Is Relationship Attachment Unhealthy? How To Detach In Relationships

Got someone in your life you need to detach from? Did you let someone get too close, and now you want some emotional distance? Have you become too emotionally dependent on another person and now realize the error of your ways and want to make a change? If so, this article is for you.

No matter how long someone has been in your life or how intertwined your lives have become, sometimes we need to turn things around and detach emotionally from someone. Perhaps we’ve become too emotionally dependent and attached in a relationship and struggle to cope when the other person is not around.

Maybe we’ve let them become too much of an influence, and we want to regain a sense of independence. Perhaps their behavior has taken an unexpected turn, and now they don’t treat you as lovingly and kindly as before.

Whatever the reason, detaching from someone to whom we’ve become deeply attached can be challenging. Though challenging, it’s not impossible. Below we’ll explore why we become so attached to other people and exactly what we can do to finally understand how to detach from someone.

Understanding emotional detachment

Understand that detaching from someone does not mean that you no longer love them or care about them. It means creating some distance and regaining your emotional independence so that your mental health and emotional well-being are not dependent on the actions and behavior of the other person.

In a healthy relationship, both partners are healthily attached and equally healthily detached. They can both comfortably rely and depend on each other, but their connection does not define their own life, and they can easily survive without each other.

Their union is based on mutual trust, respect, and understanding of each other’s need for independence. They do not try to own each other or prioritize the other’s needs above their own. They look out for each other but allow for space and room to breathe in the relationship. Their mutual understanding and respect for each other’s independence keeps their relationship healthy and strong.

In an unhealthy relationship, one or both partners are too attached. They rely on the other person to make them see the brighter side of life, feel happy, worthy, valid and acknowledged, and they struggle to cope if their partner fails to constantly provide for those needs.

They are overly concerned with getting their needs met and rely on their partner to serve that function. They might claim to respect and love each other, but in reality, one or both partners uses the other to fill a void or cover up an attachment wound that they haven’t yet healed through conscious inner work.

How to detach, healthy emotional detachment, mental health

Why is attachment unhealthy?

The attachment itself isn’t unhealthy – it’s a natural human behavior and serves an important survival function in childhood. However, it can become distorted and misplaced in our adult relationships, and that’s when it poses a mental health and emotional health risk.

Some degree of attachment is completely normal in a relationship. Still, the important thing to remember is that your partner is an entirely separate person and is not there to fulfill all of your wants and needs. They might serve you well and happily make sure that your wants and needs are met, but they must not be defined by that role.

“Any kind of relationship which imagines that we can fulfill ourselves through another is bound to be very tricky. Ideally, people would come together already feeling fulfilled within themselves and just, therefore, appreciating that in the other, rather than expecting the other to supply that sense of well-being.” – Tenzin Palmo, author

When we come to expect our partners to always be there for us, to keep us happy and fulfilled, and to take away our pain, we set ourselves up to become deeply hurt and disappointed when they inevitably fail to keep up. No one can fulfill all of your needs – we’re programmed to be social creatures and get our needs met through community and our own agency rather than through one person only.

Related: How to Let Go of Emotional Baggage From Relationships and Moving on

Understanding attachment

The way we attach to partners in our adult relationships usually echoes the attachment style we learned as children. If you learned a secure attachment style, you learned to trust in the world around you and have hope that you would get your needs met successfully.

Secure attachment

In your adult relationships, you find it relatively easy to trust your partner. You have no problem with intimacy and vulnerability in your relationship, and you trust that even if it doesn’t work out, you’ll survive. That’s not to say that the end of the relationship won’t be upsetting, but that your mental and emotional health and well-being are not dependent on the success of your relationship with that other person.

Insecure attachment

Alternatively, you may have learned an insecure attachment style. This style develops when a child does not learn that they can trust the world to get their needs met. Their primary caregiver may have been inconsistent with meeting their needs or may have neglected the child altogether.

Unlike secure attachment, insecure attachment styles manifest in adult relationships as fear of rejection, a lack of trust, and difficulty with intimacy and vulnerability. There are two categories of insecure attachment – ambivalent attachment and avoidant attachment.

Ambivalent-insecure attachment

Children who develop an ambivalent-attachment style may face the following attachment-related difficulties in their adult relationships:

Jeremy Holmes, the author of John Bowlby and Attachment Theory, explains, “It is though the insecurely attached person is saying to themselves: ‘cling as hard as you can to people – they are likely to abandon you; hang on to them and hurt them if they show signs of going away, then they may be less likely to do so.’ This particular pattern of insecure attachment is known as ‘ambivalent insecurity.'”

Avoidant-insecure attachment

Children who develop an avoidant attachment style typically experience the following attachment-related issues in their relationships:

  • Reluctance to be intimate and vulnerable
  • Fear of rejection
  • The dismissiveness of their partner

Related: What is Relationship Anxiety? Why Do I Experience it and How to Solve it

Emotional attachment and love addiction

In Facing Love Addiction, renowned lecturer and counselor, and researcher in the field of childhood trauma and emotional dysfunction, Pia Mellody describes two types of insecurely attached adults – the love addict and the love avoidant.

Are you a love addict?

Love addicts seek a fantasy relationship. They tend to enter relationships out of a deep desire to fill an emotional void that an inconsistent or neglectful primary caregiver may have left. They project a ‘hero’ or ‘savior’ role onto their partner – the archetypal knight in shining armor who can sweep them off their feet and take away their emotional pain.

The love addict is typically clingy and obsessive with their partner. They fear abandonment, so they go to great lengths to keep them around. They are emotionally attached to the care and affection offered by their partner and tend to feel anxious and insecure when care and affection are not readily available.

The end of a relationship is an incredibly difficult experience for the love addict. Their attachment wound reopens when their partner leaves. They might obsess and, in extreme cases, go so far as to stalk their partner on social media or in real life. Eventually, they recover but usually re-enter the cycle of addiction with the same or another partner.

Are you a love avoidant?

If the love addict seeks a knight in shining armor, the love avoidant plays that role. People tend to become love avoidants following a sense of overwhelm in childhood.

They may have grown up with a primary caregiver who did not respect them but instead smothered them with intrusive behavior. Alternatively, they have been reprimanded for expressing their wants and needs, the punishment being neglect or abandonment.

In adult relationships, love avoidants go to great lengths to avoid vulnerability and emotional intimacy. It’s not that they don’t desire these things – they do – but their fear of emotional overwhelm (an echo of their primary relationship with their caregiver) prevents them from opening up as much as they would like to.

The love avoidant will do their best to keep their partner happy, but only because they are uncomfortable with big displays of emotion. They try to give their partner everything they want because they don’t want to deal with the confrontation that would ensue otherwise.

Eventually, the love avoidant is likely to get tired of maintaining the status quo in the relationship and may leave their partner all of a sudden. If not suddenly, they’ll slowly pull away from their partner, becoming emotionally cold and distant, which is agony for the love addict.

How to practice emotional detachment in relationships

“Attachment is the great fabricator of illusions; reality can be obtained only by someone who is detached.” – Simone Weil

As mentioned earlier, practicing emotional detachment from someone you love does not mean that you no longer love them. Detachment means being able to get involved and enjoy the passions of life without getting caught in them – it is not about renouncing life’s passions altogether. You can want to detach and still want to maintain the relationship.

You might want to emotionally detach from someone you love because you’ve noticed that your dependence and reliance on them has become unhealthy and is making it difficult to move forward with your life. If so, congratulations. Such a realization is a sign that you’ve gained helpful and positive insight into your behavior and that you’re willing to work on yourself to live a happier and healthier life.

Understand your attachment style

People don’t fit neatly into boxes. There may be times when you exhibit the characteristics of love addiction and others where you take on the traits of the love avoidant. The same applies to your attachment style. Rather than being completely one type of attachment or another, you’re more likely to experience a combination of secure, ambivalent-insecure, and avoidant-insecure.

Still, one of the most life-changing lessons you can learn is to be able to recognize your most dominant attachment style and apply your knowledge to your thoughts and feelings when you’re in a relationship. Knowledge is power – the more you understand yourself and your dominant attachment style, the easier it becomes to transcend those learned and maladaptive behavior patterns and live your life free from the chains of unhealthy attachment.

The Attachment Project offers a free online quiz to help you discover which attachment style is most dominant in your life. Trauma expert Diane Poole Heller also offers an attachment style questionnaire on her website for free.

Bear in mind that free online quizzes and questionnaires may help you get a general idea of your attachment style and behavioral tendencies in relationships. Still, you’re a unique and complex person and cannot be defined by an online questionnaire.

Educate yourself on the nature of attachment by reading about it, discussing the concept with friends, or speaking to a counselor or therapist. As with all mental health issues and concerns, psychoeducation is a powerful tool to help us unlock the door of our mental prison.

Related: Abandonment Issues: Definition, Causes, Symptoms and Treatment

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Seek sources of fulfillment outside your relationship

Healthy relationships are those in which partners can trust each other to fulfill some of their wants and needs, but they don’t completely rely on each other for everything. Over-reliance on a partner for personal fulfillment is a sign of unhealthy attachment and is sure to lead to relationship burnout.

To effectively and healthily detach from obsessive and clingy attachment and over-reliance on a partner, seek sources of fulfillment outside of the relationship. Focus on your unique passions, hobbies, and interests, and commit to making time for yourself without your partner.

If you can organize your wants and needs so that you fulfill them through your agency and independence, you’ll make the relationship stronger. Both you and your partner can live separate lives and be happy but also feel happy and fulfilled within the relationship when you are together.

Related: Trust Vs Mistrust: Learn About Psychosocial Development Stage 1

Let go of unrealistic expectations

What does a relationship mean to you? Do you expect your partner to always make you happy? Should they always be there for you whenever you need them? Should they always be in a good mood? One of the most important things to remember if you want to have happy relationships is that you can’t control others, and it’s unfair to place unrealistic expectations on them.

Letting go of unrealistic expectations not only helps you have happier and healthier relationships – but it also helps you detach emotionally from your relationships. If you can stop holding your partner to an exaggerated ideal and instead allow them to be themselves, then you’re less likely to feel hurt and disappointed when they make a mistake.

 “Hoping for the best, prepared for the worst, and unsurprised by anything in between. – Maya Angelou

We’re human, so we all make mistakes. Think about how nice it would feel knowing that your partner doesn’t expect you to be perfect all the time. Can you offer that to your partner? More importantly, can you offer that to yourself?

Related: How to Stop Being Insecure in a Relationship: Rebuild Your Self Esteem

Practice mindfulness and living in the moment

Emotional detachment is a powerful life skill. Just like any other skill, it can be learned and developed. When you learn to practice detachment, you open yourself up to a broad range of benefits. Not only do you reduce the anxiety and suffering you might experience through a relationship – you reduce your anxiety and suffering overall.

Mindful detachment is the process of no longer reacting to thoughts and feelings like a puppet but becoming their compassionate witness. It is about recognizing thoughts and feelings, identifying them, accepting them, and then compassionately letting them go.

“If you want to be happy, do not dwell in the past, do not worry about the future, focus on living fully in the present.” Roy T. Bennett

Mindfulness practice and choosing to live in the moment involves centering your attention on your breath and the here and now. It is a technique taught by meditators and therapists and is useful for anybody who wants to live their life with more presence and groundedness.

There is something wonderfully bold and liberating about saying yes to our entire imperfect and messy life. – Tara Brach

Practice relaxing, taking some deep breaths and focus on being in the moment. Accept yourself for who you are and let those negative thoughts and feelings go. Choose to live in the moment, taking a pause and showing kindness to yourself will allow you to learn how to detach from things in your life that don’t serve your highest well-being.

Related: How to Recharge Yourself: Important Ways to Recharge Your Body and Mind

Conclusion

The origin of suffering is seen by some as attachment. When we desire things or people to be a certain way, we’re bound to feel disappointed, hurt, and upset when those expectations are unmet.

We can’t control other people, and we can’t control what happens in our life. You may have been raised by a neglectful or smothering caregiver and developed an insecure attachment style, and now your adult relationships are a source of pain and suffering. The attachment style you learned was not your fault, but remember that while we can’t control what happens to us, we can control how we respond.

Starting today, keep in mind the tips and advice on how to detach outlined above – self-understanding, sources of fulfillment, letting go of expectations and practicing mindfulness as well as being in the present. The more you practice detaching from people and things, the more you can get passionately and wholeheartedly involved in living a content and full life.

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