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Understanding and Overcoming Attachment Disorders

Man carrying his child in outdoors at sunset

Do you have a difficult time relating to others? Do you keep people at arm’s length and break even those tenuous connections as soon as you feel like someone is getting too close? 

Or are you the opposite? You cling so tightly to people that they flee because they feel suffocated, or you’re always trying to be perfect to please others so they’ll stick around?

If you find creating meaningful, fulfilling relationships challenging, you may be experiencing an attachment disorder that’s preventing you from connecting with others in healthy ways. 

Understanding attachment disorders, where they originate, and your own style of attachment has many benefits, including the ability to form better relationships and improve your mental health.  

Exploring the Types of Attachment Disorders

Psychologist John Bowlby is credited as the father of attachment theory. According to Bowlby, attachment is a long-lasting bond humans create with one another.

Bowlby believed that early childhood experiences influence the way people connect in adulthood. Children with negative caregiver experiences have a greater risk of developing an insecure attachment style, according to the theory. These attachment concerns then carry into adulthood.

An attachment disorder is when someone has difficulty connecting with others or forming healthy relationships. There are two main types of attachment disorders: disinhibited social engagement disorder and reactive attachment disorder. Here’s what you should know about these disorders.

Disinhibited Social Engagement Disorder (DSED)

Children with DSED are likely to seek comfort from almost anyone they interact with. They don’t display typical distress when their parents are absent or seem to prefer their parents over other people. DSED can make it difficult to form meaningful bonds with others, even well into adulthood. 

Traits of DSED include:

  • Not checking in with a parent after an absence
  • Being willing to go along with unfamiliar adults without hesitation
  • Social neglect
  • Repeated changes in caregivers

Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD)

Children with RAD often feel alone and unsafe. Even so, they are unlikely to seek comfort when needed. Reactive attachment disorder can cause children to be aggressive toward others who try to connect with them. They resist being comforted and may be extremely withdrawn.

Traits of RAD include:

  • Rarely looking for comfort when in distress 
  • Unexplained sadness, fearfulness, or irritability
  • Social neglect
  • Few opportunities to form stable relationships

Causes of Attachment Disorders

Attachment disorders occur when a child is unable to connect with a primary caregiver. Children who are abused, abandoned, or traumatized are at risk for developing attachment disorders. An example is when a child grows up in the foster system, changing homes every few months or years. 

When a child feels abandoned, they view the world as dangerous. Their experiences teach them that their needs aren’t important. They may believe trusting others only leads to disappointment or that they can’t depend on others. Feelings of powerlessness are also common.

Fear, confusion, and insecurity prevent the child from forming a healthy bond with their parents. Even if a child moves into a new loving environment where their needs are met, they may still be unable to form healthy bonds. 

Some examples of neglect that may lead to an attachment disorder include:

  • Failure to offer comfort or respond when the baby cries
  • Failure to interact with the baby in typical ways, like talking, singing, or smiling
  • The child is physically, sexually, verbally, or psychologically abused in any way
  • The child’s needs are not met consistently
  • Illness or hospitalization causes the child to be separated from their parents
  • The parent is emotionally unavailable because of mental illness or substance use
  • The child is moved from home to home due to the loss of a parent, foster care, or adoption

The causes of attachment disorders are sometimes unavoidable. A parent may die suddenly. Physical or mental illness might prevent a parent from providing consistent care. A child might fall ill and need to be isolated in a hospital. 

None of these scenarios are a case of purposeful neglect or abuse. However, children aren’t able to understand concepts like the death of a parent. They only know their primary care provider has left them. This can cause a lack of trust in others and make the child feel insecure.

Matt Wenger, Clinical Director at Begin Again Institute, said these types of childhood trauma change people’s core beliefs. They start feeling that they’re bad or not worthy of love, he noted. 

“They then struggle to connect emotionally with others and themselves,” he said. 

Attachment Disorder Symptoms in Adults

Attachment disorder symptoms adults experience stem from childhood and how they learned to connect (or not) with others. If an attachment disorder or issue from childhood isn’t properly addressed, it’s likely to become the root of adult mental health concerns.

Symptoms of attachment disorders adults experience include:

  • Lack of a positive worldview
  • Withdrawal or avoidance of others
  • Mood swings
  • Difficulty trusting others
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Low self-esteem
  • Irritability
  • Impulsivity

Attachment issues also may cause adults to attempt to cope with their feelings on their own. These adverse coping attempts may lead to addictions, including alcohol, substances, sex, or pornography.

Understanding the 4 Attachment Styles

Understanding how attachment disorders in childhood influence how you connect with others as an adult is key to building better relationships. Identifying your behavioral patterns will help clarify your relationship needs and help you strengthen your connections with others. 

A better understanding of your attachment style will also provide you insight into how to overcome relationship problems. Whether you can work them out alone or with the help of a professional, understanding your motives is a necessary part of self-growth. 

Adults have four main styles of attachment:

1. Secure

Adults with a secure attachment style have good self-esteem. They seek support when it’s needed. They build trusting relationships that last for many years. Also, they can share feelings with their friends and romantic partners. 

Signs of secure attachment include:

  • Positive interpersonal relationships
  • A sense of purpose in life
  • High self-acceptance
  • A belief that needs will be met

A secure attachment style doesn’t mean you have perfect relationships. Conflict is expected, even in stable relationships. 

If you identify with the secure attachment style but still have difficulty maintaining meaningful relationships, try considering the other attachment styles. You may find you relate to some of the aspects of the three insecure styles of attachment

2. Anxious-Preoccupied 

People with anxious-preoccupied attachment have difficulty respecting others’ boundaries. They may interpret the need for personal space as a threat. They can become fixated on a partner and base all their self-worth on the status of a relationship. 

You may have an anxious-preoccupied attachment style if you need constant reassurance from others. Jealousy, manipulation, and clinginess are hallmarks of this style. 

3. Dismissive-Avoidant

People with a dismissive-avoidant attachment style tend to be independent. Independence is a positive trait, but being too independent can make it difficult to engage in close relationships. You may feel you don’t need other people. When a partner tries to get close, you pull away. 

People with a dismissive-avoidant attachment style can be secretive. They may be unfaithful or engage in many casual relationships. They tend to seek out other independent people who are comfortable keeping their distance. 

There is nothing unhealthy about being independent. But, if too much independence interferes with a desire to build healthy, long-lasting relationships, it becomes an obstacle to happiness. 

4. Fearful-Avoidant

Fearful-avoidant attachment style stems from intense childhood abuse, trauma, or neglect. These people tend to believe they don’t deserve love. 

People with fearful-avoidant style don’t know how to self-soothe their emotions. They feel unsafe in relationships and the world in general. If they were abused, they might try to create similar abusive patterns in adult relationships. 

Signs of a fearful-avoidant style include self-destructive behaviors, including turning to pornography or sex in an attempt to cope with negative emotions.

The Relationship Between Attachment and Intimacy Disorders 

Intimacy is essential to romantic relationships. Physical intimacy gets a lot of attention, and may be what most people think about in terms of romantic relationships, but there are four types of intimacy that are crucial.

4 types of intimacy:

  1. Physical. Involves physical touch, ranging from holding hands and sitting next to each other to kissing and sex.
  2. Emotional. The ability to be open and honest with each other. This type of intimacy allows you to share hopes and dreams, fears and anxieties, failures and successes.
  3. Intellectual. Connecting through thoughts, ideas, dreams, and beliefs you have in common.
  4. Spiritual. A connection over shared beliefs and values.

Of the types of intimacy, physical may be the simplest to accomplish. The others require vulnerability and the ability to share feelings, thoughts, and desires to strengthen the relationship. Someone with an intimacy disorder may have a difficult time doing that.

An intimacy disorder causes a person to fear a deeper connection of any kind with other people. 

A person with an intimacy disorder may not even realize they’re avoiding intimacy. Instead, they may think they’re protecting themselves. This feeling of a need for protection likely stems from an attachment disorder.

Symptoms of intimacy disorders include:

  • Discomfort expressing affection
  • Inability to share personal emotions, feelings, or thoughts
  • Refusal to discuss relationship issues with a partner, friend, or therapist
  • Lack of trust, jealousy, and suspicion
  • Avoidance of long-term commitment 
  • Low self-esteem
  • Compulsive sexual behaviors or an insatiable desire for sexual contact

The connection between attachment styles and intimacy disorders is strong. Issues such as the fear of rejection or childhood abuse shape an individual’s attachment style. The same issues affect their ability to participate in healthy intimate relationships. 

When insecure attachment styles remain undiagnosed or untreated, it can have a long-term negative effect on the person’s mental health. Feeling isolated or unworthy of love may lead to depression and suicidal thoughts. Insecure attachment styles can also lead to behaviors that are hurtful to the person and others, like sex or pornography addictions. 

The lingering effects of insecure attachment styles can be overcome. People can learn new strategies that increase feelings of self-worth, self-esteem, and trust. With time, commitment, and professional help, you can learn how to enjoy the emotional intimacy that is necessary for healthy relationships. 

Healing and Treatment Options

The good news is that it’s never too late to treat an attachment disorder and begin building healthy relationships. Effective treatment options are available for overcoming attachment disorders.

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) helps you identify negative patterns of thinking and behaving. Once these patterns are identified, the therapist will help you learn new skills to change unhelpful patterns. 

Unlike traditional talk therapy, CBT does not delve too deeply into past experiences. CBT focuses on meeting present challenges without focusing on their causes. 

Holistic Therapy

Holistic therapy aims to treat the whole person. A holistic strategy would be customized to you and work to treat your mind, body, and spirit. Holistic treatment focuses on your needs, not a specific treatment modality. 

Experiential Therapy

Experiential therapy uses art, music, role-play, and other techniques. The goal is to help you understand the reasons for your attachment style. 

Couples Therapy

Couples therapy helps you learn how to build trust in your relationship. Intimacy issues affect both people in a relationship. Exploring the ripple effects of your attachment issues is necessary for healing. 

Overcome Insecure Attachment to Improve Your Mental Health

Overcoming an insecure attachment style will improve your mental health and your ability to connect with people in a more meaningful way. Untreated attachment disorders can cause trouble in building healthy relationships as an adult. They can even lead to problems like substance use or sex addiction. 

People need close relationships to feel happy. If insecure attachment styles are getting in the way of developing healthy relationships, then they pose a problem. Healing the core issues beneath attachment problems is the best way to overcome insecure attachment.  

Insecure attachment styles are caused by childhood neglect, abuse, and trauma. Even when the trauma is out of a parent’s control, the long-term effects are still serious. Something so rooted in who you are may seem like too much to recover from, but it is possible. 

Begin Your Journey to a Better Quality of Life Today

Finding the right intimacy disorder treatment and speaking to a mental health professional is crucial if you think you may have intimacy concerns resulting from an attachment disorder. A professional can equip you with the right strategies needed to overcome obstacles related to attachment. 

At Begin Again Institute, we offer treatment programs for men with sex addiction, pornography addiction, and other intimacy disorders. The certified sex addiction therapists (CSATs) at Begin Again Institute understand how trauma in childhood can result in intimacy concerns in adulthood. We can provide you with the tools you need to help you improve your life.

If you are struggling with an intimacy disorder, reach out to our team to learn how we can help today.

  • Category: Relationships
  • By Begin Again Institute
  • February 23, 2024

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