You might feel like you can’t live without them. Is it really true love, or the nearness of them that you’re falling for?
Pop culture teems with so-called “love songs” that more likely express attachment than love. You can throw a dart and hit questionable lyrics. Are the fervent feelings an outpouring of loving sentiment or a cry of codependency? Hard to tell.
If you’re feeling chronically anxious in your relationship, understanding the difference between mutual love, healthy attachments, and unhelpful attachments might be the first step in growing toward something lasting, together.
How you feel and act in the relationship is probably the best indicator of whether the strong emotions you feel are love or attachment.
Love evokes fond feelings and actions toward the other person, particularly. Attachment is driven by how you feel about yourself with the degree of permanence and safety someone gives you, based on your past relationships.
In other words, with love, your person is “the one” you have feelings for. With attachment, your significant other could be replaceable, it’s how they satisfy your needs that gives them your attention.
Emotional attachment vs. love
A 2020 study of 83 young adults who claim to be “in love” described the differences between infatuation, emotional attachment, and love.
Study authors explain:
- Infatuation is an all-consuming feeling that quickly and intensely flourishes at the beginning of love. It can be positive or negative, with features including:
- Emotional attachment is a positive, comforting feeling of bonding that develops gradually, with features including:
- Love is a multifaceted concept, marked by a combination of infatuation, attachment, and cognitive changes, with features including:
- heart pounding (physiological affects)
- caregiving (behavioral affects)
- euphoria and anxiety (mixed feelings)
- enhanced attention toward, and memory of, beloved-related details (cognitive affects)
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), love evokes the following feelings:
- deep fondness
- happiness in the beloved’s presence
- commitment to the other’s well-being
- awareness of how words and actions affect the love object
Love comes in many forms:
This 2021 review of romantic love develops a working definition. Romantic love:
- occurs at all stages of life
- spurs behaviors reflecting a desire for long-term mating with the subject
- helps people choose and attract partners, engage in sex, and become couples
- frequently turns into a deeply committed relationship, even if sexual companionate love fades
The APA describes attachment as originating in the
Attachment refers to how you relate to others. Your earliest bonds highly influence your relational style, including:
- what you expect from people
- how you interpret relationships
- how you behave in relationships
There are four attachment styles:
- anxious attachment
- anxious-avoidant attachment (marked by a volley of panic and withdrawal)
- disorganized attachment (marked by a frequently unpredictable and disruptive infant-parent relationship)
The top three are referred to as insecure attachment styles. Ideally, secure attachment leads to love in a healthy relationship.
Aromanticism and asexuality within love and attachment
There are an array of relationship orientations under the “A” in LGBTQIA+ that encompass versions of secure attachment and intimacy.
Those who are aromatic are as likely as those who are romantic to feel love and show emotional investment in their beloveds. Similarly, folks who identify as asexual are absolutely able to enjoy meaningful, secure attachments.
Positive emotional attachment can develop into love, as mentioned above. But negative attachments can both cause or be caused by mental health conditions.
Codependency involves putting others’ needs above your own to the point that you lose sight of what your needs are. There’s an element of control and what many refer to as the “need to feel needed.”
If the following signs apply to you, you may be in a codependent relationship:
- can’t say no
- lie for your loved one
- apologize excessively
- take the blame to avoid conflict
If feeling anxious is just as strong a sentiment as other amorous emotions that come to mind while thinking of your entire relationship (or past relationships), you may be experiencing symptoms of an anxiety-based mental health condition.
Conditions involving anxiety and unhealthy attachments include:
- attachment anxiety
- anxious-avoidant attachment
- separation anxiety
- dependent personality disorder
Need for power and control
If an extremely unhealthy attachment style — whether stemming from a relationship involving narcissism or manipulation — leaves no room for love, you cannot change it.
The following are signs of domestic violence:
- exclusively controls finances
- isolates you
- exploits your insecurities
- physically, verbally, or sexually abuses you
If you think you’re in a domestic violence situation, immediate help is available. You can call the 24/7 National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233.
How to overcome unhealthy attachments
- Emotional detachment doesn’t always mean breaking up. Detachment may mean avoiding situations that are too enmeshed or establishing new boundaries for yourself and your partner.
- Consider emotionally focused therapy (EFT) to pinpoint and unlearn certain detrimental relationship patterns.
- You can be open to changing attachments styles, too. Just because you may develop an insecure attachment style doesn’t mean time, therapy, or a relationship with a secure partner can’t help you trade up.
- Despite warm feelings, if the relationship brings out the worst in one or both of you, you might look to these tips to end a toxic relationship.
Healthy attachment and love can lead one into the other or coexist as relationships evolve from infatuation to romantic love, to companionate love.
Love is multifaceted and radiates outward toward a person irreplaceable to you. Attachment is more self-serving and echoes inward what sense of security and satisfaction someone (or something) gives you.
Emotional attachment places sentimental value on a person (pet, or object!).
If you realize you’ve developed an insecure attachment style stemming from your earliest childhood memories, and extending over different types of relationships, you may also wish to discuss concerns with a therapist.
Whatever past relationships have etched into you, it’s possible to experience requited love in the present.