Adult Disorganized Attachment: Pathology, Absorption, and Mystical Experience

Could controlled induction of mystical-type experiences help us develop treatments for disorders of attachment?

by Eric M. Fortier, B.A.

This review begins with an outline of pathological and non-pathological outcomes for adult disorganized attachment (ADA)–an extension of Crowell, Farley & Shaver’s Two-Dimensional Model of Individual Differences in Adult Attachment Orientation. This two-dimensional model represents stable and predictable patterns of social behaviours and attitudes towards attachment figures. But we now know that some adults have mixed attachment styles and react with an unpredictable combination of anxious and avoidant orientations. This lack of organization in orientation has been researched in children but remains relatively unexplored in adults, particularly from a social-psychological perspective. Few effective treatments are known for adult disorganized attachment, which presents the most dysfunctional pathology of all attachment styles. A potential increased propensity for mystical experience in those with ADA may carry adaptive value. Still, researchers must employ more comprehensive measurement tools to fully understand the relationship between characteristics associated with disorganized attachment and the quality and frequency of altered states of consciousness such as mystical experiences but also their pathological counterparts.

Paetzold, Rholes, and Kohn (2015)
Paetzold, Rholes, and Kohn (2015) review literature on attachment from infancy to adolescence to develop a 9-item ADA scale and provide evidence for its predictive validity. Of their sample (see Critiques section for details), ADA predicted higher internalizing symptoms, as measured by the Beck Anxiety Inventory (BAI) and Center for Epidemiology Studies Depression scale (CES-D), and externalizing symptoms, as measured by the Multidimensional Anger Inventory (MAI) and the Buss-Perry Aggression Questionnaire (BPAQ). They propose a working model of disorganized attachment in adulthood, to be understood as a confusing conflict between aggressive-approach and anxious-avoidance behaviours. Most notably, disorganization was the only predictor for physical aggression when compared with either anxious or avoidant attachment.

Paetzold et al. suggest a number of implications for ADA, centred on the idea that the conflict between fear and anger leads to contradictory anxious-avoidant and aggressive approach patterns toward romantic partners. They may use physical or verbal attacks or withdraw from the interaction; they may experience a hostile attribution bias, further contributing to dysfunctional anger in relationships, providing fertile ground for spousal abuse. Authors argue how fear, hostility, and lack of trust impairs support-giving and leads to sexual ambivalence, in which those with ADA may have sex to resolve conflict. Overall, those with ADA, it is hypothesized, might expect lower relationship satisfaction, leading to more break-ups and loneliness. Loneliness and repeated failed relationships combined with fear and lack of trust in the romantic partner may lead to less commitment, openness, and self-disclosure.

ADA is also related to dissociation and absorption. Trait absorption refers to the tendency and depth with which one becomes engrossed in mental imagery, is considered non-pathological, is related to creativity, and, most importantly in this review, predicts propensity for mystical experiences. Mystical experiences are emotionally profound and personally meaningful events shown to produce lasting improvements in symptoms of depression and anxiety, prosocial engagement, self-care behaviours, wellbeing, and can lead to lasting increases in personality trait Openness (Maclean et al., 2011; Griffiths et al., 2017).

Granqvist, Hagekull, and Ivarsson (2012)
Since absorption appears to be related both to disorganized attachment and propensity for mystical experience, another team of researchers, Granqvist, Hagekull, and Ivarsson (2012), wanted to know whether mystical experience would be more common in adults with disorganized attachment. Their results revealed that ADA moderately predicts mystical experience, an effect strongly mediated by trait absorption. Theistic beliefs, new age spirituality, and level of religiousness were unrelated to ADA and absorption.

These results imply that failed resolution of trauma, and specifically disorganized attachment, expresses itself in a propensity for mystical experiences (unrelated to religious/spiritual beliefs), mediated by trait absorption. These experiences appear as non-pathological, adaptive outcomes of disorganized attachment. The propensity for mystical experiences as a potential life-changing turning point may replace other attempts at self-realization (e.g., through drugs or promiscuity). It is therefore argued that mystical experiences may be a promising therapeutic target for ADA.

Critique and Future Directions
While both studies relied heavily on self-reported measures, all questionnaires had few if any hypothetical items and mainly relied on primary experiences. Additionally, both studies were correlational, increasing the difficulty of determining causality.

The sample used by Paetzold et al. appears generalizable, including 510 participants who met the criteria for ADA, recruited through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk platform. The mean age was 34 years (58% female), 68% of whom claimed to be in a committed relationship. Among multiple measures of attachment and related pathology, there was no record of caregiving history or childhood trauma, which are known predictors of insecure forms of attachment. Furthermore, although Paetzold et al. believe that disorganization would be even more predictive of relationship outcomes than internalizing and externalizing symptoms, behaviour discussed in this review remains hypothetical, as they used no direct or objective measures of relationship outcomes to quantify the implications.

In Granqvist et al., data may be more difficult to generalize because only 8 of 67 participants met the criteria for ADA, and participants were recruited from various religious/spiritual gatherings. The only measure of disorganization used was the AAI, although it had similar predictive validity as Paetzold et al.’s 9-item ADA scale. To test validity, Granqvist et al. proposed and tested two alternative mediational models and specifically showed that level of religiousness, theistic beliefs, and participation in new age spirituality did not explain any significant relation between disorganized attachment and mystical experience. On a similar note, they discuss a series of objections against classifying mystical experience as a pathological state:

  1. dream sleep is dissociative but far from pathological.
  2. according to research, mystical experiences are not associated with pathological aspects of dissociation.
  3. lifetime mystical experience (35%) is ten times higher than dissociative psychopathology.
  4. Mystical experience is not associated with psychopathology in the literature.

However, while absorption is associated with potentially adaptive mystical experience, dissociation is also characteristic of ADA and bears the potential to be pathological. And while the Mystical Experience Questionnaire (MEQ-30) employed by Granqvist et al. is useful, it is limited in its capacity to capture the full spectrum of these experiences, particularly those approaching the pathological. This is especially important given that the core features of ADAanxiety and avoidance (as well as dissociation)reflect the defining terms of ‘fearful/anxious’ ego dissolution on Dittrich’s (2010) more comprehensive Altered States of Consciousness questionnaire (5D-ASC; now 11D-ASC), which includes measures specifically for anxious and fearful ego dissolution, terror, and dissociation.

Investigating whether adults with disorganized attachment have an increased propensity for not only mystical experience but also fearful/anxious ego dissolution experiences is therefore warranted, particularly considering the association of ADA with pathological symptoms and of insecure attachment styles with paranoia and psychotic-type experiences (e.g., see Lavin et al., 2020).

Future researchers should consider using the Dissociative Experience Scale (DES) to investigate whether trait dissociation in adults with disorganized attachment might mediate negatively-experienced ego disruption, as quantified by the 11D-ASC, in a similar way as trait absorption mediates ‘positively experienced ego dissolution. Future treatments should consider the various aspects of set and setting that have been shown to predict some dimensions of the 11D-ASC, such as recent adverse life events, mood, emotional regulation capacity, physical and psychological safety, and comfort, social support and trust.

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