Emotional attachment refers to the feelings of closeness and affection that help sustain meaningful relationships over time.

Emotional attachment refers to the feelings of closeness and affection that help sustain meaningful relationships over time.

Attachment plays an important role in human connection. The earliest bonds you form with parents and family members can guide and shape the attachments you develop to friends and romantic partners later in life.

You can become emotionally attached to people even without romantic or sexual attraction. Simply feeling close to someone helps you bond and increases your sense of connection.

This attachment might help you feel safe, comfortable, happy, maybe even somewhat euphoric in their company.

Some level of attachment is healthy and normal in relationships. But how can you tell if you’re too attached? What do you do if that happens? Can you develop attachments to places or things?

We’ve got answers to these questions (and more) below.

There are different types of emotional attachment, some healthier than others. Each type of attachment serves a different purpose and can lead to different outcomes.

Secure attachment

Secure attachment is one of the most common types of emotional attachment. It develops when you feel comfortable with someone and confident in their ability to meet your needs. The bond you share is strong, and you’re able to rely on each other both physically and emotionally.

Anxious attachment

A subtype of insecure attachment, anxious attachment develops when you’re constantly worried that your partner may leave you or won’t be there when you need them. This can lead to clinginess and needy behavior.

Avoidant attachment

Avoidant attachment is another subtype of insecure attachment. It develops when you’re unwilling or unable to get close to someone. You might distance yourself emotionally or physically from your partner. This can lead to feelings of rejection and loneliness.

Disorganized attachment

Disorganized attachment is a third and less common subtype of insecure attachment. It’s characterized by mixed feelings of approach and avoidance toward your partner. This can lead to feelings of confusion, fear, and anxiety in relationships.

Lasting love relies on healthy attachment to flourish, but attachment and love aren’t exactly the same.

Your emotional attachment to romantic partners and friends helps these relationships thrive over time. Without attachment, you might feel driven to seek a new partner when the first intense feelings of love fade, or a new best friend after a disagreement.

Oxytocin, a natural hormone that promotes bonding and trust, contributes to the development of attachment. In other words, it helps create a sense of security in the first stages of a new relationship.

Other hormones come into play in the early stages of romantic love, contributing to the desire, euphoria, and tension most people experience when falling in love.

The intensity of these emotions often fades in time, but attachment lingers, helping you feel safe and secure and promoting feelings of lasting love.

Consider the driving factors

A key difference between attachment and love lies in the factors behind them.

Generally, you don’t love someone because of what they can do or provide. You love them regardless of these things, simply because they’re who they are.

Sure, romantic relationships do fulfill important needs, but relationships based on love involve mutual giving and support. You don’t love someone simply because they meet your needs.

Attachment, in contrast, can develop when needs for intimacy, companionship, validation, or anything else go unfulfilled. When you find someone who fulfills those needs, you might develop a strong attachment to them.

Everyone has needs, and everyone wants to get those needs met. There’s nothing wrong with seeking a partner who fulfills important needs. But it’s important to know how to meet these needs yourself, as well. Depending on someone else to “complete” you can create difficulties for you both.

Emotional attachment can sometimes get a little too intense and become more of an emotional dependency. This dependency can negatively affect the relationship and your well-being.

The following signs can suggest a potentially unhealthy level of attachment.

You rely on their approval

If you struggle with self-validation and self-confidence, you might define your worth by how others see you. In an unhealthy attachment, your sense of self-worth may totally depend on your partner’s regard.

When you disagree or experience other conflict, this might entirely disrupt your perception of yourself. You might believe they hate you and no longer support your needs.

As a result, you might feel hurt, empty, anxious, or depressed, and your self-esteem might diminish.

These feelings can persist until they show they still care about you, whether that’s giving a gift, offering physical affection, or complimenting you.

This can become a dangerous dynamic because people with toxic or abusive traits may intentionally manipulate your needs and feelings to control the relationship and keep you dependent on them.

You’ve lost your sense of self

When you believe you need someone and can’t live without them, you might find yourself doing whatever it takes to secure their affection and support long-term.

Little by little, you might begin changing your habits, interests, and behaviors until they align more with those of your partner.

A partner might push you to do this in a toxic or abusive dynamic, but it’s important to understand that unhealthy attachments don’t only happen in abusive relationships. You might find yourself remolding your identity to match your partner’s on your own, even somewhat unconsciously.

The end result is often similar, however. You and your partner become more of a unit, and you lose sight of who you really are.

It’s important to share some things with friends and partners, but it’s just as important to spend some time apart and maintain your own interests.

You don’t know how to function without them

Depending on someone else to meet your needs often means you have trouble meeting them on your own.

Attachments typically develop for this very reason. If you don’t feel secure, loved, or accepted on your own, you’ll look for someone who can offer comfort and security and help you feel less alone.

Unfortunately, relying too much on support from someone else doesn’t teach you how to meet these needs yourself.

If the relationship or friendship doesn’t work out, or other commitments or relationships temporarily prevent that person from meeting your needs, you might feel completely at a loss.

“What would I do without them?” you might wonder. Your fear of losing them might become so intense it manifests in problematic behaviors, like digging into their past or keeping constant tabs on their social media activity.

The relationship is unbalanced

Healthy relationships demonstrate balance and interdependence.

Interdependence represents a middle ground between independence and dependence. Interdependent partners can fulfill many of their own emotional needs, but they also feel comfortable turning to each other when in need of support.

Partners who are fully independent might have trouble reaching out to each other when they need help, while a dependent partner might always ask for help instead of trying to handle things on their own.

In an unhealthy attachment, one person typically looks to another for emotional support, usually without offering much in return. The partner who consistently provides support without getting what they need may feel drained, resentful, and unsupported.

When to be concerned

Recognizing unhealthy attachment behaviors in yourself is the first step in making changes. Signs of attachment disorders may vary based on the type of attachment disorder.

Reactive attachment disorder (RAD) may cause the following symptoms:

  • avoiding or being unable to form close relationships
  • inability to experience positive emotion
  • expressing anger toward or withdrawing from those who try to get close to you

If you recognize these patterns, ask yourself whether your attachment is causing problems in your life or relationships.

If you believe your attachment to someone is less than healthy, you can do a few things to address this yourself.

First, consider some potential reasons behind insecure attachment, such as:

  • fear of being alone
  • emptiness and insecurity when not in a relationship
  • vaguely defined sense of self

Once you have a better idea of these underlying triggers, you can begin exploring solutions:

  • Dedicating some time to self-discovery can help you reconnect with your personal identity.
  • Creating time for yourself to do things you enjoy can help alone time feel more rewarding than scary.
  • Working to build and strengthen positive relationships with friends and family can help you feel secure even without a romantic partner.

Keep in mind, though, attachment issues often begin in childhood. Your earliest relationships can have a huge impact on how you form bonds as an adult. Insecure attachments to caregivers can result in patterns that keep repeating in your relationships.

These patterns can be hard to address on your own, but support from a mental health professional can help.

In therapy, you can:

  • work to understand your attachment style
  • learn healthier relationship skills
  • develop a stronger sense of self
  • explore helpful strategies for meeting your own needs

Below are some frequently asked questions about emotional attachment.

What is an emotional attachment?

An emotional attachment is a strong, loving connection between two people. It can be between friends, family members, or romantic partners.

What are the different types of emotional attachment?

There are three main types of emotional attachments: secure, anxious, and avoidant. There’s also a newer, fourth type called disorganized. Secure attachment represents a healthy balance of independence and dependence, while anxious, avoidant, and disorganized attachment styles are less healthy and may be characterized by fear of abandonment or difficulty trusting others.

What are the signs of an unhealthy emotional attachment?

There are several signs that your emotional attachment to someone might be less than healthy. These include feeling anxious or lonely when your partner or friends are busy, worrying they may leave you, and giving up your own plans to accommodate them.

How can I break an unhealthy emotional attachment?

If you believe your attachment to someone is less than healthy, you can do a few things to address this yourself. First, consider some potential reasons behind the attachment, such as fear of being alone or insecurity.

Once you have a better idea of these underlying triggers, you can begin exploring solutions, such as dedicating some time to self-discovery or working to build positive relationships with other people. However, keep in mind that attachment issues often begin in childhood and can be hard to address on your own. Support from a mental health professional can help.

Emotional attachments are a normal aspect of human relationships. Friends and loved ones provide emotional support, which can have a positive impact on physical and mental health.

Asking yourself if you offer emotional support as well as receive it can help you determine whether your attachments are mostly healthy.

Have you noticed some signs of unhealthy attachment in your relationships? A therapist can offer guidance and support as you begin exploring these patterns.

Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.