Attachment styles represent the strategy that we learned as infants in order to keep our caregivers in close physical proximity. Human infants literally can’t last more than an hour or so without having an adult caregiver nearby. Babies MUST keep this in their awareness and work hard to keep their caregiver close.
Different caregivers respond to different methods in order to maintain contact. If you
have a parent who is highly distractible, for example, it would pay off to intermittently cry or fuss a bit so that s/he doesn’t forget that you are there. And you probably also want to cock your head in their direction periodically to see if they have absentmindedly wandered off on you. Now if you have a parent who doesn’t like to be bothered you might try the opposite strategy– be quite and don’t cause a fuss. That way your parent will let you lie close by and stay safe.
Infants are hard-wired to develop these kinds of strategies to adapt to whatever caregiver they end up with. Kids who learn to “signal” a lot and keep track of their caregivers are termed “Anxious-Ambivalent” or “Angry-Resistant” in infant research. Dr. Stan Tatkin calls them “waves” as adults. Kids who learn to lay low and not ask for much are labelled “Anxious-Avoidant” or just “Avoidant”. Dr. Stan Tatkin calls these folks “islands” as adults. Kids who are lucky enough to land a caregiver who does not need much adapting to are called “Secures”.
There is a third attachment quality that was not even realized in the early research. These are kids who are in a bad dilemma. The caregiver they are with may, at times, provide nurturing and support. But that same caregiver can also be neglectful, abusive or can accidentally do things that scare the child.
Researchers found that parents did not even necessarily need to be abusive or neglectful to produce this attachment pattern. Parents who had themselves been abused or neglected sometimes looked scared when their babies cried. It’s as if they were remembering on some deep level their own experiences of distress and fear related to their own parents. Babies see these faces full of fear and become fearful themselves. This stems from our evolution as primates who survived by living in groups. If one monkey in a tree sees a tiger it looks scared. A monkey sitting next to this one may not see the tiger but sees the fear on the face of its friend and therefore also gets scared. This fear behavior triggers a fight/flight response in BOTH monkeys. The one who saw the tiger and the one who only saw his friend looking scared. But now both monkey’s bodies are in a fight/flight state, giving them both an equal chance of getting away safely. So as humans when we see someone who looks scared, we also get scared, even if we have no idea what they are responding to.
To a dependent baby, having a caregiver who is all of a sudden acting scared or checked-out can generate fear in the infant. Babies depend on caregivers to be calm and present. So if they see you really scared or off in another place in your head for more than a few second they can get scared themselves. Are you going to be able to take care of them in that moment? Will they be safe?
This kind of situation, if it happens regularly, can create what we call and “unresolved” or “disorganized” attachment style. Babies can, of course, also end up with a disorganized style from direct abuse or neglect. So if your parent was violent, or regularly threatening, or even severely depressed or drunk a lot of the time, you may as a baby have been scared that you were not going to be well cared for. And you may have had experienced where your caregiver was directly hurting you. This puts you in a bind– the same person who is supposed to help you feel safe is now making you feel unsafe. The human brain does not have a good way of dealing with that dilemma. The kids are trying to attach to a parent to stay safe (our evolutionary strategy of being physically close to our protector) while at the same time either knowing in that moment that the parent may not be safe or having had numerous experiences that the parent has not been safe in the past.
As Dan Siegel, MD, explains it “The child is stuck in an awful dilemma: her survival instincts tell her to flee to safety, but safety may be in the very person who is frightening her. The attachment figure is thus the source of the child’s distress. Children in this conflicted state develop disorganized attachments with their parental figures. Disorganized attachment arises from fright without solutions.”
Children who simultaneously feel a desire to move towards their parent for comfort but remember also not feeling safe with the same parent are caught in a “double-bind”. There literally is no solution for this situation. Researchers observed a lack of organized behaviors in these babies because they could no reliably predict the right way to respond to their parents. They were called “disorganized” babies. They would display a mix of behaviors. For example, when upset they may start to crawl towards a parent, only to freeze mid-way and “zone out” for 10+ seconds. This is what is considered a “lapse” in strategy. A secure baby will continue to move towards the parent, not stop mid way and freeze for a prolonged period of time. Or a baby may back away from a parent when upset, which is the opposite of what a secure baby will do. Of all of the 4 strategies researched these kids had the highest risk for bad outcomes such as mental illness (including depression, anxiety, substance abuse, personality disorders, etc). They were also at risk for criminal behavior and had more trouble in school academically and behaviorally. Kids in this category show more dissociation– from mini episodes to more prolonged states of “checking out”. They may also block experiences from memory so that they have gaps in memories from childhood. For example they may say when interviewed “I don’t remember second grade. It’s just a big blank”.
If you are a parent you may be freaking out right now thinking “oh no, did I ruin my children? Was I a terrible parent?” Let’s be clear. No parent is perfect. I know because I am a parent and I have worked with hundreds and hundreds of parents in my career. Even great, wonderful people make mistakes rearing children. Some of us make BIG mistakes. Almost never because we don’t care and even more rarely because we are trying to make our kids miserable or mess them up. I am fond of saying that the incidence of psychopathy is less than 1% of the population. Psychopaths are the only type of people who would lie awake at night trying to figure out how to ruin their child’s life. So 99% of parents, no matter how poorly they are doing, are actually trying to be decent parents. But unfortunately sometimes even a parent who is trying to do a good job can lack the tools and create these fear states in their babies too often.
How often does this happen? Research suggests that anywhere from 15-30% of average (not particularly high-risk) families babies or toddlers meet criteria for disorganization. If you limit it to just “high risk” families (where at least one parent has a serious mental illness, substance abuse problem or is violent) then the risk for disorganized/unresolved attachment jumps to 80%. So if you are a therapist you should expect to see more disorganization than not in your practice. If your childhood background includes abuse or neglect it is probable that you also meet criteria for this type of problem. Or if one or both of your parents experienced abuse or neglect in childhood or suffered from unresolved PTSD as an adult.
How does this show up in your everyday life? Remember that our attachment system most strongly triggered in two situations– parent-child interactions and long-term romantic partner interactions. So with friends, or co-workers, or the person who is checking you out at the grocery store you are not going to see much fall-out from this. But as mentioned above, if you are a parent and your child does something that reminds you of your own fears in childhood, you may either look or act scared, move into anger or dissociate. In romantic relationships you will likely have trouble soothing yourself when you get upset (similar to those with the anxious-ambivalent/angry-resistant style). But you will ALSO, simultaneously, have trouble using another person to soothe yourself (similar to the anxious-avoidant/avoidant style). Again, like the disorganized baby, you are caught in a dilemma with no clear solution. You will want comfort from your partner but feel anxious/fearful about how to effectively engage them. It is likely that you will have difficulty trusting your partner. This can actually trigger your partner to feel as though you can’t be trusted! You are may frustrate your partner as your signals are confusing. Remember, you are not doing this on purpose! You are stuck in a dilemma from your early childhood which you had no control over.
So what can be done about this situation? First, if you think you may have a disorganized/unresolved style I STRONGLY recommend seeing a therapist who is both trained in attachment theory AND trauma treatments. This will give you the best chance of moving from what in adults we call an “unresolved” style to a “resolved” one. Making this jump helps to reduce or alleviate the problematic behaviors of not being able to trust or rely on your attachment figure and problems in self-soothing. This type of work can be done in individual therapy or in couples therapy as long a the therapist has the right training. It is not short-term therapy, you can expect it to take a year or more rather than weeks or months. However it is definitely worth the investment!
Dan Siegel, MD, has developed an online course that helps with creating what is called a “coherent narrative” to work on an “Unresolved Style ”. I also strongly recommend actually working in person with a therapist as this is how the human attachment system was meant to be “wired”– through live interaction with another human nervous system. This is definitely not the kind of problem that you can fix by reading articles about it and journaling or doing phone therapy or even Skype or FaceTime therapy. You need to be in the room with a real live therapist.
I hope that understanding this category of attachment is helpful. Remember, as much as a third of us from “low-risk” families may be disorganized and the rates are even higher if your parents struggled with significant emotional issues including their own past childhood trauma. No one is passing this along on purpose”. And having a disorganized/unresolved classification does not mean that you cannot be successful in life. I can hazard a guess that certain well-known figures who have become very successful probably would fit into this category (think any celebrity/public figure who have mentioned abuse or severe neglect in their childhood, such as Oprah Winfrey, Maya Angelou, Chevy Chase, Queen Latifah, Bill Clinton, Gloria Steinham, Ludwig van Beethoven, Billie Holiday, Carlos Santana, Johannes Brahms). If many of these highly successful people can rise above their difficult childhoods and potential unresolved attachment then we all have that capacity. However, getting the right kind of help will significantly increase your odds and make the journey a lot easier.
And just to make sure that my blogs are completely scientifically accurate I need to add an addendum here. Researchers never simply classify a kid (or adult) as disorganized/unresolved. They always give a secondary classification of “best fit”. So you can be avoidant and disorganize/unresolved, or angry-resistant and disorganized/unresolved, or even secure and disorganized/unresolved. The disorganization/unresolved category has to do with whether or not your attachment strategy is consistent or if it gets derailed and confused when under stress. The other classification of best-fit has to do with what most of your attachment behaviors look like aside from those episodes of disorganization.
Hopefully this explanation itself is not too confusing! Attachment research is rich and complex and sometimes difficult to explain. However, understanding some of the basics about it can be IMMENSELY helpful to individuals and couples.
One final note. If you find “attachment style” quizzes on the “inter webs” (as my friend Margaret likes to call it) please know that, so far, research has not found self-reports like quizzes that you fill out about yourself to be terribly accurate in determining your attachment style. I can attest that when I first learned about attachment I thought I was definitely and completely a wave but actual attachment testing later proved me wrong! So be careful about assuming you know for sure what your own classification is. We seem to have a hard time assessing this component of ourselves without an outside observer. If you are interested in having your attachment style professionally determined you can look for a clinician who is able to administer the Adult Attachment Inventory or the Adult Attachment Projective. Those are two well-researched, well-validated instruments that can tell you what research category your attachment behaviors fall into. A PACT-trained couples therapist can walk you and your partner through various exercises that can also tease out what attachment style behaviors you manifest with your partner under attachment-related stress.
As always I hope that this information is helpful and if you have questions or comments feel free to send them to me!
Wishing you success in your relationships,
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