Love vs Attachment in Romantic Relationships - What's the Difference?
Being in a relationship with someone comes with many exciting possibilities, challenges to overcome, and new opportunities for connection.
But for some, relationships can bring up difficult emotions and unhealthy coping mechanisms.
While most people want a healthy relationship rooted in love, sometimes relationships are based on attachment instead. Learning about the difference between love and attachment can help shed light on frustrating relationship dynamics.
As trauma therapists, we at Taproot Psychology work with many clients who feel trapped in cycles of unhealthy relationships and don't know why. Here are some ways to help you tell the difference between love and attachment in romantic relationships.
Is It Love or Attachment?
Attachment styles are internalized beliefs about how to relate to others in intimate relationships. Someone's attachment style dictates their behaviour, communication level, and sense of overall security within a relationship.
Insecure attachment styles tend to result from neglect or inadequate comfort from a caregiver in childhood. They can also develop from trauma - such as infidelity - in a previous romantic relationship. Insecure attachments often lead to overarching themes of control, fear, and mistrust in a relationship.
If you have an insecure attachment style, it's not your fault. Attachment styles are frequently unconscious. They result from previous relational wounding and are a natural attempt at staying safe, secure, and in control.
But when left unchecked, these attachment styles follow people from relationship to relationship and wreak unconscious havoc in their love lives.
Relationships built on love, on the other hand, feel open, safe, and trusting. Each partner's behaviours are rooted in a genuine desire for connection rather than fear of vulnerability.
So how can you tell the difference between real love and attachment?
The Difference Between Love and Attachment
Love and attachment are not the same. Let's take a closer look at both love and attachment and how to tell the difference.
Love is about mutual connection, affection, and trust with your partner.
When you're in a relationship built on love instead of attachment, you feel grateful for your relationship and your partner. You also understand that you are responsible for your own happiness. You know that if the relationship were to end, you'd grieve but ultimately be okay.
In a relationship built on love, you ask one another for help and support. Your partner is a source of emotional support and comfort. But they aren't your only source of support and comfort.
Your sense of safety does not depend on your partner, and you have healthy coping mechanisms and tools to regulate your own emotions.
In a relationship built on love, you are:
Trusting and secure in your partner's love for you. You aren't constantly worried about being abandoned, and you aren't concerned about them getting too close to you. You accept their love and love them in return.
Genuinely interested in connecting with your partner. You are interested in your partner and want to connect with them. Your interactions and behaviours are based on this desire for connection rather than insecurity or fear.
Independent from your partner. Though you share common interests and values, your identity is not tied to your partner. You encourage one another to maintain healthy individuality in your relationship and participate in your own interests and hobbies.
Able to grow on your own and together. You are not threatened by your growth, nor by your partner's growth. You feel secure knowing that individual development is natural and healthy and does not mean the relationship will end.
Mutually reliant on your partner. Without shutting down or being overly dependent, you can rely on your partner and let them rely on you. This mutual reliance feels healthy, safe, and roughly equal.
Willing to compromise on important decisions and behaviours. Decision-making and conflict lead to open communication and compromise. You each trust that the other has your best interests at heart, and you feel safe being vulnerable and honest.
A relationship based on love rather than attachment feels trusting, safe and open. When conflict arises, each partner feels safe expressing themselves and their emotions. Because of this trust and safety, there is an overall sense of ease rather than tension or chaos.
A relationship built on attachment can feel stressful, erratic, and like a constant tug-of-war with your partner. There are four types of attachment, and each of these types shows up differently in a relationship.
Someone with a secure attachment tends to feel attuned to their own needs, confident in their relationship, and comfortable expressing their emotions. They trust their partner and aren't afraid of close emotional connections. They also aren't scared of being on their own.
Someone with an avoidant attachment tends to desire independence and lots of space from their partner. They may feel smothered by relationships, preferring to rely on themselves. Emotional unavailability and distance are hallmarks of this attachment style. Emotional closeness and expression feel threatening to someone with an avoidant attachment. It often results in them shutting down or retreating into themselves.
Someone with an anxious-preoccupied attachment has a deep-seated fear of abandonment. They feel insecure about their relationship and worry that their partner will leave them. Therefore, they often feel the urge to seek constant validation and can come across as "clingy" or "needy".
Someone with a fearful-avoidant attachment tends to crave relational intimacy and avoid it simultaneously. They exhibit both a deep need for love and an aversion to it. Someone with this attachment style has difficulty regulating and expressing their emotions.
The final three attachment styles are considered insecure attachments. Regardless of which style dominates the relationship, a relationship built primarily on insecure attachment carries an underlying theme of insecurity, fear, and mistrust. This is because it feels like the health of your relationship hinges on the behaviours and actions of your partner.
These feelings of fear, mistrust, and lack of safety clash directly with a love-based relationship's sense of openness and trust. Controlling and fear-based behaviours tend to run the show in relationships built on attachment.
Whether you're worried about being abandoned or about someone wanting to get too close to you, your sense of safety and happiness seems to depend on your partner. You may not know how to regulate your own emotions without constant validation from your partner. You may feel like you need the relationship in order to feel whole or safe.
Or you may feel like you need to shut your partner out in order to avoid emotional closeness. You may not be able to rely on your partner at all for fear of vulnerability. You may feel angry or stressed by your partner's need for attention or emotional support.
There also may be an overarching feeling of possessiveness, control, or manipulation to maintain a sense of safety within the relationship. As a result, a partnership built on insecure attachment can feel like a constant cycle of fear and reactivity. Such relationships often feel stressful, unpredictable, and unhealthy.
Therapy Can Help You Navigate Your Attachment Style
If you think your relationship is based more on attachment than love, you're not alone.
Understanding your attachment style - and your partner's attachment style - is a crucial factor in maintaining a healthy and happy relationship.
Although the cycle of insecure attachment styles can feel impossible to break, you can find freedom from them and work toward healthier relationships.
Therapy can help you understand and navigate your attachment style. It can help you find tools to build a relationship on love instead of attachment.
We at Taproot Psychology are here to help. Together, we'll work to shed light on your attachment style, give you the tools to pursue a healthy relationship based on mutual love, and help you break free from cycles of relational pain.
We offer both talking therapy and EMDR therapy for relational issues. Contact us to set up a free consultation to see how therapy at Taproot Psychology could be right for you.