Decoding the subtle difference between love and attachment in relationships.
Joining with another person is a natural human urge. We are drawn to share emotional and physical intimacy, to laugh and cry, have families and build lives with people who know us inside and out.
The greatest human ideal is unconditional love, freely given and received. But many of us fall short of that ideal in the very area we would think would be perfect for it. It is a sad irony that our loving relationships are often the places where we are most selfish and bound.
Historically, humans had to form permanent family bonds for survival. People were usually joined by their parents or the local matchmakers in arranged marriages that would unite territories and provide for the continuation of the clan. Relationships were primarily political contracts and survival measures.
Today, we are blessed with freedom of choice. No longer do most people have to spend our lives in pre-arranged relationships. We can come together by choice as an expression of love, and consciously create healthy and empowering couples.
And most of us have the power to transmute unhealthy relationship dynamics or to move on when our relationships are no longer mutually beneficial. And yet countless couples stay together when they have no real connection. They let convenience, complacency, and fear keep them from honoring their truths and really showing up in love and steadily devolve into relationships that are fed only by attachment and habit.
How do we discern the difference between true love and emotional addiction? And if the love is real and worth fighting for, how do we release attachment and create healthy and liberated loving relationships?
First, let’s explore how we end up needing people more than we love them. At its core, attachment is a necessary natural function that supports the continuation of the species. A healthy degree of attachment ensures that children stay near their parents until they are old enough to take care of themselves.
Healthy attachment helps couples stay together after the “falling in love” hormones wear off, and through the inevitable challenges that come with letting someone into your heart and life. Healthy attachment ensures that couples do the work necessary to navigate through conflicts and differences.
This type of attachment is the heart of commitment and is similar to the dedication that gets people to drink water instead of coffee or get on their yoga mats instead of plopping down to watch TV. This attachment is ultimately a liberating force, it ensures that we do what is right for us even if it is inconvenient or challenges our laziness.
But when attachment becomes a dependency, it is no longer healthy. When people believe that they need other people or things to be happy, they are in danger of unhealthy attachment.
Unhealthy attachment is a form of displacement and delusion. We come to believe that the source of our health and happiness is outside of ourselves. Then our identities and senses of self, our ability to feel pleasure, happiness, and other positive emotions become dependent on the words and actions of something outside of ourselves. When we believe that a person must remain in our lives or a situation must remain as it is for us to be happy and stable, regardless of whether the situation is actually healthy for us, then we are unhealthily attached.
An unhealthy attachment is a form of disconnection from self. We become so wrapped up in other people or things that we lose our connection to our own centers. A form of distortion clouds our perception, and we believe that our joy and essence stems from that external source – that someone can “make” us feel a certain way, and can take that feeling away. When we are attached, we give away our agency, our power, and our freedom.
You can tell you are probably attached when the idea of a relationship or situation ending makes you very uncomfortable and triggers primal fear. This is not the normal sadness that can happen when we imagine any good thing ending.
Rather, attachment triggers irrational terror on a subtle level at the thought of the object of attachment leaving one’s life, which is related to the fight-or-flight sympathetic nervous system activation that happens whenever we perceive potential danger.