Being in love is one of the greatest joys in the world. But most of us often confuse attachment with emotional connection and this can make a relationship to become toxic.
Unconditional love or unhealthy attachment?
Everyone wants to be loved. It makes us feel good about ourselves. Having someone who cares about us makes us feel valued and worthy. Unfortunately, this can result in unhealthy attachment styles that can lead to the end of even the strongest relationships. What we may perceive as a genuine and honest connection with someone we adore may simply be nothing more than an insecure attachment. Our relationships and attachment styles are shaped by our thoughts, beliefs, personalities and experiences. But it can also be influenced by our ego, poor self-esteem, need for attention, lack of self-confidence and most of all… a lack of self-love. What we believe to be unconditional love may just turn out to be our desperation for seeking attention and validation. We tend to believe that having someone to care about us makes us valuable, worthy of being. It makes us believe that we are not a sum of all those negative thoughts that years of self-criticism and self-hatred have made us believe. So we hang on to our relationships with the talons of our desperation for validation, latch on to our partners with the tentacles of broken self-esteem in the dark abyss of insecurity and fear of loneliness.
But this harms us more than it harms them. It makes us blind to our reality by confusing unhealthy attachments with true connections. As our hearts and minds can often play tricks on us and alter our perception of reality, having a little knowledge of human psychology can help identify the true emotional connections and distinguish it from toxic attachments.
Attachment is not as same as love
You should know that already. Right? Yet we blind ourselves and take a leap of faith when it comes to relationships. Even though we may have a protruding doubt in the back of our minds, we mistake insecure attachments as pure emotional connections. So we give everything we have to our relationship to make sure it works, it lasts, it keeps making us feel the way we want it to. But that’s not love. Love is free. It’s relieving. It’s not a burden or a duty or responsibility. You don’t need to constantly worry about your partner leaving you if you do something wrong. You don’t need to jump through hoops. Love is simple. It pulls you towards itself. You don’t run towards it secretly praying all the way that you don’t fall down and miss your shot. Love strikes you when you least expect it and you can’t fight it. It consumes you and makes you feel happy like you’ve never experienced before.
However, an unhealthy attachment makes you feel stressed, anxious and depressed. Attachment feels heavy, like an inescapable responsibility. It is born of desperation and helplessness. It thrives in the belief that you are not worthy nor you are enough by yourself. It makes you feel stuck in the dark abyss and makes you feel that you need someone to rescue you. To make you feel whole again. To make you happy. Attachment comes with a clause. Emotional connection is free from any expectations. Attachment makes you want someone because they have something to offer you in return – value, affection, care, attention, validation, happiness, support, motivation… whatever. True connection offers you no such promise yet you want to be with that person simply because. You love them because you do. There is no fear of loneliness or loss, no insecurity, no expectations, no anxiety. It is natural and nurturing. Insecure attachment is forced. It comes with a sense of ownership. It makes us “want” the relationship more for our own happiness, than for the other person. Genuine connection is a mutual feeling of respect, compassion and partnership.
How attachment develops
According to the attachment theory by British psychologist John Bowlby, connections and romantic relationships in adulthood are often influenced by attachment styles in our childhood. Research shows that adult attachment is closely associated with parent-child attachments. In essence, our relationship with our parents during our childhood and adolescence can and do impact how we relate to others and perceive romance as adults. Author Kendra Cherry explains that “When children are frightened, they will seek proximity from their primary caregiver in order to receive both comfort and care.” However, this behavior pattern can persist into adulthood, leading to toxic attachment styles. Although not all attachment patterns are unhealthy, children with insecure attachment can have poor self-esteem, inability to express or regulate emotions, experience anxiety & depression and have toxic romantic relationships.
Studies have found that individuals with insecure attachment can develop trust issues and jealousy in adult romantic relationships, leading to partner abuse. “While attachment styles displayed in adulthood are not necessarily the same as those seen in infancy, early attachments can have a serious impact on later relationships,” adds Kendra.
How love builds
Although love is hard to define, it is primarily a strong emotional connection and attraction that develops over time. It is formed with intimacy, care, commitment, secure attachment, attraction, closeness and passion. Author Kendra Cherry, MS explains that “Love is a set of emotions and behaviors characterized by intimacy, passion, and commitment. It involves care, closeness, protectiveness, attraction, affection, and trust.” Unlike insecure attachment, it is an intense emotional connection related to strong positive feelings, such as excitement, pleasure, satisfaction and happiness. Although hormones, biological and cultural factors tend to play a crucial role in the development of emotional connection and attraction, it is also shaped by our self-perceptions and conceptions. Moreover, romantic relationships also tend to develop and get stronger with age and relationship length, according to research.
How attachment differs from love
As we easily mistake insecure attachment for genuine connection, it is crucial that we learn to identify the differences between them so that we can detach ourselves from toxic relationships and build stronger bonds. Here are some of the most common differences between attachment and connection you need to look out for –
1. Egocentric vs unconditional
Attachment feeds the ego. Love is selfless. When you share a genuine connection with someone, you care about making them happy without worrying about what you may get in return. You care more about your partner’s happiness as seeing them smile makes you feel happy. You may still argue and fight, but it only strengthens your bond. Attachment, on the other hand, feels more like a transaction where you keep a score of who did what for the other person. The focus is more on how they make you feel and help you keep your difficult emotions at bay.
Motivated by fear, you may try to manipulate or dominate your partner to make sure they don’t leave you. You use your attachment as an escape mechanism to avoid coping with your own insecurities and lack of self-esteem. You hold your partner responsible for your happiness. Insecure attachment is selfish, and there is no room for sacrifices or compromises. Your needs take precedence over their needs. When you are emotionally connected with someone, you want to be with them even if they have nothing to offer in return. Love is selfless.
2. Dominating vs liberating
When you are insecurely attached to your partner, your insecurities and your fear of abandonment fill your head with negative thoughts and emotions that force you to distrust them leading to controlling behavior. You manipulate, gaslight and emotionally blackmail them to keep them away from their family and friends, you repeatedly doubt them, you check on them constantly… simply to make sure they won’t leave you. In a way, you force them to spend time with you regardless of their interests or feelings. But by doing this you are restricting yourself more than your partner.
In love, there is no place for manipulation or domination. It allows you to be free… to be yourself. Both partners encourage each other to pursue their interests and support each other’s growth. They realize that only by being happy individually, they can be happy together. It is built on mutual trust, respect and care. Personal development fuels the relationship to grow stronger over time. Love involves unconditional acceptance and so control doesn’t exist here.
3. Codependency vs support
The very essence of being attached to someone in a toxic relationship is being dependent on them. You rely on them for attention, validation, self-worth and for boosting your ego and self-esteem. You need them to take care of you, to make you feel better about yourself. You feel you are incomplete without them. And due to such negative thought patterns, you become petrified of abandonment. It fuels your insecurities which in turn makes you hold on to your partner even more tightly, even if they may feel suffocated. You feel your life, your very existence depends on them. They give your identity value, meaning and purpose.
But love is not about desperately holding on to that person. A genuine emotional connection with someone stems from self-love. It is only when you are happy and content with yourself and have faith in your capabilities can you truly connect with someone in an unconditional manner and attract such connection from others. As you don’t “need” anyone, your relationship is built on pure attraction, compassion, intimacy and passion. Instead of holding on to them, you let them be as you know they will support you and be there for you, like you are there for them. In love, two people who are individually complete and fully capable, come together to share their happiness and sorrows and support each other through the ups and downs of life, without being held responsible
4. Need vs passion
Attachment is mostly superficial. We feel attached to certain individuals because they meet our psychological and emotional needs, not necessarily because we are emotionally connected to them. Attachment makes you feel excited and happy. You feel like you are on top of the world. Although most of us confuse this uncontrollable feeling with love, it is simply a toxic attachment. Such feelings of excitement arise because you feel your needs are met, you feel affirmed and validated, you get the support you need and you feel satisfied by the person you are attached to. However, as you do not feel connected from your heart, the positive feelings are soon replaced with worry, stress, anxiety, doubts and a lack of mental peace. According to a 1991 study, people with insecure or toxic attachment styles often fail to recognize their “desire for a warm and secure love.” They also tend to experience less intimacy & commitment and are unable to identify their partner’s need for love.
Love, on other hand, feels calm and tranquil as both of you feel deeply passionate about each other. It comes from a place of appreciation and respect for the other person as you feel there is a soul connection. You want to be with your partner because you understand them as they understand you. There is a sense of belongingness here. You feel curious about knowing their innermost thoughts and feelings, their preferences and dislikes, their dreams and goals. You want to understand them at their deepest level as you want to create an enduring connection and build a healthy relationship. Love dives a lot deeper than attachment ever can. The 1991 study found that “secure people put more emphasis on intimacy,” compatibility and self-partner love.
5. Fleeting vs lasting
In attachment, positive feelings like joy and pleasure eventually fade away as your needs for attention and validation are met. As your partner plays their role in boosting your self-esteem, sense of self-worth and confidence, you feel increasingly detached from them. As the toxic relationship falls apart, all the positive emotions you once felt are overtaken by negative emotions, like bitterness, betrayal, spite, jealousy and resentment. You feel that your partner was obligated to take care of you and meet your every need. When your needs are satisfied or left unmet, the attachment melts away. In essence, it is truly transient.
But when you share a genuine emotional connection and feel that they are your soulmate, then that emotion can last a lifetime. Although there are no guarantees that the relationship will last forever, the emotions you once felt for them will always be there even after you break up. You will share fond memories about them and will always want them to be happy even if they are not with you anymore. “If you were truly in love, however, that person will always have a place in your heart and you will continue to wish them well for the rest of their life,” explains author Thibaut Meurisse. Love lasts forever regardless of the obstacles and the duration of time. Hence, when couples in love can make their relationship or marriage work, then there is no greater joy than that. Studies have found that “Romantic love can establish long-term pair-bonds.”
Choose love over attachment
Attachment is a manifestation of your fears and insecurities. It makes you feel anxious and overwhelmed as you cling to your partner and do anything and everything to prevent them from leaving you. It is based on needs that can never be satisfied as you do not accept the reality of your relationship. Love acknowledges all its imperfections and allows you to be free, to show yourself as you are and appreciate your partner as they are. It is about being vulnerable with each other and opening yourself up to the other person even though you may be afraid of falling and hurting yourself. But there is faith as well. Faith that you are strong enough to let them go. Faith that your partner will be there when you need them. Love is not about your fears or weaknesses, it is about your strength. It comes from a place of compassion, empathy, understanding, confidence, forgiveness, self-worth and self-love.
Don’t let toxic attachments fool you. Look for the red flags, identify the signs, develop self-awareness and ask yourself – “Am I truly in love?”
Be honest with yourself and let your heart guide you towards a better, stronger and healthier relationship.