Disorganized Attachment Styles in Relationships and How You Can Heal After Divorce

What is a Disorganized Attachment Style?

A disorganized attachment style means experiencing a rollercoaster in how you relate to others. Sometimes, you might really want closeness, but other times, you might feel unsure or even push people away. This can happen when your early experiences are a bit rocky or unpredictable. The good news is that with support and the right tools, you can learn to feel more secure in relationships and find healthier ways to connect with others.

I want to talk about a quote from the book The Attachment Effect. The author, Peter Lovenheim, beautifully unpacks all the pieces of various attachment styles and their development. He was talking about the research done by Bert Powell and his colleagues, and this is what they said:

“For the disorganized detacher, their fear is insolvable because the source of their security is also the source of their fear. Children have a 4,000,000-year-old instinct to run away from what frightens them and a 4,000,000-year-old instinct to run toward their caregivers when they are frightened.

“When what is frightening them is the caregiver, they are stuck, caught in a bind of wanting to go toward and go away at the same time. It’s not just overt abuse – such as physical violence – that can cause this degree of fright, but there are also other behaviors, especially with infants, that can be frightening and startling.”

This is just such a powerful quote. And I would like to talk today about some of the nuances of the disorganized attachment style.

The Role of the Caregiver in the Disorganized Attachment Style

The disorganized attacher longs for connection with their loved ones but also fears them.

An attachment style is formed in early childhood, but then we women play it out with our loved ones, our children, our best friends, our coworkers, our bosses, you name it. What is developed as children becomes what we’re drawn to subconsciously down the road.

broken red foam heart fixed with band aid, Difference Between Anxious Attachment Style and Disorganized Attachment Style

Difference Between Anxious Attachment Style and Disorganized Attachment Style

For a disorganized attacher, there were elements of neglect and inconsistent responsiveness – like anxious attachers – but also a lot of fear from their caregivers. That fear may have been violence or abuse, but it may also have been psychological or emotional manipulation that caused the child to both crave and fear at the same time.

attachment styles

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A disorganized attacher is far more likely to attract a partner down the road who is also going to create fear. I want to acknowledge that statistically speaking, if you are reading this and it is resonating with you, it is more likely that you are a woman (not that this doesn’t happen to men), but that you are a woman who experienced some forms of abuse in your marriage and that there is trauma to heal from this marriage and divorce. Not every divorce is traumatic. Not every negative experience in life creates trauma. But for disorganized detachers, there is a strong likelihood that there is very real trauma that needs to be deeply healed.

Disorganized Attachment Style: Signs

Disorganized detachers have developed well-defined parts of self. Now, a lot of my clients get freaked out when I start talking about “parts of self” because they start thinking of things like multiple personality disorder and schizophrenia. But we women all have parts of ourselves. Understanding those parts and understanding abuse and attachment trauma will be essential to your healing process.

When we have parts of self where one feels scared, one feels mad, one feels hopeful, and one feels defeated, each of those layers of our self needs a different acknowledgment, a different validation, and maybe a different strategy for how to deal with the situation.

I often use this example: On the one hand, I want to eat the cookie dough, and on the other hand, I don’t want the calories. It’s two conflicting thoughts, feelings, or beliefs about how to handle what comes next.

a woman with brown shoulder long hair and white top, holding one picture in each hand, showing her crying on the left side and smiling on the right side. Disorganized Attachment Style: Signs

Disorganized Attachment Style Healing Tools

Talk Therapy

When you’re in talk therapy after your divorce, and you’re discussing what was going on with your ex and your kids and all the things, you have a cacophony of voices inside of you.

One of you wants to slash his tires, one of you just wants to cry, and one of you just wants to run away with your children. There are all these different parts going on inside of you.

When you’re sitting in a talk therapy session with a compassionate, intuitive therapist, that therapist will acknowledge each of those parts of you and validate it. And by the time that session is over, you will feel more grounded and more integrated, and every part of you will have felt seen, heard, and like they matter.

This is why often disorganized attachers, who have had a lot of fear and insecurity, feel very good participating in talk therapy because it helps them untangle the ball of tangled-up thoughts, feelings, and beliefs.

That being said, I still stand by the opinion that talk therapy doesn’t heal the underlying wounds that are driving the disorganized attachment style.

If you’re somebody who goes into a therapy session after their divorce feeling very internally disorganized and you leave feeling much more stable, it may be another clue that this attachment style is very real for you.

Talk Therapy room with white furniture, picture hanging on the wall and plants

Disorganized Attachment Parenting Style

Disorganized attachment is this lived experience of both craving and fearing the people you are closest to. Think about how that might have looked in your marriage.

You both loved your ex deeply and were attached to them, but also feared them in some way – whether it was fearing their criticism or their judgment or fearing a particular tone of voice or fearing violence, financial control, manipulation, or gaslighting.

In my childhood, my dad had a pretty strong violent streak, and there were several times that the police were at our house for domestic violence calls, and I would hide under my bed. On some of those occasions, my mom would go away for nights at a time and just leave a note – not telling me where she was going or when she would be back—and wouldn’t call and check on me while she was away.

I truly believe she was doing the best she could at the time, so I’m telling you this to illustrate fearing one’s caregiver while also longing for them.

This became a situation where not only was I afraid of the violent person, but I was afraid that the nonviolent person wasn’t protecting me from the violent person.

book opened, pink flower branch laying on top of it, Disorganized Attachment Parenting Style

Disorganized Attachment Style as Children

My mom has a very strong faith, and she would spend a lot of time raising me with the Bible.

And so oftentimes, I would question things that didn’t make sense to me about the Bible. As a very young child, I asked her: “If my father and I were both hanging from a cliff, who would she save?”

She said she would save my dad first, because she felt like that was a biblical answer.

This is where we can see that a disorganized attachment style would have gotten its roots in me because even though my mom was not a violent caregiver, she also did not position herself as a safe or abiding caregiver.

So, for me, looking for a sense of security became a very confusing experience.

Disorganized Attachment Style in Relationships

As an adult woman, I’m desperate to be close and connected, but I’m so insecure that I am not sure I feel safe reaching out for that connection.
I’m still healing from this place. It’s not predominant anymore, and I can talk through it and I can work through it all.  But it’s just getting those last few tendrils of things out while I continue to shore up a secure environment for myself. I want you to have hope about it.

woman with long brown hair, in green and white pullover and orange pants, playing with a boy with his cars and giving him high five, Effects of Divorce on Children

Effects of Divorce on Children

I think it’s more likely that we’re gonna see a generation of children of divorce who have disorganized attachment styles. But I also want to say: If you are a mom who is not putting their kids in the middle of conflict, who is in tune with your kiddos and you are nurturing those seeds of love, you’re creating that sense of security with them when they’re with you.

They’re exponentially less likely to have a disorganized attachment style.

Now, that doesn’t mean that they’ll get out unscathed, but I also want to reassure you that the fact your children experience hardship is not your fault.

No human is getting out of life without the human experience. It is the path that I was called to walk. It is the path that you were called to walk. It is the path that my child and your children are called to walk.

I frequently tell my clients, my child, and myself that the amount of hardship a person experiences is not what dictates whether or not they are they “turn out to be successful people.”

What dictates success inside any one of us is whether or not you choose to become a victor or choose to remain a victim.

colored pencils with smiling, angry and crying faces painted on it

Codependency and Victim Consciousness

For a very long time, I validated that my kid can feel whatever she wants whenever she wants to, and that’s true.

But more and more and more, I’m teaching her that, yes, she can feel whatever she wants whenever she wants to, but she’s accountable for what she does with those feelings, how long she sits in them, and whether or not she transmutes them.

It is not enough to just validate our children’s emotions. We women must teach them how to work with them.  Because too much sitting, we are not rising above. We are not mastering empowerment and embodiment.

How to Heal Disorganized Attachment Style

Now, let’s talk about some powerful ways to heal a disorganized attachment style after divorce. I cannot emphasize enough how being in a community is essential to healing a disorganized attachment style-group therapy, individual therapy, Al-Anon, and yoga. I went back to church. I went to personal development workshops that were vulnerable group healing spaces. I did all of that at once. Immersion doesn’t even begin to describe it.

women sitting in a circle on chairs, supporting each other in their trauma healing journey

Trauma Healing

We heal attachment wounds in relationships. As my parents were where the attachment wounds happened, they weren’t safe places for me to heal from that disorganized attachment style.

If you can’t do that work with your family and you can’t do that work with romantic partners (as there has to be a certain amount of stabilization and mastery before a relationship can become viable), that leaves us with healing in community and finding safe, powerful, empowering communities that are trauma-informed.

Trauma-informed divorce recovery communities can handle the complexity of a disorganized attacher and their particular needs. This is one of the reasons why I’ve always had a passion for community and group therapy. They were where I found my first taste of true security and feelings of radical acceptance.

Despite my telling you some stories about my parent’s marriage and how it impacted me, I have relationships with both of them today, and we all come together to celebrate family. One of the reasons that I believe that so much healing has happened is because I have stayed steadfast and committed to healing myself. I have effectively set a lot of boundaries along the way.

I want you to feel hope, and I want you to feel like you know the thing to focus on with your kids. And I want you to feel like you can do this and just be patient with the process over time. I love you so much.

Divorce recovery coach Dawn Wiggins

...helps people crack open. Challenging the status quo, she integrates multiple modalities from EMDR to EFT tapping, journaling, homeopathy, and movement, embracing remedies that heal both the mind and body. Divorce recovery coach Dawn Wiggins is on a mission to deliver life-changing therapy in an accessible, scalable, affordable way and make waves in the world of mental health with the same enlightenment that happens in her office. Part science, part essential oils, pure magic.

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