Healthy vs. Unhealthy Emotional Attachment: How to Tell Them Apart

How to tell them apart, and how to break unhealthy emotional attachment
by Paired
by Moraya Seeger DeGeare
emotional attachment

Emotional attachment is the emotional connection we feel to important people in our lives, such as romantic partners, friends, and family. Adult attachment is influenced by our relationships with parents or other caregivers in early childhood, but it can still be changed later in life. Understanding your attachment style and its impact is key to forming healthy relationships.

What are the signs of emotional attachment?

Emotional attachment is integral to forming an emotional bond with someone. This can be a friendship or any other close interpersonal connection, as well as a romantic relationship. Signs of emotional attachment include:

  • A desire for a deeper connection

  • A feeling of belonging with a person or place

  • Thinking about the other person

  • Wanting to see them

  • Sharing aspects of each other’s lives

  • Missing them when apart.

You can also become emotionally attached to significant places, objects, or dates.

These are all perfectly healthy feelings. Humans crave a sense of security, connection, and meaningful experiences. Whether they are life-long relationships or far more fleeting, emotional bonds with loved ones can work wonders for our mental health and well-being.

What are emotional attachment issues?

Problems arise when emotional attachments become unhealthy. This may result from attachment injuries that affect someone’s ability or desire to forge close relationships.

Attachment theory, initially developed by psychologists John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth, suggests there are different attachment styles, informed by childhood experiences with caregivers.

Building on this work, researchers including Main and Solomon have identified four attachment styles that affect our emotional bonds. These are secure attachment and three insecure attachment styles: avoidant, disorganized, or anxious attachment style. 

Secure attachment

This type of attachment means someone can feel secure and comfortable in a relationship. They can rely on someone else and allow that person to rely on them, express vulnerability and build intimacy with a partner. A securely attached person is also able to meet their own emotional needs and has a sense of self separate from their partner.

Avoidant attachment

People with avoidant attachment withdraw from close emotional bonds with a romantic partner. They may be emotionally or physically unavailable, avoid commitment and create obstacles to a deepening emotional connection. While autonomy is a key part of a healthy relationship, avoidant people focus heavily on self-reliance to the detriment of emotional bonds with others.

Anxious attachment

Anxiously attached individuals have difficulty feeling secure or regulating their emotions when not with their partner. They may need significant reassurance and tend to become codependent in a relationship. This attachment style means the individual makes the other partner too responsible for their emotional well-being. This could lead to clingy or jealous behavior.

Disorganized attachment

Considered less common than other attachment styles, disorganized attachment blends aspects of anxious and avoidant attachment. People with disorganized attachment simultaneously crave and reject closeness and emotional intimacy. This leads to unpredictable and erratic behavior which destabilizes relationships.

How to tell if emotional attachment is healthy or unhealthy

Understanding your attachment style — and that of your partner — can help identify whether you’re forming an unhealthy emotional attachment. Knowing you often expect your partner to fulfill all your emotional needs means you can keep an eye out for early warning signs. On the other hand, awareness that you often push people away can help you work against this impulse and build a stronger bond.

The kind of relationship you want and the stage it’s at affects what healthy attachment means. Some emotional distance might be right for a casual fling but a red flag is something more established. Heavily involving a partner in your decision-making could suggest unhealthy attachment in new relationships but would be appropriate down the line.

Even healthy relationships have ups and downs. But emotional attachment should be a benefit of a partnership, not a source of insecurity. If your relationship is taking a toll on your self-esteem or mental health, it may be time for an attachment audit.

How to break unhealthy emotional attachment

If you feel you have an unhealthy emotional attachment to your partner — or someone else — there are various steps you can take.

Consider couples therapy if your attachment issues are taking place in an ongoing relationship. This may be especially beneficial if you and your partner have attachment styles that tend to clash, such as anxious and avoidant. A professional can also help with other issues that might be connected to insecure attachment styles, such as dismissive behavior. They can work with you on setting boundaries.

“When doing your inner work, whether with a therapist or solo, a vital step is seeing what unmet attachment needs you are trying to get met with your partner or another person,” explains Moraya Seeger DeGeare, a licensed marriage and family therapist and In-House Relationship Expert at Paired.

“This can be feeling ignored by a parent as a child, which is carrying into an insatiable need for attention from your partner now. Identifying and personally attending to some of these needs can help to create a more healthy attachment with others,” she adds. 

Sometimes, it’s the object of the emotional attachment that makes it unhealthy, as well as the attachment style. You might be struggling to break an emotional attachment to an ex, or to someone you want a relationship with but know it’s not possible. This can affect your well-being, damage your self-esteem and make exploring new relationships very difficult.

Removing this person from your social media or initiating a period of no contact could help break emotional attachment. Talking to a professional therapist or counselor via online therapy or in-person sessions may also give you the tools to move on. A professional could also provide insight into why you’ve become so attached or codependent and stop it from happening in the future.

Working on your sense of self is key to breaking an unwanted emotional attachment or making an ongoing one more secure. Build connections with friends and family, spend time on independent hobbies, and consider how you can meet your emotional needs. This will make you less reliant on an emotional partner, but also less fearful of opening up and showing vulnerability when it’s healthy to do so.

Start your journey
our appour app

petal decoration

Enjoying this article?

A happier relationship starts here.

Question with locked answer