What Is Adult Attachment?



Attachment is more than your relationship with your mother. It impacts your relationships with friends, family, romantic partners, teachers, therapists, and just about everyone you spend any significant time with. Attachments are part of our day-to-day living, and impact more than you might think.

Attachment problems are at the heart of many common disorders and issues, such as:

  • Addiction
  • Personality disorders
  • Self-harm
  • Depression
  • Anxiety

Unhealthy attachment patterns can disrupt your personal development, leading to unhealthy ways of getting your needs met.

But just like an unhealthy attachment style has difficulties that come with it, a healthy and secure attachment style comes with major benefits. A secure attachment style means you feel that you have a safe base from which you can explore the world, grow, and develop as an individual, with friends, and in intimate relationships.

Adult attachment disorder

Adult attachment issues are among the most researched topics in psychology, with thousands of studies (like this one) done on the topic. Most mental health symptoms stem from attachment problems, but surprisingly, findings from these studies on attachment theory are rarely applied in mental health treatment settings.

Can adults have attachment disorder?

Attachment disorder is a general term for conditions that cause people to have a hard time connecting and forming meaningful relationships with others.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders recognizes two main attachment disorders. Both are generally only diagnosed in children between the ages of 9 months and 5 years.
  • Reactive attachment disorder (RAD).

    RAD involves patterns of emotional withdrawal from caregivers. Children with RAD usually don’t seek or respond to comfort, even when they’re upset.

  • Disinherited social engagement disorder (DSED). DSED involves being overly friendly with unknown adults. Children with DSED might wander off often, approach strangers with no hesitation, and hug or touch unknown adults easily.

There’s no formal diagnosis for attachment disorder in adults. But you can certainly experience attachment issues in adulthood. For some, these may be lingering symptoms of RAD or DSED that went undiagnosed in their childhood.

Read on to learn more about the concept of attachment, including the theory behind it, and how different attachment styles work.


In adults, attachment disorder may be characterized by one or more of the following symptoms. It is important to note that in order to identify the presence of the disorder, more than two to three symptoms should be evident, which ought to be continuously monitored. The presence of just one symptom or a symptom for a short period of time may not be sufficient evidence for the presence of this condition. Also, those suffering from this disorder may not necessarily exhibit all the symptoms.

► Impulsiveness: Adults with attachment disorder indulge in impulsive behavior, which they may or may not regret later.

► Negative and Provocative Behavior: This condition creates a general negative mindset and leads to provocative behavior that angers others along with oneself.

► the desire for Control: Persons suffering from this disorder have a strong desire to control their surroundings and manipulate people and events around themselves. They may use means like lying, cheating, and even stealing to do so.

► Resistance to Love and Guidance: A natural symptom of an attachment disorder is the lack of ability to connect, empathize or sympathize with anyone. People who suffer from this disorder also face difficulty in giving and receiving love and affection from others. They are unable to develop feelings of closeness. They also refuse to accept general advice and guidance from others.

► Lack of Trust: Along with the lack of ability to empathize, such persons fail to develop trusting relationships with others, irrespective of their closeness with the person in question.

► Anger and Agitation: Adults suffering from attachment disorder are deeply sad and depressed within, and tend to feel isolated. They are overcome by stress and frustration. However, they conceal these traits by showing anger very often, either openly or covertly. Anger is displayed through destructive, cruel, and hostile behavior, and such persons may often argue with those who don’t agree with them.

► Superficial Positive Traits: The other side of the coin is that in spite of the above-mentioned symptoms, persons who suffer from this disorder can also appear charming and can often easily engage one in long and interesting conversations.

► Addictions: Adults suffering from attachment disorder are also likely to indulge in substance abuse such as alcohol and drug addiction; they may also suffer from an addiction to gambling, even to work.


Seek and Find

When you experience a threat, you operate in one of three ways to get your needs met. The first of these is to “seek and find”.

After a threat, you seek out “proximity”, or a person to connect with, and you find it. You might call a parent, talk to a friend at work, or ask your boyfriend to go to dinner with you that evening. The person you reach out to is available and responsive. You then feel comforted and no longer has feel the need to seek proximity–your need been met. You’re now able to move on and devote your attention to other things.

When your internal working model is such that you believe people will be responsive to you, you’ll likely seek out someone you know is available to you. When they are available, responsive, and secure, it strengthens that belief, and you continue in a positive cycle.

Seek, Don’t Find

If you seek proximity after a threat and don’t find it, one of three things is usually going on:

  • You are looking for someone to connect to, and truly no one is available to you.
  • The people you want to connect with are available, but because of your own beliefs about yourself, others, and the world, you interpret them as being unavailable or unresponsive.

Negative experience

Adults who suffer from attachment disorders most often experience fear and sadness. They deeply desire love and affection,  but are unable to portray these desires effectively. Negative experiences in childhood lead them into denial and they fail to understand emotions such as love and attachment. With these deep-seated emotions, it is difficult to just ‘talk them out’ of such feelings. They require advanced therapeutic methods that involve a nurturing touch, restructuring of emotions, and treatment to break through the barriers of the mind and to get them to reveal all those trapped emotions. Role-playing is another method that helps with the treatment of this condition. Seeking expert help is the best way to assess and treat an attachment disorder. Furthermore, it is important that such individuals receive the necessary support from a friend or family member while undergoing therapy. Several times, this friend may be asked to attend therapy with them to be able to generate feelings of trust.

Is it possible to develop a new attachment style?

While you might not have much of a say over the attachment behaviors you develop as a child, there are steps you can take to develop a more secure attachment style as an adult.

Learning more about why you feel and think the way you do is key to overcoming insecure attachment styles. Start by seeking out a therapist you feel comfortable talking with.

They can help you: 

  • unpack your childhood experiences
  • identify patterns that pop up in your relationships
  • develop new ways of connecting with others and creating intimate relationships
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