Adult Disorganized Attachment: Pathology, Absorption, and Mystical Experience

by Eric M. Fortier, B.A.

This review outlines pathological and non-pathological outcomes for adult disorganized attachment (ADA), which extends Crowell, Farley & Shaver’s Two-Dimensional Model of Individual Differences in Adult Attachment Orientation. The two-dimensional model represents stable and predictable patterns of social behaviors and attitudes towards attachment figures. Now it is known 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, although it remains relatively unexplored in adults, especially from a social psychological point of view. Importantly, ADA holds the most dysfunctional pathology of all attachment styles, and there are few known adaptive or therapeutic implications for disorganized attachment in adults.

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 behaviors. 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 centered 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, strongly 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 behaviors, wellbeing, and can lead to permanent increases in personality trait Openness (Maclean et al., 2011; Griffiths et al., 2017).

Since absorption appears to be related both to disorganized attachment and propensity for mystical experience, Granqvist, Hagekull, and Ivarsson (2012) wanted to know whether ADA would predict propensity for mystical experience. Their results revealed that ADA moderately predicts mystical experience, 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.

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), and 68% of these claimed to be in a committed relationship. All measures used in this study were self-reported, and although this may be seen as a limitation, the anonymity of the survey method may invite more truthful responses than qualitative interviews, for example. In terms of limitations, among multiple measures of attachment and related pathology, there was no record of care-giving history or childhood trauma, which are known predictors of insecure forms of attachment. And although Paetzold et al. believe that disorganization would be even more predictive of relationship outcomes than internalizing and externalizing symptoms, behavior discussed in this review remains hypothetical, as no direct or objective measures of relationship outcomes were used to quantify the implications.

In Granqvist et al., only 8 of 67 participants met the criteria for ADA. Also, the data may not be generalizable because 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. As for the measurement of mystical experience, the MEQ-30 questionnaire that was used can only assesses positive experiences, and does not include dimensions for those involving fear, terror and dissociation, such as those included in Dittrich’s (2010) more comprehensive Altered States of Consciousness questionnaire (5D-ASC). Inclusion of this fearful/anxious part of the mystical experience may show a stronger correlation with ADA due to ADA’s association with pathological symptoms. 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, Granqvist et al. 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.

The use of anonymous surveys enable gathering a larger set of quantitative data at a low cost. The intimate and personal nature of relationships, especially dysfunctional ones, suggests that anonymity is likely to increase truthfulness of responses. However, the nature of self-report measures and in some cases incentivized (as in Amazon’s Mechanical Turk) self-reports warrants careful interpretation. Still, all of the questionnaires had few if any hypothetical items, and relied mostly on primary experiences. Finally, these studies were correlational, increasing the difficulty of determining causality.

Overall, these studies provide a vital and practical synthesis of disparate literature as well as new psychometric data on adults with disorganized attachment, sure to inform future studies, experimental research, and treatments.

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Granqvist, P., Hagekull, B., & Ivarsson, T. (2012). ADA Promotes Mystical Experiences via a Propensity for Alterations in Consciousness (Absorption). International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 22(3), 180-197. doi:10.1080/10508619.2012.670012

Griffiths, R. R., Johnson, M. W., Richards, W. A., Richards, B. D., Jesse, R., Maclean, K. A., . . . Klinedinst, M. A. (2017). Psilocybin-occasioned mystical-type experience in combination with meditation and other spiritual practices produces enduring positive changes in psychological functioning and in trait measures of prosocial attitudes and behaviors. Journal of Psychopharmacology, 32(1), 49-69. doi:10.1177/0269881117731279

Maclean, K. A., Johnson, M. W., & Griffiths, R. R. (2011). Mystical experiences occasioned by the hallucinogen psilocybin lead to increases in the personality domain of openness. Journal of Psychopharmacology, 25(11), 1453-1461. doi:10.1177/0269881111420188

Paetzold, R. L., Rholes, W. S., & Kohn, J. L. (2015). ADA in adulthood: Theory, measurement, and implications for romantic relationships. Review of General Psychology, 19(2), 146-156. doi:10.1037/gpr0000042