Have you ever been in a relationship that you know isn’t right for you, but you just can’t let him go?
That basically sums up my relationships in my twenties. In retrospect, it was a time in my life when I was really struggling.
When I was growing up, the messages giving to me by my mother and grandmothers were that if I wanted to be loved, I had to be loveable.
And that if I wasn’t being loved in my relationships, then there must have been something that I was doing (or not doing) that was making me unloveable.
So I spent the better part of each relationship trying to be who my boyfriend wanted me to be.
As a result, I had never let myself be who I truly was when I was dating.
I spent a lot of time “proving” I was lovable.
And it was devastating to me when I wasn’t loved back.
I realize now that I was really confused about what it meant to love and be loved. I had been confusing love and emotional attachment and I had no idea then what the difference was.
A common problem that occurs for singles is the experience of a relationship ending but the resulting feelings of emptiness and loss continuing for many months or longer.
They know perhaps the relationship was not healthy, or that they are better off without the other person but they still feel “hooked” despite knowing the person wasn’t right for them. They might also know their relationship requirements were not being met, but they cannot get the person “out” of them.
This problem can be true for the breakup of committed relationships as well. Getting a divorce does not necessarily erase your love for, or your attachment to, your ex.
In my experience and opinion, what makes breaking up really difficult and painful to do is more than love; it is emotional attachment.
What Is Emotional Attachment?
Emotional attachment can mean many things, ranging from emotional affection to physical affixation.
Psychologists have whole theories around attachment and identify clinical disorders caused by it. For our purposes, though, we can define attachment simply as a “strong emotional bond.”
We humans get attached. Sometimes we get attached to objects like cars, houses, money, books, clothes, etc.
We get attached to routines (e.g. washing your hands), beliefs (e.g. killing is wrong), sensations and experiences (e.g. the taste of sugar), activities (e.g. work), and people.
In the extreme case, sometimes our emotional attachment can be an addiction.
How Are Love and Emotional Attachment Different?
Love and attachment seem pretty interconnected, but they are distinctly different.
Without going into highly debatable explanations and theories, I would say that love is a positive feeling toward something or somebody, and attachment is an emotional need for something or somebody.
The major difference is that love is a feeling directed toward the “other” (the other person, place or thing), while attachment is a self-centered—meaning based on fulfilling your need.
Needs versus Neediness
We all have needs and it’s really important that our needs are met in our relationships, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to be happy in them, right? But then what’s the difference between having needs and “being needy”?
Juxtaposing these two concepts can give us some valuable clues about creating successful relationships.
Here is what comes up for me:
1. Are normal, valid, important
2. Are present in everyone, including healthy, successful people
3. Necessary to survive and thrive
4. Best met by taking responsibility, initiative
5. Unmet needs stimulate action
6. Most effectively met by being assertive
7. Met needs results in contentment
8. Ability to get needs met tends to attract others
1. Comes from desperation, helplessness
2. Driven by emotional deficits
3. Externalized problem and solution
4. Results in helpless/victim position
5. Insatiable, always needing more
6. Results in repelling others
Quite a contrast! Needs are present in all of us, and are not a problem or sign of weakness. We need to sleep and eat, we need light to see, we need love and relationships.
Our ability to identify our needs and get them met determines our level of happiness and success.
However, neediness tends to be a sieve that will be empty regardless of how much you put into it.
In my work, I help women identify their Requirements, Functional and Emotional needs, and I coach them toward how to get those needs and requirements met in their life and relationships.
Requirements are core, basic needs that are often relationship-breakers if unmet. For example, monogamy and having children might be a relationship requirement for some people. Needs are events that must happen for you to survive and thrive.
Functional Needs are the events you need to happen for your life and relationship to function optimally, such as earning money to pay bills, helping with chores and child-rearing, etc.
Emotional Needs are what you need to feel loved, such as your partner calling if they will be late, being greeted with a hug, etc.
Occasionally, a client will express an issue with identifying their needs or requirements, interpreting doing so as a sign of weakness, pointing out the need for us to take responsibility for our needs and not rely on a partner to meet them.
While I agree with the value of taking responsibility for our needs, the reality is that we need a partner able to meet them, and the relationship may fail if there is not enough alignment or compatibility to meet each other’s needs and/or requirements.
Coming back to how needs relate to attachment…If we find that we are having a lot of difficulty letting go of a relationship that we know doesn’t work for us (a relationship in which our needs and requirements are not being met), chances are that our desire to hold on to the relationship is less about love and more about our own fears, loneliness, and sometimes desperation to fulfill our own emotional needs.
What to Do About Emotional Attachment
This is not to say that we shouldn’t have needs in a relationship or that it’s not ok to have those needs met.
The difference is, when we’re in attachment, we’re holding the other person responsible for fulfilling our needs rather than owning that responsibility ourselves.
We’re relinquishing our creative power, our resourcefulness. And that’s why it feels so difficult to let go.
We’re looking to our partner to, on some level, to make us whole.
Letting Go of Emotional Attachment
The first step to letting go of an attachment is to be clear about love versus attachment:
- Understanding the difference (e.g. attachment is based on a self-centered need and is not the same as love)
- Understanding the implications (e.g. attachment is about me and my needs)
- Understanding the consequences (e.g. if I continue to pursue a relationship that doesn’t work I’m setting myself up for failure)
- Acknowledge and honor the needs that are driving you to pursue an attachment that isn’t working by finding ways to satisfy your needs productively. It is hard to let go if doing so means falling into a chasm of pain and emptiness.
- Get the support you need to move on and pursue involvement in activities and with people that are productive for you. A coach and/or support group is great for this.
So for example, if you’re dating a separated and divorcing man and you want to have a normal social life with him like meet and hang out with him and his friends out in public but he is resistant to the idea because his divorce is pending and he worries about what his ex might do, this situation might really frustrate you. If it really frustrates you and feels like a deal-breaker for you, you might have a need for your partner to be available to date and to be able to date out in the open.
Being able to recognize our own needs, wants, and requirements is super important because that awareness can help us decide whether you’re going to be happy in that relationship.
But having needs is not the same as being needy. Being needy would be like trying to make him responsible for fulfilling that need even though he isn’t available to fulfill it.
Whereas being in non-attachment and consciously making space for the kind of love and relationship that you truly want might be recognizing that perhaps your needs aren’t being met in this relationship/situation and maybe you will be happier in a different relationship.
Non-attachment emanates from a sense of wholeness and inner resourcefulness whereas attachment ultimately stems from a sense of lack.
So if you find yourself in or bordering on attachment, bring your awareness to how you’re feel and what thoughts are coming up…what is the need that is longing to be fulfilled?
What about this relationship are you feeling attached to?
If you want step-by-step guidance on how to overcome your relationship challenges, stay true to who you are (and what you want!), and create a deeply fulfilling long-term relationship, download my free GUIDE “The Smart Girl’s Guide to Dating a Divorced (or Divorcing) Man.” Simply enter your email address BELOW to access it now:
Content of post was adapted with permission from the Relationship Coaching Institute.