their attachment figure. The person both feels a need for a secure base and will work hard to please while at the same time they have a fear of getting too close or trusting another person since past relationships have been a source of harm and pain.  Obviously this doesn’t lead to a great outcomes for the client and can be very frustrating for the helper.

The next disorganized mix is impulsiveness and inhibition.  People with disorganized attachment have trouble staying emotionally regulated. They know that drugs, high risk sex and abusive relationships are bad for them but do not have the internal resources to manage the desire for the short term pleasure these activities can provide.  The disorganized world is one that alternates between rigidity and chaos, it is an all or nothing game. People with disorganized attachments will attempt to set rigid rules for themselves that they do not have the internal resources to follow.  When they stray outside this rigid rules they often end up binging and going to the extreme positive direction that that rules were designed to prohibit.

The final chaotic mix is submissiveness and aggression.  The disorganized attachment has its roots in an early developmental stage when the person has no power.  As a child they had to be very submissive in order to survive a violent and abusive caregiver.  As adults, they may become very skilled at being submissive to get their needs met but this is mixed with the need to re-establish the power and control that they never fully felt growing up.  Having never developed the skills to assertively advocate for themselves in an appropriate way, they may scream and act aggressively.  This aggressive behavior mirrors the behavior they witnessed from their attachment figure and in their world is the way people get what they want (Bloom & Farragher, 2011; Courtois & Ford, 2009).

Whenever I read about disorganized attachment I see the relational prison that trapped so many of the clients I work with over the years. This “operating system” makes success in our culture very difficult as one failure after another seems to confront the client. Success in life and the ability to create healthy functional relationships are so strongly correlated that it is nearly impossible to have success without the emotional and social intelligence taken away by trauma in the attachment relationship.

As helpers we must be aware that as people with power and authority we often find ourselves put in the relational template of our clients. While often frustrating, we have to look at this as the starting point in the journey towards growth and healing. One of the things we do to help challenge the well ingrained notion that all people are dangerous and can’t be trusted. No matter what role we play in our client’s lives, our patience, empathy, and compassion are the first steps for many of our clients to achieve a better life.

4 responses to “Attachment Styles and Impact”

  1. William Herl says:

    Matt: This is powerful stuff. The impact on individuals and our society in general is significant. Thank you for taking the time to put this down on paper for all to read.

  2. Matt Bennett says:

    Thanks! I agree. Honestly, I wish attachment was not so power and predictive. The good news (and next week’s post) will look at how we can work with the attachment science to promote healing. It just breaks my heart that so many people with disorganized attachment have a history of struggles, trauma, and failure before they get the help they need making the recovery process more intense and difficult.

  3. Marie Scott says:


    This is great! I identify with someone who has experienced disorganized attachment. I finally got help my last year of college and my therapist made a tremendous difference in my life. By the grace of God I never had any major setbacks, but I could have due to my actions and way of thinking. Thanks for writing this and sharing this with the world!

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