Types of Attachment Wounds and their Effects on Relationships

attachment wounds Mar 04, 2024

By: Sarah Martin, LCPC, NCC

EMDRIA Consultant

My partner and I were having a disagreement one day. In true therapist fashion, I asked him a question about his childhood. His response back to me (he works in IT) was, “Does everything have to go back to childhood?” Well, when we’re talking about relationships and communication in relationships to best understand how we show up, we do have to go back to childhood. The relationships we had with our caregivers earlier on in life set the stage for our relationships with others throughout our lives. After all, our very first experience in life with a relationship is the one we experienced with our caregivers. Knowledge is power, and the more we understand about our experiences the better we can understand how to navigate them. Let’s first define attachment.

What is attachment?

I like the definition of attachment from the founder of the Trauma Specialists Training Institute, Rachel Harrison, LCPC, NCC. She defines attachment as, “the relational interplay between parent and child that shapes their brains (child and parent) and impacts their way of relating, their connection and ultimately a child’s self-esteem.” Attachment and attachment wounds can begin as early as when the infant is in-utero. Attachment is developed when an infant’s/child’s needs are consistently met. This repetitive pattern builds a sense of trust and safety with the infant’s/child’s caregivers. When an infant’s/child’s needs are not being met, or are being inconsistently met by their caregivers, the infant/child experiences an attachment disruption. It’s important to keep in mind that no one has a perfect attachment. It’s what a caregiver does in the face of an attachment disruption that can have the greatest impact on an infant’s/child’s development. Attachment disruptions can deeply impact the infant’s/child’s felt sense of safety and develop an attachment wound.

Types of attachment wounds

  • Separation from primary caregivers (foster care, orphanage, adoption, caregiver in hospital or the infant/child was in hospital)
  • Exposure to drugs/alcohol (in-utero, caregiver struggled with addiction)
  • Neglect (caregiver emotionally unavailable due to severe mental illness/addiction, caregiver has own unresolved trauma, infant/child is left to cry for long periods of time with no intervention from caregivers, infant/child left in soiled diaper for long periods of time) 
  • Physical or sexual abuse of the infant/child
  • Witnessing domestic violence (this can also be experienced in-utero)

Attachment styles and how they impact us in relationships

Our earliest understandings of attachment and attachment theory come from Mary Ainsworth and John Bowlby. There are four main attachment styles: secure attachment, ambivalent (or anxious) attachment, avoidant attachment, and disorganized attachment. Each of these styles speaks to what was experienced with the caregiver and the effect it has on relationships moving forward.

Secure Attachment

Caregiver relationship with infant/child:

  • When the infant/child was distressed their needs were met by their caregiver
  • Caregiver provided comfort, nurturing, and unconditional love 
  • Caregiver made consistent effort to try to understand infant/child’s distress 
  • Infant/child felt safe and trusts that their needs will be met

Effect of secure attachment:

  • Emotions well-regulated 
  • Has good self-control
  • Able to be independent without fear 
  • Able to set healthy boundaries and navigate conflict in relationships
  • Seeks support from others 
  • Able to form and develop close meaningful relationships 
  • Can give love and recognize love from others

Ambivalent Attachment

Caregiver Relationship with infant/child:

  • Caregiver was responsive inconsistently. Sometimes they were available to meet the infant/child’s needs and other times not.

Effects of ambivalent attachment:

  • Struggles with low-self-esteem
  • Wants to be close to others though fears that others do not want to be with them
  • Difficulty trusting others 
  • Needs constant reassurance 
  • Derive self-worth from how partner sees them
  • Often perceived as “needy” or “clingy” 
  • Experiences separation as threatening and fears abandonment

Avoidant Attachment

Caregiver Relationship with infant/child:

  • Caregiver was unavailable, distant, or rejecting toward infant/child
  • Caregiver did not reliably meet infant/child’s needs

Effects of avoidant attachment:

  • Avoids close relationships and fear emotional intimacy
  • Avoids expression of emotions and conflict 
  • Minimizes or dismisses the feelings of others
  • Struggles to maintain long-term relationships 
  • Independent 
  • Ultimately fears rejection

Disorganized Attachment

Caregiver relationship with infant/child:

  • Caregiver was a source of fear for infant/child and infant/child lived in constant state of fear
  • Infant/child experienced severe abuse and/or neglect most often by their caregiver
  • Infant/child did not learn how to regulate emotions or self-soothe

Effects of disorganized attachment:

  • Inability to regulate emotions
  • Sees love as pain
  • Experiences frequent emotional turmoil in relationships shifting from loving their partner to hating their partner 
  • Feelings of unworthiness in relationships
  • Often exhibits aggressive or antisocial behaviors
  • Dates those who abuse them or become abusers themselves (they are replaying what they know)

How can we heal attachment wounds?

Our brains have the ability to create new neural pathways, and there are beautiful things we can do with EMDR to heal attachment wounds. If you are an EMDR clinician, and are interested in more training to support you in helping clients with attachment wounds be sure to check out our Advanced Trainings through the Trauma Specialists Training Institute. Mastering Phase 2: Resourcing, Treatment Planning, and More will give you a good foundation for building resources to support clients with attachment wounds. The training, EMDR as an Effective Treatment Modality for Borderline Personality Disorder will also support you in working with clients with attachment wounds, specifically clients that have experienced disorganized attachment.


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