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.
- Disinhibited 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.
Attachment theory involves the way you form intimate and emotional bonds with others. Psychologist John Bowlby developed the theory while studying why babies became so upset when separated from a parent.
Babies need a parent or other caregiver to take care of their basic needs. Bowlby found they used what he called attachment behaviors, such as crying, searching, and holding on to their parent, to prevent separation or to find a lost parent.
Bowlby’s study of attachment in children laid the foundation for later research on attachment in adults.
As you age, you develop your own attachment style, based largely on the attachment behaviors you learned as a child. This attachment style can have a big impact on how you form relationships as an adult.
Your attachment style involves your behaviors and interactions with others and how you form relationships with them. Attachment theory holds that these styles are largely determined during early childhood.
Secure vs. insecure
Attachment styles are broadly categorized as being either secure of insecure.
If your needs as a child were usually met right away by your caregiver, you probably developed a secure attachment style. As an adult, you most likely feel secure in your close relationships and trust that the other person will be there when you need them.
If your caregiver failed to meet your needs as a child — or was slow to do so — you may have an insecure attachment style. As an adult, you might find it hard to form intimate bonds with others. You may also have a hard time trusting those close to you.
There are several subtypes of insecure attachment styles in adults.
If you have an anxious-preoccupied attachment style, you might:
- have an increased need to feel wanted
- spend a lot of time thinking about your relationships
- have a tendency to experience jealousy or idolize romantic partners
- require frequent reassurance from those close to you that they care about you
If you’re need for reassurance isn’t met, you might start doubting how your loved ones feel about you. If you’re in a romantic relationship, you might frequently believe that your partner is upset with you and wants to leave.
These fears can make you more sensitive to the behaviors of those close to you. You might interpret some of their actions as proof that what you’ve worried about (them leaving) is actually happening.
If your attachment style is dismissive-avoidant, you might:
- have a hard time depending on partners or other people close to you
- prefer to be on your own
- feel like close relationships aren’t worth the trouble
- worry that forming close bonds with others will make you less independent
These behaviors can make it hard for others to support you or feel close to you. Moreover, if someone does put in extra effort to draw you out of your shell, you may react by closing yourself off.
Keep in mind that these behaviors don’t stem from not caring about others. Instead, it’s more about protecting yourself and maintaining a sense of self-sufficiency.
If you have a fearful-avoidant attachment style, you might:
- have conflicting feelings about relationships and intimacy
- want to develop romantic relationships but worry that your partner will hurt you, leave you, or both
- push aside your feelings and emotions to try to avoid experiencing them
- fear you aren’t good enough for the kind of relationship you’d like to have
While you might be able to suppress your emotions for a period of time, they tend to come out in bursts. This can feel overwhelming and create a pattern of highs and lows in your relationships with others.
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
How to find a therapist
Finding a therapist can feel daunting, but it doesn’t have to be. Start by asking yourself a few basic questions:
- What issues do you want to address? These can be specific or vague.
- Are there any specific traits you’d like in a therapist? For example, are you more comfortable with someone who shares your gender?
- How much can you realistically afford to spend per session? Do you want someone who offers sliding-scale prices or payment plans?
- Where will therapy fit into your schedule? Do you need a therapist who can see you on a specific day of the week? Or someone who has nighttime sessions?
Next, start making a list of therapists in your area. If you live in the United States, head over to the American Psychological Association’s therapist locator.
If cost is an issue, check out our guide to affordable therapy.
While not every person desires intimacy, many people do want to develop a strong romantic relationship.
If you feel like insecure attachment is getting in the way of forming healthy, fulfilling relationships, consider adding some of these titles to your reading list:
- “The Attachment Effect: Exploring the Powerful Ways Our Earliest Bond Shapes Our Relationships and Lives.” Journalist Peter Lovenheim interviews psychology experts as well as individuals and couples to illustrate the key concepts of attachment theory. If you’re looking for an easy-to-read primer on attachment theory, this is a good place to start.
- “The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma.” While not explicitly about attachment styles, many people consider this book a must-read for anyone dealing with the long-term effects of childhood trauma.
- “Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help YouFind — and Keep — Love.” This 2012 book, co-written by a psychiatrist and neuroscientist, takes a closer look at how attachment theory applies to adults and offers guidance on overcoming insecure attachment styles.
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