The Insecurely Attached Adult

by Dan O'Mahony


The Insecurely Attached Adult


Attachment is a solid emotional bond between an infant and their caregiver. All children innately attach “Attachment behaviour refers to any of the various forms of behaviour that a child commonly engages in to attain and/or maintain proximity” (Bowlby, 1969, p.37) it is crucial in the development of one’s personality and impacts one’s adult relationships. 


How does the ambivalence, avoidance, disorganisation, and the miss attuned present in adulthood? Firstly, I would like to discuss the general characteristics of the insecurely attached adults, before solely focussing on this personality attributes in effect of one’s intimate relationships.

According to Collins and Read In one of the first systematic studies of attachment style differences in mental representations of others, reported that anxiously attached people were more likely to believe that others are difficult to understand and that they have little control over their lives (as cited in Mikulincer & Shaver, 2018, p.173). 


The Avoidant Adult 

The title of this adult attachment style is very much self-explanatory. This type of attached adult portrays an emotional distance. There is an unwillingness and mistrust in sharing deep aspects of oneself, one is extremely guarded and uncomfortable discussing feelings and emotions. There is almost a disconnection to oneself, devoting very little emotion to social and particularly romantic relationships. This adult will remain very much removed from one’s experience in infancy. One will adapt this defence mechanism in total avoidance of feeling the experience of the caregiver/attached figure “The attachment system is generally kept in a relatively deactivated state. In their behaviour and talk they direct attention away from anything that might threaten or distress” (Howe, 2011, p.107). There is a tough exterior facade to compensate for the internal feelings that one will not acknowledge to oneself. 


The Ambivalent Adult 

This attached style leaves the adult in an array of emotional confusion and anxiety, one will be almost wholly absorbed in the emotions of others. There is a struggle in conceptualising where one’s own emotions stop, and someone else’s begins. They will experience the world as seizing them of themselves, living in a place of denying and deprivation. Unlike avoidant attachment, one who is in a state of ambivalence will relive the attached caregiver’s experience through the here and now. There will be little emotional regulation as there is a frustration in being in this experience of infancy, there is little self-accountability of how the attached experience is portrayed in the present. “Persistent feelings of anxiety and doubt mean that distress and attachment behaviours tend to be displayed at a maximum strength”

(Howe, 2011, p.136)


The Disorganised Adult

 “A Style characterized by high self-esteem and low interpersonal trust” (Baron & Branscombe et el, 2008, p.247). This attached style will result in a chaotic adult, a combination of some traits of the above attachment styles. One that has very blurred boundaries, very little to no self-awareness or self-regard, no insight to the self, attached to the experience of the caregiver, whose caregiving was inconsistent or who endured maltreatment, who carries a heavy sense of mistrust from childhood, the concept of my caregiver was unavailable or abusive, everyone else or the world will treat me the same. One will have absent coping mechanisms or strategies. In times of crisis, one will shrink into the child mode, removed from the present and become engrossed in the past. If sexual abuse was present, one becomes unclear of the meaning of intimacy and how to express this, not only by the act of sex “Children who have experienced maltreatment are more likely to develop psychopathology in adulthood including depression and anxiety” (Fitzhenry, Harte et al, 2015, p.101).


The Insecure Attached Adult in Intimate Relationships

Having discussed the process of attachment theory from the insecurely attaching infant, and the effects of the different classifications then in adulthood. Let’s begin to look at how this affects the intimate relations, how each attachment style differs and presents in its own process within problems and in crisis “Attachment is the nature of a relationship with someone who you love or rely on or whose opinions are important to you” (Silver, 2013, p.15).


The Disorganised Adult 

This style of attachment is somewhat interchangeable between both ambivalence and avoidant. One possesses an overactive, inconclusive ambivalent trait longing for closeness and intimacy, while also owning an element of quite the opposite, needing to be autonomous this causing the interpersonal distancing, and as a result an unresolved avoidant state of mind, depending on the individual circumstances. 

Attachment insecurities can interfere with relational commitments. Both avoidant needs for independence and anxious approach- avoidance ambivalence combined with doubts about a partner’s trustworthiness can interfere with committing oneself. Moreover, avoidant distancing and anxious intrusiveness can deter partners from committing themselves” (Mikulincer & Shaver, 2016, p.309). 

As this adult can sway between both above styles, let’s look at them in more depth within one’s intimate relations. 


The Ambivalent Adult

In the beginning of the relationship, one will have an almost overwhelming, instant love for one’s spouse/partner ‘head over heels’ in the common expression of words. As the brain is being flooded with the euphoria of the newfound love, the adult will have a great sense of security. As the relationship moves forward that initial euphoric high begins to become familiar. This causes an internal battle of anxiety in the believe that the partner does not love the same or begins the process of having no love at all. It is commonplace for an ambivalent adult to suffer from separation anxiety. This can cause conflict within the relationship. Is it possible for one to become possessive, jealous, stemming from the fear of being abandoned? 

When conflicts arise, this heightens further the internal dialogue ‘I am not loved’. When a partner/spouse can for example ignore the other during a conflict, as a result this can evoke some anger within, activating the ambivalent experience of the care giving as an infant “Infant attachment theory posits that the first affectional experiences that occur during infancy, will affect the nature and quality of subsequent interpersonal relationships in adulthood” (Monteoliva, Miguel et al, 2016, p.932). Most emotions are experienced as ambivalence whether that be negative or positive. When the partner/spouse is behaving in a way that is experienced as bad or not how one wants to experience the other, it creates a sense of resentment, animosity, sadness, and a level of anger that is dysfunctional. 

Sex can be difficult as one has a strong desire and need for the closeness of sex; however, it also produces negative feelings in one’s lack of self-confidence “Considerable research indicates that secure attachment is associated with higher self-esteem” (Foster & Kernis et al, 2007, p.65). This can cause an array of problems for the ambivalent adult, as one’s view of sex and love has blurred boundaries. Emotions are heightened and at times tend to be catastrophic. There is almost the feeling of being victimised in the relationship, that all is one sided they give all, yet it is not reciprocated. The end of a relationship is viewed as the end of almost everything. The ambivalence is triggered creating such a great loss that it consumes every fibre. 


The Avoidant Adult

The avoidant adult experiences vast problems with intimacy. One lacks presence of the emotional self with one’s spouse/partner or significant other, depending on the longevity/nature of the relationship. There is very little faith and belief in a love that is unconditional. Adults classified as avoidant will possess a very awkward position on intimacy. The act of sex can be viewed on many levels, depending on the individual, with the common theme of it is not something to enjoy, unless one is emotionally detached “One is not to do too much of it. The second is, if it can’t be avoided don’t enjoy it. And the third is to pursue it functionally as a physical need, but one which no emotional investment is made” (Howe, 2011, p.113). The result is a lack of connection, lack of depth in the relationship, which can most often result in a relationship that is short-lived.

The avoidant’s main concern is to maintain full control. They can be defensive about emotions, the less they reveal, the less the other will know, this reducing the chances of being rejected. This is also another layer in the lack of connection and causes an inability to handle conflict. One will find it increasingly difficult to interact when a partner/spouse becomes emotional, the logical, reasoning, and intellectualising skill set will be activated out of the dread and fear of losing control. 


Written by Dan O'Mahony Cert. Psychology. Prof Dip. BSc (Hons) Counselling & Psychotherapy MIACP. PCI College Academic Support Officer & Faculty Lecturer.



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