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  • Writer's pictureCrystin Rice

Is it love? Or is it activated attachment?

Updated: Sep 2, 2023

You were sure this time would be different. You were heads over heals into this partner, and surely it wouldn't end up badly like the last relationship. And yet here you are again. It's just like the last time. And the time before that.

How is it that every partnership ends up feeling controlling?
Why does every partner end up lazy, leaving you to do everything?

If this feels like your story, it could be that it's not your choice in partners but rather your attachment style that is setting you up to get stuck in these patterns. That doesn't mean you're doomed to be in this cycle forever, it just means it might be worth taking a look at the difference between love and attachment.

What is love?

Love is a feeling of caring about another person's very essence. It is appreciating the qualities that make them who they are without desiring to change them. They become precious to you, and you are concerned for their well-being. We can experience love toward people, pets, and even objects.

Love is a feeling toward another. It's other-focused.

There are other emotional experiences that come into play during relationships such as infatuation and sexual attraction, but for now let's look at the role our attachment system plays.

What is attachment?

The goal of attachment is to help us feel safe and secure in relationship. Initial attachment forms between babies and their caregivers. This bond occurs when the baby reaches out for help and engages in actions that attract their caregiver toward them to meet their needs. For babies, this is most often crying and then being soothed by their caregiver's touch or meeting a physical need. For children, this can be running to a caregiver for comfort, engaging in people-pleasing in order to get their needs met, or acting out to be noticed.

Attachment is what we do to get our needs met in relationship. It's self-focused on how much we feel safe and secure with our partner.

Note: Self-focused doesn't mean selfish. A strong relationship is composed of both love and a healthy attachment system.

An activated attachment system can feel so powerful that we mistake it for love.

As we grow into adulthood and start to seek partners, our attachment system causes us to look for partners who will repeat the patterns we are familiar with from childhood - in order to feel safe and secure in the relationship. For example, if your early relationships were characterized by mutual respect and feeling emotionally seen and understood, you will be drawn toward partners who offer the same experience and be unlikely to show interest in partners who do not. If, however, your early relationships required you to use certain behaviors like people-pleasing, being over responsible, or acting out in order to get your needs met, you are likely to seek partners who will participate in those patterns because that is what you learned being safe and secure felt like.

  • For people-pleasers that might be requiring you to think like your partner in order to feel accepted.

  • For those used to taking on the responsibilities of others in order to keep the relationship working, you might be drawn to someone who wants to be taken care of or seems to need rescuing.

  • For those who may act out as a way to increase the connection, their attachment system is likely to draw them toward a partner who prefers more distance in the relationship.

It's not only your attachment system at work here; your partner's attachment system will likely be just the right shaped "puzzle piece" to fit into the patterns you are most familiar with. Then as you start to create habits in your relationship of how you seek to get your needs met and how your partner responds to that, you may start to feel dissatisfied. This can be because your attachment strategies from childhood were merely a form of survival and are not actually getting you what you need from an adult relationship. But these attachment strategies are likely the only way you know how to navigate a relationship.

Further, if your attachment needs feel unmet, it is difficult to focus on loving another person well. You are more likely to feel a need to control how your partner responds in an effort to meet your attachment needs, which generates a dependency on your partner and further increases your desperate attempts to get them to do what you want (instead of working to meet those needs yourself). This can restrict your growth as well as your partner’s as you both work harder and harder to get what you seek from each other.

As you each focus more and more on getting your needs met in the relationship, love can be pushed out and the other starts to seem selfish and unloving. Neither of you can feel safe and secure in a relationship like this. It doesn't mean love isn't possible with this person; it just means your attachment systems need some soothing first.

It is possible to discover what attachment behaviors are helping you get what you want from a relationship and what behaviors are actually making it harder for you to feel loved. A therapist can guide you through understanding how your ideas about relationship developed and help you be more successful in the strategies you chose for meeting your attachment needs.

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