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.
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 hormone that promotes bonding and trust, contributes to the development of long-term affection and love. In other words, it helps propel you through the first stages of lust and attraction and into relationship territory.
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.
These feelings can persist until they do something to demonstrate 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 modifying 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 are balanced and interdependent.
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.
Emotional attachments often involve people, but you can also become attached to places and possessions.
Perhaps you had a security toy or blanket as a child that helped soothe and comfort you when you felt sad or lonely. Maybe you still have a favorite book, piece of clothing, or lucky item that you keep close at all times.
Some people also develop a strong attachment to certain places, such as homes or land.
It’s normal to feel attached to special belongings or a place that holds meaning. Most people cherish things like wedding rings, photo albums, family heirlooms, and journals because they offer physical reminders of important moments.
There’s also nothing unusual about feeling attached to other belongings, such as clothing, furniture, phones, or items related to hobbies.
You own these things because they make your life easier, bring you joy, or serve some other purpose. If they get lost or damaged, you might understandably feel a little upset, especially if you can’t replace them easily.
As long as this attachment doesn’t have a negative impact on your life and well-being, you’re probably just fine.
When to be concerned
To recognize when object attachment poses some cause for concern, keep a lookout for these signs:
- Your attachment to the object replaces healthy attachments to people.
- You feel as if you couldn’t live without the object, to the point where you prioritize it over shelter, food, and other basic needs.
- The thought of losing the object causes extreme anxiety or other emotional distress.
- You feel unable to leave the object or place, even at the risk of harm to yourself.
- Your attachment to objects interferes with your ability to meet basic needs. For example, you spend so much money maintaining the object or place that you don’t have money for food or rent.
Research suggests object attachment can play a part in hoarding disorder, particularly in people who also experience chronic loneliness. Hoarding typically involves attachments to multiple objects, though, not just one or two special items.
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:
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
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.