Are You In Love or Just Clingy? 8 Love vs Attachment Differences

Self-awareness
29 May 2023
11 min read
8 Love vs Attachment Differences

How to understand the difference between love vs attachment clearly? Think of the abandoned animals. Why do they attach themselves to us so much? Because they have feelings of fear and insecurity that they might lose you, that you might leave them. And that’s why many of them experience anxiety when you go out and leave them home alone. In short, they are heavily dependent on and emotionally attached to you, which is not pure love.

A lot of humans attach themselves to a partner in much the same way. They want them near as much as possible. And when they are out of sight, they want to know where they are, who they are with, and what they are doing. They seem to have their own fears and insecurities about “losing” the person they love.

But is it really love? Ah…that’s the question.¬†Hopefully, this article explains the difference between love and emotional attachment – use it as a checklist for yourself or your partner.

8 Differences between Healthy vs Unhealthy Attachment

“Being in love means there is a connection while being attached implies dependency.”

Kristen Lilla, AASECT Certified sex therapist and sexuality educator

When two people are in love, there is a level of attachment that is normal. They want to be together as much as possible (at least in the early stages); they are happier when they are together. But they also have a mutual respect for each other’s independence and need to pursue other aspects of their lives separately for their own personal growth. And they allow their partner the same respect. That’s mutual growth, and it’s healthy. And these are what we call healthy attachments.

When the need to have a partner physically close or accounted for at all times, a person is moving into the territory of unhealthy attachments. And at its extreme, it is basically physical affixation – an unhealthy attachment that insists upon physical presence above all else. Such an attachment is unnecessary dependence that leads to a controlling behavior that is totally self-serving and will cause nothing but recurrent problems in relationships.

So we have two concepts here – love and attachment. Let’s unpack the differences between the two.

1. “Have” Vs. “Get”

“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.”

Kristen Lilla

So, this is the first test. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Do you have an overriding need to be with someone all the time?
  • Are you uncomfortable and anxious when you are in-between partners?
  • Do you experience feelings of some desperation when you aren’t in a relationship?
  • Do you move from relationship to relationship quickly?

You need these answers to check yourself if you are looking for an attachment more than love. People repeatedly “fall in love” when they have a self-centered need for an attachment, whether the partner is right for them or not. It just doesn’t matter.

Related reading: Pay Attention! 12 Signs He Is Slowly Falling For You

2. Love is Selfless. Attachment is Ego-Centered

Love is an emotion and a feeling that is focused on someone else – a child, a parent, a best friend, and, yes, a partner. Couples in love tend to look at their partner’s needs and think about how they can help to fill them to increase their well-being and happiness.

These actions may range from some pretty significant things like supporting them as they go back to school to mid-sized things like taking them on a date to a favorite place and even small things like creating a playlist of their favorite love songs.

The point is they are focused on developing a strong bond based on making the relationship work for the long term – finding a soul mate, so to speak. Making the other person happy makes them happy too.

Related reading: Appreciating a Platonic Soulmate

Attachment, on the other hand, is very egocentric. It is based on what “I” need from this current relationship, and what do I need to do to avoid abandonment, Their entire mood on a daily basis, is a result of getting their own needs met. And they will do whatever it takes to keep their partner with them.

Here’s a simple example. A person with low self-esteem will feel driven to keep a partner with them. They may believe that if they make themselves more attractive, this will happen. And so they invest in lots of plastic surgery. This is not because they want to fill a need of the partner. It is to fulfill their need to keep that partner with them.

See the difference? The purpose of the surgery in this case was fully self-centered.

In a healthy relationship, there is mutual trust

3. Love Is About Mutual Trust with Independence. Attachment Is About Control

As couples develop mutual love, mutual trust develops too. Each partner encourages the other to follow their goals and dreams; each partner wants the other to pursue their own interests apart from their togetherness, and they get a positive feeling about it all. They feel secure.

Attachment is about control of what the other is doing. Insecurity and all sorts of unresolved issues fuel controlling behavior, not genuine romantic love. Genuine love wants to encourage independence. The controlling person’s inability to encourage independence sets up some really negative stuff – resentment, accusations, and even doing such things as tracking their partner’s movements when they are away.

The point? Romantic love transcends control – always.

Related reading: Insecure Men: How a Fragile Ego Can Ruin Romance

4. Love Involves Passion. Attachment, Not So Much

Romantic relationships based on love involve passion – strong emotional affection if you will. The relationship serves both partners as they express their love, encourage each other to develop their true self, and strive to achieve a magnificent relationship of mutual growth and positive changes as they move forward in a loving and healthy way.

Is the road always smooth? Of course not. But their passion for each other and a commitment to preserving the relationship means they work through every minor or major issue and move forward.

Related reading: A Guide to Growing an Exclusive Relationship

Attachment doesn’t involve passion, and this is a major difference between love and attachment. When unsatisfying relationships end, there is not a lot of pain, rage, or other emotions that would be expected in normal relationships based on both love and emotional attachment.

The partner who is typically dominated by attachment only, won’t feel all of these strong emotions. They will move on quickly, with their own issues and own problems intact, maybe hold resentment for a bit, and look for the next attachment “love” (which really isn’t love). Why? Because they are only interested in the next partner that may be able to satisfy their selfish needs.

Love is not a fairytale, it takes work

5. Love Takes Work. Attachment Takes Work Only When the Partners Are Apart

People in loving relationships understand that those relationships take work. Their path will not be straight, but their partner love will allow them to work through the tough times and emerge with their love intact, if not stronger.

Other parts of the work involve spending quality time together, being mindful of changing needs of each other, and working to accommodate them. This requires flexibility.

And they are not involved in keeping score of who has done what for the other. They have a strong emotional bond that they are controlling mutual love together. Each partner fuels positive love and attachment in the other. And that makes attachment stronger in a healthy way.

Those who seek only attachment go to work when their partner is not in their presence. They play mind games with themselves, creating all sorts of scenarios about where they might be and what they might be up to.

It’s such an unhealthy level of attachment as opposed to the loving version of being emotionally attached. And all of this rumination leaves the person feeling directed to take action – calling and texting, following them, or installing GPS trackers on the phone or car. At this point, the attachment has become a mental health issue. Very likely, therapy is called for.

Related reading: Need to Catch a Cheater? Here Are the Ways to Do It!

6. Love is Empowering. Attachment Results in Powerlessness

When two people are in a healthy relationship, that love boosts a partner’s ability to reach for loftier things. And they feel empowered because they have the support of their significant other at every step. They sincerely hope for the best for each other and encourage each other to “go for it.”

Attachment ultimately results in feelings of powerlessness. The needy person cannot force another to do just as they want and so they have a feeling of loss of control over that other and even themselves. So, they have to end the relationship and look for someone who may be able to meet their needs. These feelings of powerlessness can lead to depression and a host of other negative feelings too. And so, they continue to seek relationships and continue to be disappointed.

7. Love Fosters Growth. Attachment Fosters Stagnation

When you have true feelings of love, you are of course attached to someone – but at a healthy level. And in that love, you have a strong desire to be a better person, to please yourself but also to please your partner. Your partner encourages and supports you in your efforts. So, you engage in activities that will improve yourself. You may go back to school; you may decide to pursue a new career or some volunteer work; you may determine to honor your partner’s love of Italian food by taking some cooking classes. Whatever you do, it brings about personal growth.

If your emotional attachment is your primary focus, you are not interested in self-development. You are interested in what you need from your partner. As long as your needs are met, there is no need to push yourself to change, grow, or correct any negative behaviors.

8. Love Is Having Needs. Attachment Is Being Needy

Every one of us has needs. And we devise a number of ways to meet them. Some we satisfy all by ourselves, independent of anyone else. We also have needs that only a relationship can fill – the need to love and be loved; the need to make future plans as a partnership; the need to share our hopes, fears, goals, and values with that special someone. We also want to know about our partner’s needs and how we can help to satisfy them.

When the focus is only on emotional attachment, we are only concerned with our needs, and we look for a partner who will satisfy them without our having to do a whole lot, other than be certain that our partner is present to meet our needs. It’s a pretty selfish mindset and can be indicative of narcissism. And if that partner sticks around and continues to satisfy our needs, they may have relationship issues too. It’s called codependency, and it really isn’t healthy.

Love vs attachment: Don't play your feelings

Love vs Attachment: Your Checklist

Here is a short synopsis of love vs attachment that will give you clues on the type of relationship you have.

If it’s a love relationship:

  • You feel happy when you are with them and when you are not
  • They meet your emotional needs, but you focus on meeting theirs too
  • You are flexible in your relationship requirements for each other, as things change
  • You don’t have difficulty letting them pursue activities and interests independent of you
  • You are feeling attached but not desperate
  • You can meet some of your own emotional needs on your own – there isn’t complete reliance on your partner to do so

If it’s an attachment relationship:

  • You feel anxious when they are not with you
  • Sometimes, desperation to control or know what they are doing leads to some extreme behaviors – following, tracking, etc. – which signify some mental health issues
  • You are attached to someone only as long as they can meet your needs
  • When the relationship ends, at the hands of either one of you, you tend to quickly look for someone else
  • You are jealous if they interact with others at social gatherings
  • You define true love in terms of your needs being met

Let’s Recap: Is It Real Love or Just Attachment?

Love and attachment are such complex concepts. Psychological researchers have spent years delving into them and continue to do so today. If you have an interest in a more comprehensive understanding, check out some related reading sources. One of the most definitive works is the book, Attached: the New Science of Adult Attachments and How It Can Help You Find – and Keep – Love, available here.

The clues to the understanding of emotional attachment vs love are found in your own thoughts, feelings, and actions. And healthy and unhealthy attachments should be obvious to you now.

Love vs attachment can be a messier discussion than may be outlined here. And when you are attached to someone, it can be real love. At the same time, when you are in real love, there can be times when unhealthy attachment can creep in.

In the end, as you navigate your own love live, you just need to be aware of love and attachment, when each makes sense to you at what times, and identify your closest feeling in a variety of circumstances. If you begin to see signs that attachment is becoming the more prevalent focus, recognize it and get some help.

Relationships Author
Geoffrey Williams
After taking a required Intro to Psychology course as an undergrad, I have never looked back. Since my doctoral program, I have specialized in adult relationship therapy. Through my studies and clinicals, I wrote several articles for professional journals and currently in the midst of writing a book.
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