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Emotional Attachment in Relationships: Is It Normal or Unhealthy?
Relationship Advice

Emotional Attachment in Relationships: Is It Normal or Unhealthy?

Emotional attachment represents a normal part of any relationship, but it can become unhealthy in some situations. Read our in-depth guide to learn more.

Together Team
May 7, 2022

Are you wondering whether your relationship with your partner is healthy? Perhaps you’re worried about your respective attachment styles and compatibility? We’ve put together a comprehensive guide to help you learn more about the difference between love and emotional attachment and break unhealthy relationship habits.

What is Emotional Attachment?

Emotional attachment refers to the affectionate feelings you may feel toward others that help you nurture meaningful relationships. Attachment plays a vital role in deepening bonds between people and ensuring they feel loved and happy. 

According to attachment theory, infants start to become attached to people at around six weeks old. Most people first experience emotional attachment with their parents and close family members. This bond can last a lifetime and often shapes how people form attachments with friends and romantic partners in later life. As such, people who grow up in unstable homes or without a primary caregiver often experience relationship issues as adults.

It is possible to become emotionally attached to people in the absence of sexual attraction or romantic desires. As such, many close friends experience deep love and affection for each other over time. 

For many people, emotional attachment represents a pleasant feeling that makes them feel safe, happy, and self-assured. While attachment is both healthy and necessary in strong relationships, it is possible to become overly attached to your loved ones (particularly romantic partners). 

If you rely on your partner’s approval to support your self-confidence, find yourself adapting your personality to fit theirs, or depend on your partner to function, your relationship may be unhealthy. In the long term, intense attachments could harm your mental health. 

One of the first steps to establish whether your attachment is unhealthy is to understand attachment theory and the different types of attachment styles.

Types of Attachment Styles

Your (and your partner’s) attachment style can dictate the health and long-term viability of your relationship. Attachment styles are thought to reflect the same dynamics we experienced with caregivers while growing up. However, while most people have a primary attachment style, it is worth noting that we often feel more secure with certain people compared to others, depending on their personality. The four main attachment styles include:

Secure Attachment

People with a secure attachment style are able to form secure and nurturing relationships with other people relatively easily. Securely attached people are not afraid of intimacy and do not worry when their partners wish to spend time away from them. They can depend on others without being excessively needy and are able to trust others. 

If you tend to enjoy relatively stable relationships with your partners and friends, you’re likely to have a secure attachment style. According to psychologists Cindy Hazan and Philip Shaver, over half of adults experience secure forms of attachment. 

Avoidant Attachment

People with avoidant attachment styles are typically afraid of intimacy and find it difficult to trust others, to the point where you might wonder, does your avoidant partner love you?

They may complain about feeling suffocated in a relationship and prefer to rely on themselves when problems arise. Also known as dismissive-avoidant attachment, avoidant attachment affects about a quarter of adults. 

Anxious Attachment

People who are anxiously attached to their partners are often described as “needy” or “clingy”. Anxious attachment tends to involve worrying that your partner will leave you, as well as a desire for constant validation and reassurance. 

If you feel anxious when your partner does not immediately reply to your text messages or you worry that your partner doesn’t care about you, you may be experiencing anxious attachment. Around one in five adults have anxious attachment styles.

Fearful-avoidant Attachment

This attachment style represents a combination of avoidant and anxious attachment styles. People who develop this form of attachment may crave affection while keenly avoiding their partner. While fearful-avoidant attachment is relatively rare, it is one of the most worrying. It’s associated with a tendency toward risk-taking and difficulties regulating one’s emotions. 

Love vs. Emotional Attachment

People with an insecure attachment style often struggle to tell the difference between love and attachment. After all, people who are in love should experience relatively strong feelings of emotional attachment to their significant other, particularly if they have been in a relationship for many years.

However, there are some key differences between love and emotional attachment, including:

Love nurtures growth, while attachment inhibits it 

Couples who are in love tend to grow and change together, helping each other to achieve their respective goals and live life to the fullest. In this way, it’s an exploratory emotion that promotes open-mindedness and embraces change. 

Attachment, on the other hand, tends to involve an urge to control your partner and ensure your relationship remains static. While a degree of protectiveness and care is healthy, an obsessive or intense urge to control someone else can negatively affect a relationship.

Love involves selflessness, while attachment involves selfishness

Love encourages people to make their partners happy and ensure they feel fulfilled and supported. People in love do not view their relationship in a transactional way and never attempt to control their partner’s life choices. 

If you’re simply attached to your partner, you tend to only focus on how they can make you happy. You may become very dependent on your partner to boost your self-esteem, while constantly worrying that they will abandon you. 

Love allows partners to be their true selves

Partners in love are unashamed about their weaknesses and trust each other with secrets. They accept each other for who they are and tend to avoid controlling behaviors. People experiencing emotional attachment, on the other hand, may try to control how their partner spends their time or who they spend time with. 

Love can last a lifetime

While emotional attachment is generally fleeting and self-serving, love can last a lifetime. Even partners who split up may continue to care for their exes. People who were simply attached, however, will probably feel anger and resentment following a breakup. Such feelings are grounded in the assumption that your partner was obliged to satisfy your needs. 

How Do You Know If It’s Love or Attachment?

Distinguishing between love and attachment can be tricky, as they’re intertwined. People in love are likely to feel a certain degree of attachment, although it is possible to feel attachment without being in love.

As already mentioned, a moderate level of emotional attachment is healthy and can help you maintain a steady relationship. However, excessive attachment that lacks love can indicate a dysfunctional relationship. 

So, how can you tell the difference between these complex emotions? Generally speaking, love tends to include the following:

  • A desire to look after your partner
  • A tendency to pay attention to your partner’s needs and a desire to help them achieve their goals
  • Combined feelings of euphoria and anxiety (particularly during the early stages of love)
  • Happiness in the presence of your loved one
  • Deep fondness for your loved one, regardless of their flaws

The signs of attachment may vary depending on your attachment style. People with secure attachment styles may feel comforting emotions such as tranquility, happiness, and security. Those with insecure attachment styles, however, may feel a mix of emotions, including anxiety, resentment, low self-esteem, and more. 

Love should be distinguished from sexual attraction. While sex can strengthen love, partners who are in love do not base their connection on physical attraction alone.

When Does Emotional Attachment Become Unhealthy?

It can be very difficult to determine when emotional attachments turn toxic. They are, after all, a vital part of any loving relationship. 

Broadly speaking, an emotional attachment becomes unhealthy when it starts to negatively affect at least one partner in a relationship. If you suspect that your attachment to your partner may be disrupting your life (or vice versa), it’s worth looking out for the following signs of unhealthy emotional bonds.

4 Signs of an Unhealthy Emotional Attachment

Common signs that you’re unhealthily attached to your partner include:

1. You worry about what they’re doing at all times

Unhealthy emotional attachment often involves obsessive worrying about a partner’s everyday activities and personal history. For example, an obsessive emotional attachment may involve constantly checking whether a partner is online, asking others about the partner’s dating history, and stalking a partner’s social media profiles.

2. You act selfishly in the relationship

Do you ever catch yourself believing that your partner’s life revolves around you? Perhaps you believe that you’re the best and most important thing in their life? 

If so, you may be unhealthily attached. High levels of emotional attachment can be toxic and may cause people to act very selfishly in their relationships. You may, for example, demand attention from your partner or expect them to bend their life around your needs.

3. You believe that you cannot live without your partner

Unhealthy attachment is sometimes characterized by the feeling that you cannot live without your partner. If you experience terror or suicidal thoughts when confronted with the idea of your partner leaving, your attachment is not healthy. 

4. You hate being without your partner

If you’re unable to enjoy activities without your partner, you’re probably experiencing an insecure form of attachment.

How to Fix Unhealthy Emotional Attachment

If you’re experiencing any of the signs of insecure attachment, don’t worry — it is possible to address your issues and develop more secure bonding techniques. Here are a few tips to help you get started:

Address your self-esteem issues

Low self-esteem is often closely related to attachment issues, particularly for people who were neglected or abused as children. To boost your self-esteem, remind yourself that everyone deserves to be loved and valued. Being kind to yourself and avoiding making unrealistic goals is one of the best ways to improve your sense of self-worth and reduce your dependence on others’ validation.

Seek therapy

Therapy sessions (as an individual or a couple) can help you to make sense of past wounds and understand how to engage in healthier behaviors.

Identify your attachment style and relationship patterns

Earlier, we shared the 4 attachment styles, and determining your current attachment style will help you identify unhealthy patterns and avoid harmful behaviors. If you’re unsure whether your attachment style is secure or insecure, it may help to consider whether your relationship with your parents was functional or not.

Unlearn harmful lessons

Some popular narratives can feed insecure forms of attachment and ultimately ruin relationships. For example, many people (particularly men) believe that depending on others to fulfill certain needs represents a sign of weakness. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

Why Does Sex Cause Emotional Attachment?

Sex can often trigger feelings of emotional attachment, sometimes helping to strengthen relationships. There are a number of reasons for this phenomenon, including:

Sex releases bonding hormones

Both sexual and non-sexual touch can release oxytocin, a hormone that boosts feelings of connection between people. If sex is satisfying, oxytocin may help to enhance feelings of emotional attachment. It is worth noting, however, that unequal or non-consensual sex is likely to have the complete opposite effect.

Cultural narratives tell us to value monogamous romantic relationships

While sex is a primarily physical act, it is strongly associated with love in today’s society. If you buy into this narrative, having sex may increase feelings of emotional attachment.

It encourages vulnerability

Having sex with someone forces you to be vulnerable in their presence, at least in a physical sense. This vulnerability can generate feelings of emotional attachment, even if you don’t know your partner very well.

How to Break Emotional Attachment

So, how can you break emotional attachment in a current relationship? If you’ve identified issues in your relationship and are wondering how to address your issues, the following tips may help:

Schedule time with your partner

Scheduling time with your partner can help you distinguish between “relationship” time and “personal” time. This may help if you’re prone to worrying about what your partner is up to when you’re not around. Remember that spending too much time together can encourage obsessive thoughts, creating a vicious cycle of dependence. 

Healthily portioning your time will help you avoid this cycle.

Since communication represents the bedrock of any healthy union, remember to schedule time to regularly check in with your partner and share any thoughts and worries.

Talk about your attachment style with your partner

While heartfelt conversations may feel uncomfortable, they can help to support a healthy relationship. If you’re prone to neediness or intense attachment, airing your worries with your partner can help lower your anxiety levels.

Spend time with friends or start a new hobby

You can’t depend on one person to fulfill all of your social and emotional needs. Spending time with friends and family members will help to reduce unhealthy attachment behaviors and improve your overall quality of life.

Distracting yourself with a new hobby will help you avoid unhealthy thoughts and improve your self-esteem.

Engage in mindfulness

Mindfulness techniques such as meditation or journalling can help to boost your mental health and break feelings of possessiveness surrounding your partner.

Try to become more independent

If you feel incapable of navigating the world by yourself, you’re more likely to become unhealthily attached to your partner. Why not start putting yourself out there by joining a book club, starting a new course, or getting a part-time job? The results may surprise you.

Consider whether you need to break up

This may be tough to hear, but some relationships (like karmic ones) are simply not made to work. If you realize that your feelings toward your partner stem purely from lust or a desire for security, it’s time to cut your losses and break up swiftly and kindly. 

If you’re unsure whether the relationship is salvageable, it’s worth taking a short break to see whether you can overcome your attachment issues.

Don’t think too far into the future

Perhaps you and your partner just started dating, and you’re making plans about the far-away future. Try not to idealize them in this way, as it may trigger feelings of obsession and resentment. 

Taking Control of Your Emotions

As you can see, unhealthy attachments are not set in stone. It’s important to understand you and your partner’s attachment style so that if either of you are feeling insecure, you two can work together to address this issue. If you or your partner shows signs of unhealthy emotional attachment, it’s worth addressing your problems early to avoid a messy breakup with someone you genuinely care about.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Together Team

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