Unhealthy attachments to people
Emotional Attachment: 4 Things to Know
Emotional attachment refers to the feelings of closeness and affection that help sustain meaningful relationships over time.
Emotional attachment refers to the feelings of closeness and affection that help sustain meaningful relationships over time.
Attachment plays an important role in human connection. The earliest bonds you form with parents and family members can guide and shape the attachments you develop to friends and romantic partners later in life.
You can become emotionally attached to people even without romantic or sexual attraction. Simply feeling close to someone helps you bond and increases your sense of connection.
This attachment might help you feel safe, comfortable, happy, maybe even somewhat euphoric in their company.
Some level of attachment is healthy and normal in relationships. But how can you tell if you’re too attached? What do you do if that happens? Can you develop attachments to places or things?
We’ve got answers to these questions (and more) below.
There are different types of emotional attachment, some healthier than others. Each type of attachment serves a different purpose and can lead to different outcomes.
Secure attachment is one of the most common types of emotional attachment. It develops when you feel comfortable with someone and confident in their ability to meet your needs. The bond you share is strong, and you’re able to rely on each other both physically and emotionally.
A subtype of insecure attachment, anxious attachment develops when you’re constantly worried that your partner may leave you or won’t be there when you need them. This can lead to clinginess and needy behavior.
Avoidant attachment is another subtype of insecure attachment. It develops when you’re unwilling or unable to get close to someone. You might distance yourself emotionally or physically from your partner. This can lead to feelings of rejection and loneliness.
Disorganized attachment is a third and less common subtype of insecure attachment. It’s characterized by mixed feelings of approach and avoidance toward your partner. This can lead to feelings of confusion, fear, and anxiety in relationships.
Lasting love relies on healthy attachment to flourish, but attachment and love aren’t exactly the same.
Your emotional attachment to romantic partners and friends helps these relationships thrive over time. Without attachment, you might feel driven to seek a new partner when the first intense feelings of love fade, or a new best friend after a disagreement.
Oxytocin, a natural hormone that promotes bonding and trust, contributes to the development of attachment. In other words, it helps create a sense of security in the first stages of a new relationship.
Other hormones come into play in the early stages of romantic love, contributing to the desire, euphoria, and tension most people experience when falling in love.
The intensity of these emotions often fades in time, but attachment lingers, helping you feel safe and secure and promoting feelings of lasting love.
Consider the driving factors
A key difference between attachment and love lies in the factors behind them.
Generally, you don’t love someone because of what they can do or provide. You love them regardless of these things, simply because they’re who they are.
Sure, romantic relationships do fulfill important needs, but relationships based on love involve mutual giving and support. You don’t love someone simply because they meet your needs.
Attachment, in contrast, can develop when needs for intimacy, companionship, validation, or anything else go unfulfilled. When you find someone who fulfills those needs, you might develop a strong attachment to them.
Everyone has needs, and everyone wants to get those needs met. There’s nothing wrong with seeking a partner who fulfills important needs. But it’s important to know how to meet these needs yourself, as well. Depending on someone else to “complete” you can create difficulties for you both.
Emotional attachment can sometimes get a little too intense and become more of an emotional dependency. This dependency can negatively affect the relationship and your well-being.
The following signs can suggest a potentially unhealthy level of attachment.
You rely on their approval
If you struggle with self-validation and self-confidence, you might define your worth by how others see you. In an unhealthy attachment, your sense of self-worth may totally depend on your partner’s regard.
When you disagree or experience other conflict, this might entirely disrupt your perception of yourself. You might believe they hate you and no longer support your needs.
As a result, you might feel hurt, empty, anxious, or depressed, and your self-esteem might diminish.
These feelings can persist until they show they still care about you, whether that’s giving a gift, offering physical affection, or complimenting you.
This can become a dangerous dynamic because people with toxic or abusive traits may intentionally manipulate your needs and feelings to control the relationship and keep you dependent on them.
You’ve lost your sense of self
When you believe you need someone and can’t live without them, you might find yourself doing whatever it takes to secure their affection and support long-term.
Little by little, you might begin changing your habits, interests, and behaviors until they align more with those of your partner.
A partner might push you to do this in a toxic or abusive dynamic, but it’s important to understand that unhealthy attachments don’t only happen in abusive relationships. You might find yourself remolding your identity to match your partner’s on your own, even somewhat unconsciously.
The end result is often similar, however. You and your partner become more of a unit, and you lose sight of who you really are.
It’s important to share some things with friends and partners, but it’s just as important to spend some time apart and maintain your own interests.
You don’t know how to function without them
Depending on someone else to meet your needs often means you have trouble meeting them on your own.
Attachments typically develop for this very reason. If you don’t feel secure, loved, or accepted on your own, you’ll look for someone who can offer comfort and security and help you feel less alone.
Unfortunately, relying too much on support from someone else doesn’t teach you how to meet these needs yourself.
If the relationship or friendship doesn’t work out, or other commitments or relationships temporarily prevent that person from meeting your needs, you might feel completely at a loss.
“What would I do without them?” you might wonder. Your fear of losing them might become so intense it manifests in problematic behaviors, like digging into their past or keeping constant tabs on their social media activity.
The relationship is unbalanced
Healthy relationships demonstrate balance and interdependence.
Interdependence represents a middle ground between independence and dependence. Interdependent partners can fulfill many of their own emotional needs, but they also feel comfortable turning to each other when in need of support.
Partners who are fully independent might have trouble reaching out to each other when they need help, while a dependent partner might always ask for help instead of trying to handle things on their own.
In an unhealthy attachment, one person typically looks to another for emotional support, usually without offering much in return. The partner who consistently provides support without getting what they need may feel drained, resentful, and unsupported.
When to be concerned
Recognizing unhealthy attachment behaviors in yourself is the first step in making changes. Signs of attachment disorders may vary based on the type of attachment disorder.
Reactive attachment disorder (RAD) may cause the following symptoms:
- avoiding or being unable to form close relationships
- inability to experience positive emotion
- expressing anger toward or withdrawing from those who try to get close to you
If you recognize these patterns, ask yourself whether your attachment is causing problems in your life or relationships.
If you believe your attachment to someone is less than healthy, you can do a few things to address this yourself.
First, consider some potential reasons behind insecure attachment, such as:
- fear of being alone
- emptiness and insecurity when not in a relationship
- vaguely defined sense of self
Once you have a better idea of these underlying triggers, you can begin exploring solutions:
- Dedicating some time to self-discovery can help you reconnect with your personal identity.
- Creating time for yourself to do things you enjoy can help alone time feel more rewarding than scary.
- Working to build and strengthen positive relationships with friends and family can help you feel secure even without a romantic partner.
Keep in mind, though, attachment issues often begin in childhood. Your earliest relationships can have a huge impact on how you form bonds as an adult. Insecure attachments to caregivers can result in patterns that keep repeating in your relationships.
These patterns can be hard to address on your own, but support from a mental health professional can help.
In therapy, you can:
- work to understand your attachment style
- learn healthier relationship skills
- develop a stronger sense of self
- explore helpful strategies for meeting your own needs
Below are some frequently asked questions about emotional attachment.
What is an emotional attachment?
An emotional attachment is a strong, loving connection between two people. It can be between friends, family members, or romantic partners.
What are the different types of emotional attachment?
There are three main types of emotional attachments: secure, anxious, and avoidant. There’s also a newer, fourth type called disorganized. Secure attachment represents a healthy balance of independence and dependence, while anxious, avoidant, and disorganized attachment styles are less healthy and may be characterized by fear of abandonment or difficulty trusting others.
What are the signs of an unhealthy emotional attachment?
There are several signs that your emotional attachment to someone might be less than healthy. These include feeling anxious or lonely when your partner or friends are busy, worrying they may leave you, and giving up your own plans to accommodate them.
How can I break an unhealthy emotional attachment?
If you believe your attachment to someone is less than healthy, you can do a few things to address this yourself. First, consider some potential reasons behind the attachment, such as fear of being alone or insecurity.
Once you have a better idea of these underlying triggers, you can begin exploring solutions, such as dedicating some time to self-discovery or working to build positive relationships with other people. However, keep in mind that attachment issues often begin in childhood and can be hard to address on your own. Support from a mental health professional can help.
Emotional attachments are a normal aspect of human relationships. Friends and loved ones provide emotional support, which can have a positive impact on physical and mental health.
Asking yourself if you offer emotional support as well as receive it can help you determine whether your attachments are mostly healthy.
Have you noticed some signs of unhealthy attachment in your relationships? A therapist can offer guidance and support as you begin exploring these patterns.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.
Identifying Signs and Letting Go
The emotional bonds you form with other people are essential to your mental health. Healing from relationships that hurt you can make a difference.
Attachment refers to the connections and relationships you hold with others. The quality of these bonds is often a result of the early relationships you had with your primary caregivers.
Understanding whether or not your attachment style is unhealthy can help you start your healing path toward stronger and more fulfilling relationships.
Psychoanalyst John Bowlby developed attachment theory in the 1950s. The theory explores the relationship between the bond you formed with your first caregivers and how it affects your relationships throughout life.
In sum, attachment theory says that if you had a secure and safe relationship as a baby with your parents, you’ll tend to form secure relationships with everyone else.
If, on the hand, your caregivers were not reliable or did not attend appropriately to your needs as a baby, you might tend to establish anxious or avoidant relationships as an adult.
Anxious and avoidant relationships are considered unhealthy or insecure attachments. They can often lead to relationships that cause you great anxiety, distress, or emotional pain.
Alternatively, you can also form attachments to objects. These attachment objects can play a role in how safe you feel. For example, a security blanket can help a toddler feel comforted and secure in the absence of a caregiver. As an adult, you could form an attachment to food for the same reason.
You could form these attachments to objects as a way to avoid certain emotions or feelings. When this is the case, this is considered an unhealthy object attachment.
General signs of an unhealthy attachment include:
- using a relationship, object, or job to define your sense of worth
- relying on others for approval
- having a hard time imagining life without the other person or without an object
- neglecting your basic needs to prioritize someone else’s
When you have developed an anxious attachment style, you may tend to show these signs in relationships:
- feeling or being perceived as needy
- codependency tendencies
- tendency to act in jealous ways
- difficulty managing alone time or not being in a romantic relationship
- feeling unworthy of being loved
- fear of emotional and physical abandonment
- difficulty trusting others
- constantly looking for reassurance and validation
When you have an avoidant attachment, you will tend to show these signs in relationships:
- fear of intimacy
- emotional unavailability
- difficulty forming new or lasting relationships
- relying on yourself and believing you don’t need anyone’s love or support
- difficulty expressing feelings
If you feel you tend to form unhealthy attachments, consider these tips to help you work on yourself:
1.Identifying your attachment style
To be more specific in your healing journey, try to identify your attachment style first.
This will help you become more aware of which thoughts, emotions, and behaviors are unhealthy.
Try to explore instances where you’ve attached your self-worth to people, jobs, material objects, or something else.
Consider writing examples of unhealthy relationships you’ve held and how they’ve affected you.
Working with a therapist can provide you with actionable strategies for changing your attachment style and forming more secure relationships.
A mental health professional can also help you understand the root of your tendency to form unhealthy attachments, and how that’s affected your life as an adult.
Emotionally focused therapy (EFT) has been found effective when working on unhealthy attachment styles.
3. Focusing on self-discovery and growth
Taking time to explore your values, needs, and beliefs can help you define yourself outside of your relationship.
Developing self-respect and awareness can support your healing process.
These exercises can help you power your self-discovery journey:
- journaling with prompts
- practicing intentional living
- grounding exercises
- identifying self-sabotaging behaviors
- setting boundaries
If you’re in a significant relationship, whether it’s a romantic partnership, family relation, or friendship, and you believe it’s worth exploring how you relate to each other, these tips may help:
1.Identifying each person’s attachment style
Consider starting again by identifying each of your attachment styles and how they become evident in the way you relate to each other.
Try to discuss the differences, if any, in how you navigate significant bonds and what you expect of each other.
2.Seeking professional support
Couples or family therapy can be a great tool when exploring the dynamics of a relationship.
A mental health professional can help you express how you feel, identify those behaviors that may be hurting one or both people, and develop skills to manage these challenges.
Open and honest communication is key in any relationship.
By pledging to be fully present and openly communicate with the other person, you can address any challenges while feeling safe and supported. That’ll also help prevent endless arguments that damage the bond and may contribute to feelings of emotional insecurity.
Learning to express emotions in a constructive way may also become a useful resource for when things get heated.4. Establishing boundaries
Working together to set boundaries in the relationship can help each person retain their sense of self while feeling safe when attending to their own needs.
Establishing boundaries may start with identifying those behaviors you won’t tolerate, and expressing how you feel about those to the other person.
5. Letting go
Sometimes, when you explore yourself and the relationship, you may find there are a few reasons the relationship has become unhealthy.
If you can’t find a way to manage or solve these dynamics, or one or both people are unwilling to change, the best next step might be ending the connection.
How do you know when it’s time to move on from an unhealthy attachment?
Consider these situations when trying to decide whether or not you want to continue working on the bond or you may be ready to let go:
- One or both people are unwilling to make positive changes.
- You’re in a relationship with a controlling partner who isn’t aware or is unwilling to explore solutions.
- One or both people’s needs go consistently unmet.
- Boundaries are persistently crossed or ignored.
- You experience physically or emotionally abusive behaviors.
- You’re systematically ignoring or neglecting your own needs and wants.
- Your efforts and support strategies aren’t working to heal the attachment.
The way you navigate your adult relationships is often related to the early bonds you formed with your caregivers.
If your guardians consistently cared for your needs as a baby, it’s likely you developed a healthy and secure attachment style.
If they, on the other hand, weren’t consistent with your care or didn’t respond to your emotional needs, you might have developed an anxious or avoidant attachment. These are considered unhealthy attachments because of the distress they may cause you.
But it’s possible to change attachment styles and heal or end those bonds that hurt you. It may start with self-awareness and continue with boundaries, self-care, and professional support.
4 types of unhealthy attachment: how to recognize them and what to do next
It seems that all modern parents know about the theory of attachment: it is important for a child to have “their adult” nearby in order to develop safely and calmly. But sometimes circumstances develop in such a way that attachment is formed incorrectly. Psychologist of the Izmailovo family center Natalia Plotnikova explains what behavior indicates an unhealthy attachment and why it is dangerous.
After birth, a child's attachment is formed to the one who cares for him - soothes, puts him to bed, feeds, bathes. This is a protective behavior that gives the infant a chance to survive. A secure (secure) attachment is formed in a child when an attentive and responsive adult responds to needs and helps to cope with fear, hunger, cold, anxiety and discomfort.
If an adult is unable to show sensitivity, a broken, painful attachment develops in a child. It is also commonly referred to as attachment trauma. Several types of such injuries are identified:
- Anxious (ambivalent, toxic) attachment.
- Avoidant attachment.
- Multiple loss.
- Loyalty conflict.
1. Anxious (ambivalent, toxic) attachment
It manifests itself in the fact that the child does not let go of his mother at the same time and at the same time is afraid of her, shows aggression towards her. Any parting is a strong stress, the child cannot calm down for a long time, and it is almost impossible to switch his attention to something else. The mother must always be in sight.
But when she returns, the child may continue to cry or show aggression towards her (spit, wave, hit). Parting for a child with this type of attachment is a big stress, and he shows it with his whole appearance, his behavior.
This attachment is formed when the mother gives the child conflicting reactions to the same situation. For example, he picks him up to calm him down and cradles him, but he gets annoyed and starts screaming at the child, as he does not calm down for a long time. On the one hand, the mother demonstrates a security situation, the child relaxes, and on the other hand, it frightens him. The child is lost and does not understand the reaction of the mother.
Possible difficulties in the future:
- there is an attitude: “The world is dangerous!”, “No one can be trusted!”;
- there is a fear of losing a loved one, and this leads to the risk of building dependent and co-dependent relationships in adulthood, often with pathological jealousy and persecution of the object of love;
- low self-esteem, self-doubt, inferiority complex;
- shows a lack of curiosity, desire to know the world, joy from new discoveries.
2. Avoidant attachment
Manifested in the fact that the child does not protest when his mother leaves him. He may not even notice it, going about his business. When his mother returns, he turns away, does not look at her, and leaves. Such attachment is formed when the mother provokes the separation of the child too early - she makes him understand that he must cope with his problems, fears and discomfort on his own. The child quickly learns to suppress his feelings, which often leads to psychosomatic manifestations: nausea, dizziness, abdominal pain, poor sleep.
Possible difficulties in the future:
- “self-denial”, “self-dislike”, ignoring one's needs, desires and feelings;
- fear of rejection, and consequently avoidance of close relationships;
- formation of dependencies of all kinds;
- the appearance of a tendency to psychosomatic diseases.
3. Multiple loss: “There is a mother, but there is no mother”
That is, physically the mother exists, but for some reason does not devote time to the child. The kid loses his mother every time she leaves him. He forms an attachment to another person (grandmother, nanny) and loses it again when his mother returns.
Multiple loss is formed when a child has an attachment to an adult, but it is constantly interrupted. For example, a mother often lies in the hospital, or the child was sent to kindergarten early or a nanny was hired to spend most of her time with him, and the mother wants the child to love only her. Then the mother often changes nannies, as the child becomes attached to them. The kid has to form a new attachment to a new nanny every time.
Potential future challenges:
- the worldview “there are no irreplaceable people”, “there is no person - there is a function, and any trained person can perform a function”;
- natural charm is directed to the use of other people: “even a tuft of wool from a black sheep”, “a naked shirt from the world along a thread”;
- there is a fear of close relationships: "I do not need relationships, I am an independent person. "
4. Conflict of loyalty
It manifests itself in the fact that the child does not know how to respond and whose demands to support - mom or dad (grandmother). The child is lost, tries to please both parents, but often experiences stress and shows violent emotional reactions.
Such painful attachment arises when parental attitudes, demands and sanctions diverge. At the same time, mom and dad are not necessarily divorced. Such situations often occur in complete families. The difference in requirements, sanctions and views on the same situation leads the child to confusion.
Possible difficulties in the future:
- distrust of the world: “the world is so cruel and fickle”;
- fear of making decisions and evaluating situations: "it will resolve itself";
- protest behavior: "I don't know how to do it, but I don't agree!";
- dependence on the group: "He who is not with us is against us!"
The type of attachment is formed in early childhood and is transmitted "by inheritance": we repeat in our attitude towards the child the behavior that our parents had towards us, and our children - the attitude that we had towards them. It is considered impossible to change your type of attachment, but you can adjust your attitude and build a harmonious relationship with your children.
You can find a way out of any, even the most difficult situation. Do not be afraid to seek help from family centers. Here you will be helped, supported in difficult times. Contacts of the capital's family centers can be found on the portal myfamilycenter.moscow.
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How to understand that you have an unhealthy attachment to a person
You feel attachment to certain objects, places, people - this is normal. This happens when some object or subject plays an important role in your life. This is especially true for relationships with people - you want to spend as much time with a loved one as possible, emotionally invest in communication with him, find common hobbies. But it's important to be careful, because over-attachment can develop into a psychological addiction over time and turn your relationship into an unhealthy one.
This happens both in love and in friendship. The way you build an interaction with a person greatly affects the quality of your communication, your feeling of comfort and level of trust. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to determine where the line between norm and obsession lies. Especially if you do not have experience of strong and healthy relationships. We have collected several signs that will help you realize in time that you have an unhealthy attachment to a person. The sooner you realize this, the more likely it is that you will have time to change your behavior and save important relationships for you.
1. You can't imagine your life without a person
Have you ever looked at a loved one and feel that you can't live without his presence in your life? It seems that if he disappears, you simply will not be able to improve your life, return to a hobby, build relationships with anyone else. So, this is an alarming bell, which indicates your unhealthy attachment to a person. The situation is especially sad if, when talking about a possible separation, you begin to have suicidal thoughts.
It is perfectly normal to love and respect a loved one, because he occupies an important place in your life. However, you must be aware that you are two individuals who will not necessarily remain in the same good relationship until death. You are not dependent on each other and should not put each other first. If suddenly a person decides to stop communicating with you or relationships, your life will remain the same - you will work, engage in hobbies, communicate with other people, but now without him. Focus on yourself, not on anyone else, and don't go to extremes.
2. You can't concentrate on yourself
When you are in a romantic relationship, you want to spend as much time as possible with your girlfriend. You notice how your mood rises when you are near the object of your love. You can talk for hours, watch movies, walk and get to know each other. Of course, you develop a certain interdependence, and at the beginning of a relationship you concentrate not on yourself, but on your partner. Sometimes this obsession can last for months or even years.
If such a state prevents you from leading a normal life - doing your job well, maintaining communication with your family and friends, continuing to pursue hobbies and achieving your goals, your attachment can hardly be called healthy. Relationships should not stand above everything that was important before them. You still need money to provide for your existence, career growth is still important in order to be realized, and so on. Think about what you will have left if your loved one suddenly decides to leave.
Focus on yourself first of all - this is not selfishness, but common sense. Spend time with the one you love, but do not forget that you have your own life, which you also need to pay attention to.
10 ways to get rid of painful attachments and become freer
3. You forget about the existence of other people in your life
One of the most common mistakes of a person who falls in love is obsession with his partner. When you have a girlfriend, you want to spend as much time with her as possible, and you may forget that there are other important people in your life, such as your family and friends. Your environment, which you needed before meeting her, fades into the background. You often do not have enough time or desire to call your loved ones, meet with them, listen to their complaints about problems. You seem to disappear from their lives and appear there only when your conscience starts to eat you or you are going through a breakup.
This is a great example of how an unhealthy attachment to a person changes your life. You focus on the girl and forget about everyone else. Try to separate yourself from it: you are not one whole, you are two personalities, each of which has its own life, its own social circle, its own hobbies. You should be able to have a good time not only with each other, but also separately. Meet your family and friends more often and do the hobbies that you liked before you met the girl.
4. You are jealous of other people
It is also necessary to worry that your attachment is unhealthy when you harbor selfish feelings. You can perceive a person as your property, consider yourself special and give yourself some privileges, be jealous of your friend or your girlfriend for other people. Sometimes your jealousy can even be shocking - you start to get angry even when your loved one is talking to his friends or relatives without you.
You begin to think that the other person's life should revolve around you and that they have no moral right to share their time and attention with anyone other than you. The sooner you realize that your obsession is toxic to a person, the more likely it is that you will be able to change your behavior and save your relationship.