Though attachment theory was technically coined by John Bowlby in the early 20th century, everyone knows it was Katy Perry who invented disorganized attachment in 2008 when she sang “You’re hot then you’re cold / you’re yes then you’re no / you’re in then you’re out / you’re up then you’re down.” Girlie hit the nail on the head with that one. If you, like whomever Ms. Perry was singing to in this classic banger, have ever been accused by a partner of being hot and cold or sending mixed signals, it’s possible you have a disorganized attachment style. What you might not know is that your disorganized attachment doesn’t have to hold you back in your relationships—and there are ways to overcome it.
Christene Lozano, certified sex therapist and founder of Meraki Counseling, characterizes disorganized attachment as being somewhat chaotic or “consistently inconsistent” in relationships (especially romantic ones). It’s a mix of two other attachment styles—anxious and avoidant—and is considered the most rare of the four attachment types.
If you have a disorganized attachment style, chances are high that you often feel like you don’t know what you want in a relationship, Lozano says. Maybe your partnerships tend to have a will-they-won’t-they quality to them. And, usually, there’s a lot going on beneath the surface that your partner might not even see. Your internal monologue might be so back-and-forth that it’s hard for them to decipher—and maybe even tricky for you to decipher yourself.
To sum it up, Lozano says disorganized attachment often boils down to this: “I want you close. Now you’re too close.” You may crave intimacy deep down, but something tells you it’s safer if you push it away.
While Lozano says attachment styles are typically more fluid than static—for instance, with certain partners you might have more secure attachments than with others—if you have a pattern of struggling to maintain your relationships due to a disorganized attachment, it might be time to learn some techniques that can help you manage, if not fully overcome, those instincts. The first and most important step? Understand where in your personal history your disorganized attachment took root. This will not only answer questions for your partner(s), but it will allow you to cultivate some empathy for yourself—something everyone, regardless of their attachments, needs.
Where did my disorganized attachment come from?
Relationship therapists and researchers agree: When you’re very young, you pick up cues about how to structure your adult relationships from your parents or caretakers. Your primary attachment style will likely reflect the relationships you had with your caretakers and the relationships they had with others during your childhood. Seattle-based certified relationship, intimacy, and sex therapist Claudia Johnson gives an example of different ways a parent might respond to their child scraping their knee and the long-term impact that can have on a child’s attachment development. If the parent puts a Band-Aid on their child’s knee, that’s a lesson in secure attachment for the child, who knows they can rely on their parent to keep them safe and to make them feel loved.
Disorganized attachments can be created by a parent who is sometimes reliable and sometimes not. If a parent is only loving and attentive some of the time, “the kid doesn’t know how to process it,” Johnson says.
Children raised by parents who can be a little hot and cold themselves develop strategies for self-soothing, she explains, and learn to be independent, even if they still crave a deeper level of care. When those children grow up and are shown intimacy from a partner, “there's no clear understanding for them of how to respond,” she says. Enter: the chaotic inner monologue of the disorganized attachment style.
So yes, your parents and caregivers have a major impact on the relationships you will build as an adult. But your current attachment style is also influenced by previous partners and romantic experiences, Lozano says. In order to overcome your disorganized attachment, it’s important to register whether the hot and cold feelings you’re experiencing now are actually related to what’s in front of you and not reflective of a past experience or partner.
“How much is this ‘baggage’ bleeding into your partnership?” Lozano asks. “Are you taking things out on your partner that's actually stuff from a previous partnership and not rooted in things that have happened between the two of you?”
Your attachment style is likely informed by past trauma—big or small.
Any betrayal from a trusted loved one—whether it was a very serious violation or something less severe—will have an impact on your attachment style, Lozano says.
Relational traumas that are physical, sexual, or emotional change the way people trust. Attachment and trust, she says, “often go hand-in-hand.”
“Trauma can create a rupture in a secure attachment,” Lozano adds. “Not every person that has a disorganized attachment must have a trauma history. But someone having a trauma history would greatly impact their attachment style.” Having awareness of your own trauma history is a critical step in working to overcome a disorganized attachment style.
Disorganized attachment can take a toll on your partner(s).
Ultimately, disorganized attachment can lead to confusion and frustration in relationships—for you and your partners. When you’re perceived as giving chronic mixed messages, it makes true intimacy nearly impossible. “It could be hard for people to connect with someone that has a disorganized attachment because of that push and pull,” Lozano says.
Other potential consequences of disorganized attachment include a pattern of infidelity or secrecy with a partner as a way to maintain emotional distance, Lozano says. Because someone with a disorganized attachment style may misinterpret abuse or neglect as love, toxic or high-conflict relationships may also be regular experiences for someone with this kind of attachment style.
How can I heal my disorganized attachment?
While it’s always helpful to have a compassionate, understanding partner who can help you peel back the layers of your past, Lozano stresses that you don’t need to be in a partnership with someone else to address or heal your attachment styles.
“Bring it back to yourself,” Johnson recommends. What do you notice about the way you interacted with past partners? In those past relationships, how did you show up when you were being your most authentic and vulnerable self? And how did that other person show up for you in those instances? The answer to those questions will offer a lot of insight about how you might behave with partners now.
For anyone trying to overcome an attachment style, Lozano says you first have to dissect your discomfort, anxiety, or fear—and your responses to them. Even securely-attached people experience uncomfy moments in their relationships. The difference between them and a person with disorganized attachment is that the securely-attached person won’t push their partner away every time things get rocky. They will address their feelings with their partner and, together, work to move past them.
This process of emotional digging is part of what Lozano calls “reality-testing”—and she cautions that the presence of trauma will probably make reality-testing somewhat more challenging, but potentially more worthwhile. “If you have a trauma history, the way you perceive people relating to you can be really distorted,” Lozano says. “People with trauma histories may [find] that it’s hard to trust themselves.” Recruiting a therapist or trusted friend or family member might help to provide clarity and rebuild that trust with yourself, she says.
As you dig deeper into your feels, you might find that your very real fear is actually not rooted in the present, but is tied to something from your past. Maybe it’s connected to something that your last two partners did. Maybe it’s influenced by something you saw your grandpa do to your grandma when you were growing up.
“It really is about getting curious, because we all come into relationships with former history and ‘baggage,’” Lozano says. “That’s natural.”
Whatever it is, identifying the origin of your fear of intimacy is the first step in overcoming your disorganized attachment—aided by lots of curiosity about your own emotions, memories, and approach to relationships. With the help of a partner, a close friend or therapist, or just on your own, you can learn to identify your relationship triggers and build up your ability to communicate about them long before they get in the way of the love you deserve.
Christene Lozano, certified sex therapist and founder of Meraki Counseling
Claudia Johnson, certified relationship, intimacy, and sex therapist