There Are Big Differences Between Love And An Unhealthy Attachment

Here's how you can tell what your feelings mean.

by Lauren Martin
Originally Published: 

Is it love, or is it just attachment? We all have those friends who jump from relationship to relationship, and each time, they are “totally and completely in love." But for those of us watching, it’s hard to believe that someone could possibly be “in love” with all these people so fast. I mean, come on. It’s not love. It’s just attachment. ...Right?

Yes. And no. Like most things in love, attachment is a spectrum. On her blog, love coach Melissa Josue writes that emotional attachment is in some cases an element of love, and that it can mean anything ranging from emotional affection to physical affixation.

Codependency and addiction sit on the more serious end of the attachment spectrum. Virginia-based nonprofit Mental Health America defines codependency as “an emotional and behavioral condition that affects an individual’s ability to have a healthy, mutually satisfying relationship. It is also known as ‘relationship addiction’ because people with codependency often form or maintain relationships that are one-sided, emotionally destructive and/or abusive.” If you suspect you or a friend is struggling with codependency, consider mental health resources like therapy and counseling.

But even if it’s not full-blown relationship addiction, the difference between love and attachment is a thinner line for some people than others. As a general rule, it all comes down to the quality of the connection. “Being in love means there is a connection while being attached implies dependency,” Nebraska-based AASECT Certified Sex Therapist and AASECT Certified Sexuality Educator Kristen Lilla tells Elite Daily. “I think it is important to ask yourself the question, ‘Do I have to be with this person, or do I get to be with this person?’ If you feel like you have to be in a relationship, perhaps it is out of an attachment issue, but if you feel like you get to be with someone, and it is a privilege, you may be in love.”

As onlookers, we can’t calculate someone else’s love any more than we can predict elections or Miley's next erotic exorcism. If a friend says they’re in love, we can support them as they try to build their own healthy relationship. But what about you? How do you know you love someone and you’re not just attached to the idea of loving someone? .

Lilla says you’ve got to look out for the big three: romantic attraction, sexual desires, and connection. If you feel some combination of those three (perhaps all of them!), you may have purchased a one-way ticket to Love Town. Read on for more insight about the differences between love and attachment.

Love Is Passionate; Attachment Is Apathetic


They say the closest feeling to love is hate, hence why after a breakup, it’s not uncommon to feel rage. What this really means is that, if you’re in love, there’s going to be some fire behind your emotions.

If it was more of an attachment, you’ll likely not feel that burning sensation when your relationship ends. You might feel paranoia, anxiety, or moments of irritation, but you won’t feel like a pot of hot water boiling over on the stove.

However, Josue says that emotional attachment, or what she describes as “a strong emotional bond,” is sometimes an element of love, and can make the ends of loving relationships even more painful.

Love Is Selfless; Attachment Is Self-Centered

Josue says that the major difference between love and attachment is that “love is a feeling directed toward the ‘other’ (the other person, place or thing), while attachment is self-centered — meaning based on fulfilling your need.”

When people are in love, they are more inclined to put their partner’s needs before their own, or to think of those needs as equal.

When it’s an attachment, it’s more likely that one or both partners is acting out of their own needs and desires without care or attention to the needs and desires of their partner.

If the real reason they bought that new bedding from Bed Bath & Beyond was so they don’t have to sleep alone anymore, chances are this is a classic case of attachment.

Love Is Hard; Attachment Is Only Difficult When You’re Apart

Whether partners live together or 6,000 miles apart, love takes work, commitment, flexibility, and a willingness to be vulnerable, open, and communicative. Love is based on mutual understanding, support, and patience. If one or more partners refuses to participate in the relationship in these ways, it’s likely an attachment and not a love connection.

Love Is Expansive; Attachment Is Restrictive


When a love is strong, it will feel secure even when the partners are not physically together. There’s a stability and an understanding about the partners’ affection, care, and feelings that make it simpler — not necessarily easier — to be apart for periods of time, and to be independent.

Instances of attachment are often defined by insecurity and codependence. The idea of being physically separated from a partner creates anxiety because there is no foundation of understanding and trust.

To be in love is to be fully oneself — to live a full and independent life alongside, and sometimes apart from, one’s partner. To be attached is to lose oneself in the illusion of security provided by a relationship; to be uncomfortable being alone, to be distrusting of one’s partner, or to be hyper-focused on one’s partner.

Having Needs Versus Being Needy

Everyone has needs, and lovers are no exception. Josue explains that a loving relationship is built around identifying and fulfilling partners’ needs. Attachments, however, are built around neediness — what Josue describes as “a sieve that will be empty regardless of how much you put into it.” According to Josue, neediness is often driven by existing emotional deficits. If a person attempts to enter into a relationship without first addressing their own emotional pitfalls, unhealthy attachments are bound to form in place of love.

Additionally, if someone stays in a relationship even when the relationship fails to meet their needs, this is an indication of an attachment issue. Josue writes, “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 relationship 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.”

Love is a tricky emotion to pin down. Everyone’s relationship styles reflect something unique about them and their own life experiences. But if you’re worried that you’re getting attached instead of falling in love, talk to your partner, talk to your friends, and talk to a therapist about how to strengthen your connection and get your needs met.


Mental Health America, nonprofit

Kristen Lilla, AASECT Certified Sex Therapist and AASECT Certified Sexuality Educator

Melissa Josue, love coach

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