If You’re The One With Nervous System Privilege Caring For Someone With Disorganized Attachment…


In Understanding Attachment Styles: A Key to Trauma-Informed Dating & Relating, we talked about how understanding your attachment style (and learning to spot the attachment signals of someone else’s attachment style) can make dating easier. We also talked about secure attachment, and why it’s the jackpot of the attachment world (which can feel super unfair to those of us who didn’t win that random lottery.) Then we dove into the styles of insecure attachment- anxious/ambivalent and avoidant. In today’s post, we’ll explore the doozy of attachment styles- disorganized attachment, the style that develops when kiddos are actually terrified of their caregivers, who can be close but intrusive, attentive but in a frightening way. When caregivers are all up in your business, but not in a nurturing or well boundaried way, a confusing and bewildering combination of anxious/ ambivalent and avoidant styles marry up to create the disorganized attachment style.

If you’re curious about this topic and you’re thinking about putting yourself out there again, we’ll be touching upon some of these issues in an online Zoom workshop I’m co-teaching with Harvard psychiatrist Jeffrey Rediger, MD, MDIv: PREPARING THE HEART TO LOVE AGAIN.

We’ll be covering attachment styles, how IFS can help you heal your heart so it’s more resilient and flexible when moving into and out of relationships, and solidify the most important relationship you can possibly have- the one between you and your “parts.”

Learn more and register here.

Before we dive into what causes disorganized attachment, let me share a personal story about my own experience being the partner of someone with a disorganized attachment style. My current partner Jeff grew up in the hellscape of a religious fundamentalist cult, with a sociopathic mother who functioned as the flying monkey of the cult leader, oppressing her children under the guise of the cult’s authorization of corporal punishment to “break the will” of her children, especially the boys. She was boundaryless and intrusive, raising sons with no capacity to protect their own boundaries. His Amish-raised father was also abusive, enforcing the physically violent punishments ordered by his mother, who made his father choose between staying married to his abusive wife or bearing the shame of divorce if he sided with the children and refused to beat them.

Growing up, he was not allowed to have friends or girlfriends. He wasn’t allowed to play sports or join clubs, so he had few other influences outside the home. He rarely had a moment away from this abusive mother, who controlled every move he made, other than relegating him to his bedroom for an early bedtime at 7pm, even as a teenager.

This kind of close-but-terrifying connection to caregivers raises adults who can be both clingy and unable to be alone, jumping from one relationship to the next with little discernment, but also fearing intimacy and sabotaging any chance for real secure attachment and safe enough intimacy.

Characteristics of Disorganized Attachment

When a child’s attachment needs were met with violence, the nervous system doesn’t develop properly, and the autonomic nervous system’s radar for safety and danger wind up backwards. Because they fear real intimacy but also crave it, those with disorganized attachment tend to interpret safe people as dangerous (because intimacy might be possible- and intimacy is terrifying). As this video created by Chris Rutgers at The Trauma Foundation discusses, the autonomic nervous system of those with disorganized attachment fails to develop properly, so they wind up with a backwards compass- interpreting dangerous people as safe (because you’ll never get real intimacy with someone dangerous.)

What those with disorganized attachment discern to be safe is often someone untrustworthy, exploitative, manipulative, violent, narcissistic, or even criminally dangerous. If these folks meet someone kind, gentle, generous, trustworthy, responsive, affectionate, and capable of intimacy, all their red flags will start blaring “DANGER!” Someone safe is perceived as dangerous because it’s not familiar, and it could lead to intimacy, which is terrifying for folks who are wired this way. This can make for very confusing relationships if you and the person you’re trying to be intimate with have a significant disparity in the heaviness of your trauma burdens.

If you have the disorganized attachment style, you might display unpredictable and confusing behavior, oscillating between seeking closeness and pushing potential dating partners away. Disorganized attachment is often the result of severe early life experiences where a child’s primary caregivers are a source of a little bit of comfort, riding shotgun with loads of terror. For example, if the only comfort you receive from a parent is via sexual abuse, your attachment system will bear this scar. This kind of paradoxical situation- attentive but boundaryless and scary- leaves the child with no clear strategy for seeking security, which can result in significant emotional and behavioral challenges in adulthood.

The disorganized style often arises in children who experienced or witnessed physical, emotional, or sexual abuse from their caregivers. Instead of being sources of safety, caregivers were frightening, erratic, unpredictable, and untrustworthy. The caregiver, who should be a source of safety, becomes a source of fear, creating a profound internal conflict for the child, who simultaneously yearns for closeness, but also is repulsed and frightened by close connection.

When caregivers are unpredictable in their behavior, oscillating between nurturing and frightening responses, the child cannot develop a consistent strategy for seeking comfort. This inconsistency leads to confusion and a lack of trust in the caregiver. Caregivers with untreated mental health disorders, such as severe depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or addictions, might also exhibit erratic or frightening behaviors that make it hard for kiddos to securely attach.Early experiences of loss, such as the death of a parent or prolonged separation from caregivers, can also disrupt the child’s ability to form a coherent attachment strategy, especially if the remaining caregivers are unable to provide consistent support.

If you have the disorganized attachment style, you may oscillate between being overly clingy and pushing your partner away, creating a turbulent and confusing mess that might put off potential dating partners who might be wired for more consistent closeness and connection. Because of this, you’re more likely to seek out or choose others who relate in unstable ways and may also have a disorganized or avoidant attachment style. You might also have significant trust issues that cause you to be suspicious of your date’s intentions, distrusting and testing your dating partner in what might be unfair or inappropriate ways. You might struggle with setting and respecting boundaries, leading to either overly enmeshed or exceedingly detached relationships. This can create a sense of chaos and lack of safety, which might cause some potentially promising partners to keep their distance.

If you have disorganized attachment or you’re trying to date someone who does, awareness is key for both of you. Those with disorganized attachment can benefit from therapy and self-reflection to address and heal from past trauma. Their dating partners need to exercise a lot of patience and provide a stable, supportive environment that fosters safety and trust, which can be hard when your dating partner may not be getting their own needs met. What often works best is when someone more securely attached partners with someone with the disorganized style. That built-in security of the securely attached style makes it easier to navigate the initial bumps and hurdles of trying to date someone with a disorganized attachment style.

When Disorganized Attachment Meets Secure Attachment

Everyone deserves to be loved. No matter how awful your parenting was, nobody is beyond being lovable. But tragically, people with disorganized attachment tend to push away anyone who might actually love them well. And they’ll draw towards them those dangerous folks who will only retraumatize them and convince them that close relationships are indeed something to fear. Those with disorganized attachment can also be unsafe and poorly boundaried partners for others- so lack of safety is a hallmark of relationships that involve one or more people with disorganized attachment.

Ironically, the best gift someone with disorganized attachment could ever hope to receive is a close relationship with someone who has a relatively secure attachment style. But when someone’s boundaries have been severely shattered, which is what happens with those with disorganized attachment, they often grow up with a severe lack of boundaries- and they don’t respect the boundaries of others. This makes close relationships very hard.

People with disorganized attachment often wind up with significant confusion around boundaries. They may lack any self-protective boundaries whatsoever. Or they may wall off, letting nobody close. Their boundary confusion may also mean that they run roughshod all over the boundaries of others, but get defensive when someone else protests the boundary violations. Since they don’t feel entitled to healthy boundaries, someone else’s healthy boundaries can be very confusing and triggering. This makes it very hard to keep oneself safe when trying to relate in a close relationship with someone with disorganized attachment and shattered boundaries.

Boundaries Can Be Learned!

The good news is that, just like any other skill, good boundaries are something you can study, practice, learn, and master. If you or someone you know had your boundaries shattered in childhood, it can be very confusing to figure out which boundaries you’re entitled to protect- and which boundaries you’re obliged to respect in others. I’ve written a whole manual about IFS-informed boundaries called The Boundaries Handbook, which I’ve been releasing since April 2023 via my Substack newsletter to my paid subscribers. If you’d like a simple primer on healthy boundaries through the IFS lens, please consider supporting my work here. 

You can also participate in the recordings of the Heal Your Wounded Boundaries program. Get instant access to Heal Your Wounded Boundaries here.

I want to reiterate that nervous systems are neuroplastic. This means that even if a child’s nervous system didn’t develop towards secure attachment, new neural pathways can be laid down and the nervous system can be healed. Boundaries can be learned. Traumas can be neutralized. And real intimacy can be experienced. In fact, trauma that occurs because of unhealthy relationships can be best healed with new, healthier relationships. But the road to relational healing is not easy one to navigate or to tolerate, especially if you’re trying to relate to someone with attachment wounding.

If you’re the relatively securely attached one trying to develop a close relationship with someone with disorganized attachment, this means a lot of patience on your end. It’s going to feel like climbing Mt. Everest, and you’ll need to train for it and practice endurance. You’re likely to have your boundaries crossed inadvertently, time and time again. This can try your patience and cause a lot of frustration. You’re likely to experience caregiver burnout, because the relationship may not be fair or reciprocal for quite some time. And that’s understandable. You might get tired of waiting for your turn, waiting for the time when you get to be the one receiving care and patience, rather than giving it one way, the way a good enough parent would be expected to do with a child.

If you’re the more securely attached partner trying to relate with someone with disorganized attachment, it’s important to remember that you do have a choice. You always have a choice. You certainly do not have to stay. It’s okay to leave if you hit your threshold of burnout and your parts stage a rebellion with the mantra “It’s not fair.”

You’re right. It’s not fair. It also wasn’t fair for the one you’re trying to relate with. Life isn’t always fair.

But if you do choose to stick it out, you’ll need a lot of self care and a great deal of support for yourself. Just like caring for someone with cancer, the one you’re supporting will need a lot of help, patience, and tolerance. But you don’t have to martyr yourself just to be loving with someone who is going to try their damnedest to resist your love.

You Are The One You’ve Been Waiting For

Internal Family Systems (IFS) can help. If you’re trying to support someone with disorganized attachment- or if you identify as someone with disorganized attachment yourself, getting to know your own attachment parts will help you relate better to your own parts, which will always help you relate more effectively and compassionately with someone else’s parts.

If you’re the one trying to relate with someone with disorganized attachment…

You’ll need to balance the needs of your parts with the sometimes extreme needs of the one you’re supporting and loving. If you over-give, your parts will grow resentful, and you’ll need to pull back and attend to your own needs. It’s a balancing act, to walk the razor’s edge between caring for someone else in need and caring for yourself and protecting yourself from someone else’s repetitive boundary violations. Your empathy and generosity could get you hurt if you’re not careful, so keep doing the YOU-Turn- and do what you must to keep yourself and your own nervous system safe. As they say in the caregiving world, put your own oxygen mask on first.

Remember not to take your loved one’s behavior too personally. Of course it feels personal, but you might just happen to be the first person who’s ever even tried to offer love and intimacy- without exploitation, intrusion, and abuse. You are a foreign experience to this person, which makes you feel untrustworthy- because what you’re offering is utterly unfamiliar. What you’re offering feels too good to be true- because in the past, anything that looked like love was often a love-bombing manipulation or an intrusive violation.

If you’re the more disorganized one…

Your job is to own up to the impact of your attachment style on others who try to attach with you. It helps if you can recognize that you may be hurting and pushing away and boundary-violating the very people who may be trying to love you the most, and it’s not their fault if they protest all that hurt. The onus of responsibility really lies on you to do your own work to heal your attachment wounds and attach your hurt, abused parts to the Self inside, to reparent your parts and attach to the you- the YOU you’ve always been waiting for, the one attachment figure that will never let you down- your own wise, mature, unconditionally loving Self.

If you’re not capable of being kind, respectful, and mindful of boundaries, and you’re not actively working in therapy to change your behaviors, it’s not fair to expect someone else to keep coming back for more, even if they really do love you and even if the behaviors related to your attachment wounding really aren’t your fault. You were blameless when you were the victim of dangerous people, but now that you’re an adult, you’re accountable for your actions, even if your reasons for causing harm are completely understandable and worthy of all compassion.

Attachment Wounding & Narcissism

Regardless of the style of attachment wounding, attachments wounds can overlap with the kinds of protective defenses associated with narcissistic tendencies. This means that if someone else is protesting your boundary violations, you might have a tendency to deny your loved one’s reality, get defensive, justify your boundary-violating behavior, gaslight your loved one, invalidate what they’re protesting, fail to accept responsibility and hold yourself accountable, and shift the blame to your loved one, casting yourself as the victim, when you’re the one perpetrating most of the harm to the other.

Healing and moving towards a greater capacity for intimacy means checking yourself and getting help to stop employing the defensive strategies that serve as a “decoy,” like a distraction from looking directly at the way you may sabotage and push away real intimacy. When you employ these defenses, you ensure that intimacy is not on the menu. You destabilize your loved ones and hold them at arm’s length. You keep them hurt, angry, scared, and on the verge of leaving, which, paradoxically, makes them feel more safe, especially to someone with disorganized attachment.

If you really want to heal and grow, you’ll need to recognize the patterns you employ to keep your loved one off balance. Especially if you have avoidant attachment or the disorganized style, you’re likely to have a whole toolbox of intimacy avoidance strategies, whether your strategy is being a busy-a-holic, infidelity, addiction, breaking your promises, lying, being insensitive to your loved one’s needs, getting verbally or physically violent, or fluffing yourself up while putting down or invalidating your loved one.

Notice the timing of when you employ these strategies. Do you throw a “decoy” right after something lovely happens? Do you do something to upset your partner right after a happy, pleasurable experience? Do you get frightened and wonder when the other shoe is going to drop- so you throw the decoy to make sure your loved one never relaxes and stays happy for long?

If so, just name it. DECOY. Instead of defending your behavior, give it less power by recognizing it for what it is- a distraction to keep someone from ever feeling safe and happy with you, ensuring that, soon enough, they will indeed leave, just like your worst fear.

Be compassionate with yourself when you do this. You’re not doing it intentionally, but parts that might fly under the radar of your consciousness are absolutely intentional in making sure your loved one never gets inside your fort of defenses and causes you to feel the vulnerability and terror of real love and intimacy. Those parts that are trying to sabotage the very thing your wounded parts really crave- love and intimacy- will pull out all the stops if someone actually gets close to loving you for real instead of exploiting you, abusing you, intruding upon your boundaries, enmeshing with you, or retraumatizing you and repeating the nightmare of your childhood.

Applying Attachment Theory in Dating

If you know your own attachment style and can be on the look out for a dating partner’s style, you’ll get some early clues about what your future might be like early on. Listening to a date talk about past relationships gives you a lot of information about what kind of relationship you might wind up with if you choose this partner.

Understanding attachment styles provides a framework for self-awareness and relational growth. It allows individuals to identify their own attachment patterns and understand their partners’ behaviors more empathetically. This knowledge can guide people in choosing compatible partners and developing healthier relationship habits. For example, securely attached individuals often thrive with similarly secure partners but can also provide stability for those with insecure attachment styles. Conversely, pairing two insecurely attached individuals might require more conscious effort- and perhaps couple’s therapy- to maintain a healthy relationship.

Attachment theory underscores the importance of communication and emotional intelligence in dating. By openly discussing attachment styles and their implications, potential couples can address attachment-related issues proactively and work together to build a secure and fulfilling relationship. This mutual understanding can reduce misunderstandings and conflicts, leading to a more resilient partnership. It can also help you avoid a lot of wasted time trying to force compatibility with someone who simply might not be the right fit for you, not because they’re not wonderful people, but because they might not be wired for real intimacy- and they might not be up for the hard work real change requires.

If you get one thing out of this series about attachment styles, I hope it’s that the best thing you have control over is doing the inner work of attaching your own hurt parts and protective parts to the wise, divine Self inside of us all. No amount of patience and love offered to you by someone outside yourself can replace the real work of secure attachment, which happens inside your own heart- parts to Self.

If you’re needing support for this Self to parts connection, please join me and my partner and Harvard psychiatrist Jeffrey Rediger for PREPARING THE HEART TO LOVE AGAIN. It’s meant for anyone who’s interested in improving your relationships or tending to your own inner heart connections, as a means of becoming more available for intimacy in other relationships in your life.

There’s still time to register before our weekend Zoom workshop.

Learn more about securely attaching your parts to your Self- and join us here.