A disorganized attachment style can cause a person to feel mixed emotions towards their spouse, which can be confusing if they are not understood in light of the other attachment styles. We’ve looked at anxious attachment and avoidant attachment in the previous two posts. Today we turn to disorganized attachment, or fearful avoidant attachment, which includes elements of both of these styles. People with disorganized attachment fear intimacy but may also seek it out. They are both anxious and avoidant so may have a lot of mixed emotions when approaching relationships.
Inconsistency in Marriage
In a marriage, an individual with a disorganized attachment may have a negative view of themselves and their spouse. They may feel unworthy of support and may anticipate that their spouse will not support them. In turn, they are likely to feel uncomfortable relying on their spouse despite having a desire to be close and intimately connected to them.
Individuals with an avoidant attachment style are really are caught in a dilemma of independence vs intimacy. It can be hard for them to be vulnerable, to ask for help, or to trust their spouse. They may appear to have mood swings but this could just be a reflection of their attachment pendulum swinging between possessive demands of an anxious attachment and the dismissive independence of avoidant attachment.
Challenges a Spouse May Face
One of the challenging things for a spouse of someone with this attachment style is inconsistency. Their spouse may act differently depending on whether they are responding to the demands of the anxious or avoidant attachment style. This may be frustrating at times, but compassion helps us to understand how to move towards a spouse who may have this attachment style.
The key here is to see that those with an avoidant attachment style have very deep internal conflict because they are afraid of needing their spouse, yet also have a deep need for their spouse. This may result in behaviour that appears contradictory or confused: they will seek to approach their spouse in times of distress, but that approach may be interrupted or incomplete. It may appear to be chaotic or hard to make sense of because at the same time that they are making the approach, they are experiencing a desire to distance themselves. They may be combining this with aggressiveness or withdrawing kinds of behaviours that can make it difficult for their spouse to understand their actions.
Disorganized Attachment and Abuse
Sometimes, you’ll see abusive behaviours in this attachment style because the cycle of abuse requires a honeymoon period with a lot of closeness at one end of the cycle, followed by harsh, abusive behaviour at the other end. It doesn’t mean that all people with disorganized attachment resort to abuse or that all abusive spouses have disorganized attachment: it’s just making the observation that this is one area of overlap between these two constellations of behaviours.
Disorganized Attachment and Sexual Infidelity
Another thing that is sometimes symptomatic of a disorganized attachment style is a tendency to act out sexually, and in some cases, be unfaithful to their spouse. This certainly doesn’t mean all people with disorganized attachment are unfaithful or that all spouses who have affairs are disorganized in their attachment style.
However, because of the desire to be close but not be close, some people with this attachment style tend to have a larger number of sexual partners over their lifetime and they tend to be more sexually compliant. When someone solicits sex from them, they are more likely to say yes. This is part of wanting a connection but also feeling afraid of that connection. In a sense, the hookup culture provides connection without intimacy, so you can see how it might be easier for a person with this attachment style to engage in it.
Disorganized Attachment in Marriage
Within the context of marriage, someone with this attachment style may move very quickly towards sex when their spouse appears to be unhappy or angry with them as a way of resolving conflict: you don’t have to face the underlying issues in the conflict (that’s avoidant) and you feel like you’ve made the connection safe again (that’s anxious). Now in fairness, a lot of couples may do this but it is more likely to be a well-established pattern when a spouse has a disorganized attachment style.
As you might imagine, this attachment style is often born out of very difficult childhood experiences. If you’d like to begin exploring the roots of this style of attachment in your life, we have an exercise that you can download which will help you begin to identify and explore those early experiences that were influential in your life. As well, we’ve included a strategy to help you get out in front of your anger when you feel that you’re escalating during conflict with your spouse. It’s a simple but helpful strategy to navigate through conflict with less anger and more understanding. You can get this by becoming a patron of The Marriage Podcast for Smart People.
Disorganized Attachment Begins in Childhood
Basically, a child develops a disorganized attachment style when they feel afraid of their parents and also seek out that parent to quell their fear. Let that sink in. That’s a profound dilemma, especially for a child. Mary Main, a key attachment researcher, calls this kind of attachment “fear without solution”.
In some situations, these children grow up in abusive homes. They may feel that they are in danger around a parent or guardian yet at the same time consider this person to be their safe place. Even in non-abusive situations, the parent may be unable to function in a protective role or to identify with the child’s needs.
When attachment researchers observe children with this attachment style, they set up this situation where the parent leaves and then returns and they would watch the children. In this case, the child would move toward their parent but then change their mind. They may also run away or act out violently or be unpredictable in their responses: the child has this intrinsic need to approach the parent for reassurance comfort but at the same time may have anything between uncertainty and terror with regards to what will happen when they come close to that parent It’s very sad.
How To Shift Disorganized Attachment Toward Secure Attachment
The norm for people with this attachment style is that they are coming from very difficult backgrounds, usually involving abuse and trauma as children. This being the case, a great place to begin with is resolving that trauma with good counselling. You will need to make sense of the events and situations of your childhood that precipitated this attachment style in order to understand yourself better. Sometimes there will be a clearly abusive parent and other times the caregiver may not have been there to protect you from abuse that did happen.
Growing up in this kind of environment often leads to a very negative view of the self and others and those beliefs and thoughts need to be shifted in order to develop a secure attachment.
We have talked a lot about secure attachment. It’s important to note that a person can develop an ‘earned secure attachment’ which is a secure attachment style that individuals who have come out of disorganized attachment can create for themselves. A counsellor will help you to make sense of the story of your childhood and to make that history more coherent in your mind. With this kind of work, you come to a clearer understanding of who you are and how you became the person you are. That’s the basis for establishing how you want to relate to others today. This is a birds-eye view of how you can create secure attachment even after having very challenging childhood experiences.
 Byron Pirola, “Together Apart,” Marriage Resource Centre (blog), accessed September 1, 2019, https://marriageresourcecentre.org/together-apart/.
 Marni Feuerman, “Your Attachment Style Influences the Success of Your Relationship,” The Gottman Institute, February 24, 2017, https://www.gottman.com/blog/attachment-style-influences-success-relationship/.
 Margaret Tresch Owen and Martha J. Cox, “Marital Conflict and the Development of Infant-Parent Attachment Relationships.,” Journal of Family Psychology 11, no. 2 (1997): 152–64, https://doi.org/10.1037/0893-3188.8.131.52.
 Ramona L. Paetzold, W. Steven Rholes, and Jamie L. Kohn, “Disorganized Attachment in Adulthood: Theory, Measurement, and Implications for Romantic Relationships,” Review of General Psychology 19, no. 2 (June 2015): 146–56, https://doi.org/10.1037/gpr0000042.
 Kelly Gonsalves, “Having A Lot Of Sex But Can’t Connect With Anyone? Read This,” mindbodygreen, March 26, 2019, https://www.mindbodygreen.com/articles/how-fearful-avoidant-attachment-style-affects-your-sex-life.
 Lisa Firestone, “Disorganized Attachment: How Attachment Forms & How It Can Be Healed,” PsychAlive (blog), June 11, 2013, https://www.psychalive.org/disorganized-attachment/.
 Regain, “What To Do If You Have A Disorganized Attachment | Regain,” accessed September 15, 2019, https://www.regain.us/advice/attachment/what-to-do-if-you-have-a-disorganized-attachment/.
 Clara E. Hill et al., “Attitudes about Psychotherapy: A Qualitative Study of Introductory Psychology Students Who Have Never Been in Psychotherapy and the Influence of Attachment Style,” Counselling and Psychotherapy Research 12, no. 1 (March 2012): 13–24, https://doi.org/10.1080/14733145.2011.629732.