To Attach or Not to Attach? - that is the question
Updated: Feb 3, 2022
There’s seems to be a lot of confusion about ‘attachment’, dependency and a misinterpretation of Buddhist philosophy when it comes to people and relationships. And what can blur those definitions even further is our understanding of the difference between mental pain (which is unavoidable in life as a human) and mental suffering (which Buddhists philosophy describes as optional).
Someone recently posted a version of the following question in a social media group that discusses the concept of emotional intelligence —
“How do we get involved in healthy relationships of any kind without becoming attached to them? Without attachment, aren’t we like robots? I’m at my wits end trying to reconcile this…”
The author isn’t alone in his question or his frustration. And my answer is… we can’t. It’s not possible to have a healthy, connected relationship without emotional attachment. We’re actually ‘wired’ for it. At least that’s what I believe based both on my science-based education, as well as what I’ve personally experienced.
Emotional ‘attachment’ or bonding is a fundamental human need — it’s part of why we have oxytocin, dopamine and serotonin in our bodies. Yes, this level of intimacy may result in emotional pain if the relationship ends. But it’s also impossible to fully experience its mirror experience (joy, passion, deep love) without it. How can we even know what ‘joy’ really feels like, unless we have something from the opposite realm of emotional experience to compare it to?
As example, if we only could taste ‘salty’ food, we wouldn’t call it ‘salty’. It would simply be called the ‘taste’ of food. But because we can also taste ‘sweet’, this comparative experience helps to define its opposite taste of ‘salty’. See what I’m saying? If all we ever felt was ‘joyful’ living, we wouldn’t label it as ‘joyful’ living — it would just be called …’living’. But because we also know what ‘painful’ experiences feel like, this comparative experience helps to define its opposite experience of ‘joyful’.
In other words, we need both joyful experiences and some mentally painful experiences in order to fully appreciate one or the other. They are two sides of the same coin. And each one is a bit necessary in order to fully know the other. Suffering however, if a different story.
Where we can minimize ‘attachment’, is to what that a relationship ‘should’ look like , how long it’s ‘supposed’ to last, specific outcomes of any kind, peoples behavior, expectations etc. Holding rigidly and tightly to those things definitely can cause unnecessary additional, and prolonged, suffering. Buddhists refer to this as the ‘second arrow’. But if we can learn to ‘hold loosely’ (not ‘attach') to those concepts, have a flexible mindset while allowing ourselves to create a deeply connected emotional bond to someone.. that’s where meaningful life is! This doesn’t mean you have to give up boundaries or core values. It’s about holding loosely to how those boundaries and values are expressed, what they are ‘supposed’ to look like, considering that some of our views and priorities may be dynamic over time, and holding space for another person’s experience or perspective.
Yes, a connected relationship could be painful at some point. AND it could also be amazing until that point! And once your emotional nervous system is moderated, you’ll have less fear about the potential of ‘being hurt’ one day, because you’ll know you can navigate through the pain, if you need to, but without suffering. And you’ll know that the ‘attached’, connected, joyful experience you had in that relationship while it lasted.. was well worth it. Are you tracking me?
The key is non-attachment, or at least ‘looser’ attachment to definitions, outcomes, expectations and meanings… while at the same time..allowing for deep emotional connection to another human — that’s one type of ‘attachment’ we all are biologically designed to experience, and is worth the possible ‘pain’ if or when it ends or runs its course.
So be courageous about love! You can handle it.
Especially if you take the time to cultivate a relationship that’s interdependent.
I know that many of us experienced love earlier in our life that was inconsistent, unreliable or required some sort of ‘demonstration’ of our value. Which can understandably foster a reluctance to risk connection. But that’s no longer the case. You are different. Your life is different. Your capability and the resources around you are different. And more importantly, you are surrounded by different people. Love’s only unconditional ‘ingredients’ are receptivity and generosity. And although retraining our emotional response system is hard…you can do hard things! And you are far more capable than you believe, in moving through emotional or mental pain if/ when it comes.
My own work has resulted in version 2.0 (maybe even 3.0?) of a near 20-year love relationship to the same man. And we’ve been through some serious sh*t. So that says something. And I know that I can’t guarantee your relationship outcome. It takes both parties in the relationship doing the work. But I can tell you that the emotional pain you experience when a securely attached and connected relationship ends? Indicates that you have a big heart and are courageous when it comes to living life.
So if you’re ready to courageously be part of a healthy partnership, I suggest beginning by moderating your own emotional response system. The way I approached my own marriage completely transformed once I did. Then, from that new state, you’ll be able to walk into any relationship (new or known) with confidence in your ability to handle whatever comes your way — which gives you HUGE freedom to take a few risks, start building or rebuilding trust, and begin to allow yourself to fully experience…. what your neuro-biologically designed to experience!
Please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org for encouragement or support. A strong belief in relationship is one of my core values.
If you are interested in learning how to self-regulate your emotional response system, there a many skillful practitioners out there who can guide you. It’s not a mystery anymore. The information is out there. Please reach out for support.
If you are interested in learning more about how the state of your brain and body impacts your relationships, I’d be honored if you checked out the Whole-Brain Relationships course.
The Human Infusion Project is philanthropic, personal development platform that draws from the combined fields of modern brain science, applied psychology and spiritual philosophy. 100% of all course profit funds a Wellness Assistance Grant.