Varying levels and forms of attachment differ by degree of emotional investment.
There is bonding, a natural and healthy form of attachment, which usually begins with the bond between parents and children.
Then there is attachment, a more complex connection between a person and a situation or another person. This can be both healthy and unhealthy depending on the emotional investment.
There’s also entanglement, or enmeshment, which happens in dysfunctional and abusive relationships, those rooted in trauma bonding structures.
It’s natural to become attached to people, things and situations that have become a part of your life in some way. We all have the need for emotional connections and the desire to feel supported and seen.
The challenge begins when the attachments become unhealthy; for instance when people are co-dependent and begin to feel diminished or helpless when apart from their partner. When the level of attachment reaches a need or near obsession, it shifts into entanglement and toxic bonding.
Emotional bonding is what brings us together with others, from friends to family to romantic partners. An exchange of feelings and energy marks the beginning of any relationship. In the case of healthy bonding, there is a mutual sense of trust and connectivity. Each party maintains their own sense of empowerment and individuality.
In unhealthy bonding, manipulation, fear and high levels of trauma can be connected to the attachment. This results from one or both people over-riding their inner knowing and placing their power in the hands of the other. The partners find it challenging to act independently and have a high degree of reliance on one another (or one-sided over-reliance).
This type of bond can progress to obsession, where the overly bonded person may become incapable of making decisions or taking actions, waiting in a kind of stasis for the other to rescue them from their despair. They fear making the wrong decision, so wait instead to know what the other wants.
Whether or not the fear is of a ‘real’ repercussion (such as physical abuse), or the fear of abandonment, rejection or withdrawal of resources or energy, it feels equally real. A sense of hopelessness and self-negation can arise in this type of bonding. The attached person is likely to deny or ignore their every need in the hope of pleasing the other.
How can you tell if your attachment to something or someone is healthy or unhealthy?
Ask yourself: ‘Who am I without this ____?’
This is a great question to ask when assessing different situations to see where or if you’ve formed an unhealthy attachment. The question speaks to the heart of attachment disorders: can you maintain a healthy, autonomous sense of yourself without the thing or person to which you feel attached? The healthiest answer is that you are the exact same person no matter what, with or without _______.
A healthy level of attachment is feeling emotionally connected to someone and missing their presence when they’re gone, while maintaining the capacity to care for and enjoy yourself. It’s healthy to consider how lovely it would be to share your current experience with them, because you know they’d enjoy it (but don’t need them there to enjoy yourself). This is healthy interdependence.
If, on the other hand, you find yourself unable to feel joy or take actions unless you’re with them, you’re in the realm of unhealthy. When your every thought is about another person, their well-being or their comfort to the detriment of your well-being, you have an unhealthy attachment. If you find yourself wishing to return to an abusive or toxic situation because it is familiar and somehow comforting, that’s unhealthy entanglement. You may be exhibiting signs of co-dependency.
Keep asking ‘who am I without this ____?’ and see what comes up. It may be you have to face the uncomfortable truth that you’ve put your own needs aside and ‘lost’ yourself in a connection. That’s okay, you can get yourself back. It just takes time to focus on remembering who you are.
Be clear on your needs, desires and dreams, and work towards them because they bring YOU joy. If you have an attachment disorder, this may bring up feelings of guilt and shame at first, but keep your focus on you.
Give yourself time to get to know and love yourself. This dives deeper into the idea of self-intimacy. Are you aware of your needs in every moment? Can you meet them or ask for them to be met without fear of infringing on or alienating others? Do you feel guilt over being ‘selfish’ when faced with the idea of attending to your own needs?
If you aren’t aware of your needs and how to meet them, or conscious of the fact that they matter, you’ll be quick to put them aside when in relationships (whether work, family or romantic). The idea of healthy interdependence is two (or more) independent people coming together in a connection with the capacity to meet their own needs and share ideas and energy to assist one another when necessary.
Co-dependence is at the unhealthy end of the attachment spectrum and involves one person putting their needs aside in an attempt to people-please or manage external factors to create safety and comfort for all involved. It can result in (and from) a lack of self-respect, self-love and self-intimacy. There may be deep internal shame at the root, as a result of a childhood exposed to abuse or addictions. Co-dependents don’t know themselves well (if at all) because they’ve spent their whole lives trying to manage others.
If you’re trying to assess your level of attachment to a person or situation, ask yourself if it has in some way defined who you are. If you feel you’ve poured much of yourself into the maintenance and support of the story around the situation, you may have an unhealthy attachment. Spend time getting to know and love yourself again, and learn to set clear and healthy boundaries.
Does the situation you’re in allow you time and space to nurture your dreams and desires? Here’s another perspective for looking at the underlying issue of self-knowledge. Do you still enjoy the things you used to enjoy before this situation arose? Are you able to spend time by yourself guilt-free? Have you got a solid and supportive network of friends that you’ve established outside of the connection? Do you feel you need to rush back to your work/partner/family after spending time on your own?
Having your own interests ensures you are (or become) a healthy, well-rounded individual. If you have no idea what makes you happy, you might attempt to seek it out in someone else. You might be overly quick to sacrifice yourself and your needs for another’s happiness, only to then begin to feel resentment or frustration as you realise you’ve forgotten how to meet your own needs. These are indicators of disordered attachment. The desire to bond with another comes from a place of wholeness, coming together as complements to one another.
Your commitment to yourself comes before all other commitments. No attachment should come between you and that. As you assess your attachment levels, you’ll find all your relationships become healthier and stronger. You’ll then be drawn to new ones that reflect your devotion to yourself.
*I also suggest the post Independence, Co-dependence and Interdependence for a deeper look at these terms energetically.*
* I am the author of this post. You may find the original, which was used with my permission (without attribution) on Your Earth Angel (yourearthangel.com) *