How To Differentiate Between Genuine Connection And Toxic Attachment, Because You Deserve Something Real

We can very easily mistake attachment for love. We can very easily mistake gripping, and clasping at a relationship for fighting for it, for caring in ways most don’t these days. But that can often mean that we’re fostering an unhealthy attachment. Attachment speaks to trying to keep something in your life from a place of helplessness. Attachment is what we feel when we genuinely believe that we need someone in our lives because they make us feel a specific way — they make us feel less lonely, they praise us, they validate us, etc. Therefore, attachment is “I love you because you save me / fulfill me / etc and without you I will be lost.” Genuine love is simply just “I love you.” So you can see that difference. It comes from a compassionate place. Attachment comes from a transactional place. That is why attachment often makes you feel anxious, or distraught, we are fearing the loss of distraction.

Attachment is holding on very tightly. Genuine love is holding on very gently, nurturing a connection, allowing for it to be a blessing in your life and not needing it in order to feel complete or whole or validated, but rather, appreciating it. Attachment is possession. Genuine love is union. Attachment is fear. Genuine love is freedom.

We build out our attachment styles from a very young age. This is one of the first things you learn when you take a psychology course. And so if you’re sitting here and you’re like “Man, why do I approach the people in my life this way? Why do I send my heart into the world like this? Why do I grip or seek attention or validation in order to affirm my worth?” I need you to understand you are so human. And at times, it isn’t even a conscious choice we make, but rather, it is a pattern. And you don’t have to feel shame over that. You don’t have to apologize for the way in which you are trying to heal parts of yourself you didn’t even know were not serving you. Be gentle with yourself.

We have grown up in a world that has taught us that attachment is the very essence of love, that we have to fight, and grip, and try to ensure that those in our lives stay within it no matter what, that we need them, that they complete us. From a very young age, our culture communicates the idea that happiness is synonymous with possessing things. And this is why, I think, so many people feel like we’re missing something. As a result, our entire existence is shaped around accumulating things with the hope that they’ll make us feel good. We develop an obsessive attachment to things, ideas, and people. We believe that we can give meaning to our lives this way. If you seek love to fill a void in your life that’s been carved out by insecurity, pain, fear, or loneliness. If you are coming from a place of neediness and dependence, your relationship will turn into one based on attachment. When you’re attached to somebody, it’s almost like a drug. You’re dependent on them to fulfill your happiness. When they’re gone, you’re not content. If they leave you, you have withdrawal.

And I think we all know that that isn’t love.

Attachment is egocentric. Love is altruistic.

When we enter into relationships from a place of attachment, it is often because the people we crash ourselves into make us feel complete and validated in a way that we haven’t learned to do on our own. And while it is important to feel comfortable and secure in a relationship, only being in one for the sake of completion or wholeness or fulfilment can cause you to build your foundation around another person, rather than around yourself. Because another human being is good at making us feel less lonely, or more desired, we keep them around. We put in effort because we know that that effort means we are going to be rewarded with attention, or distraction. And that is why we say that attachment comes from an egocentric place, it comes from this place of thinking about yourself and yourself only.

Love on the other hand, genuine and altruistic love, means that you are thinking of the other person. You feel loved, and cared for when you are with them, but it is not the sole reason why you keep the connection in your life. You love them, and instead of just being concerned with how they are making you feel, instead of just needing them to fill your voids, you desire to deepen your connection because you want to make them happy. You make them a priority. You choose them, you find balance in the relationship. It isn’t transactional. You genuinely care from a deeply compassionate place.

Attachment makes you feel overwhelmed, and anxious, when this person isn’t around. Love makes you miss them.

Attachment makes you feel alone and overwhelmed when you are not with the person you are attached too. They crack light into your chest, they make you feel good, they make you feel happy and euphoric but this is because they fulfill your need for attention. They boost your confidence. When you are attached to someone, your desire to be around them at all times is in direct correlation with your desire to distract yourself from your loneliness. That;s a hard pill to swallow. We have all been there. You can’t get enough of them. And so, when you are away from them, it feels disorienting.

This is when problems will start to occur in relationships. This is where a lot of gripping can be found, where you need more and more and more from someone and it becomes an unhealthy need. When you are attached you might start to put this person over anyone, especially your friends and family. You want their undivided attention, you want to build your world around them. This can be dangerous because our connections may not last forever and when someone is no longer there anymore, when they move on for whatever reason if they do, or if they feel like they cannot be the person for you any longer, a void is created in your life, and you might realize you aren’t left with anyone at your side. You gave so much of yourself to this person because you thought they completed you. And in their leaving, you feel incomplete, broken.

Love, on the other hand, makes you miss the person when you are apart from them. And I’m smiling when I say that because I know what that genuinely feels like. You want to be around this person, not because you need them to give you attention, but rather, because you enjoy their presence. You let it flow through you like rain. When they aren’t around, you’re not distressed. You just miss them. It doesn’t consume your thoughts and feelings when you are not with them. When you truly are in love with someone, it doesn’t matter if you are apart for a little while, because the feeling still remains in your heart. There is no obsessive need to be with them all day, every day, to validate the connection or affirm it’s permanence in your life. You can still appreciate them from afar, as their whole individual selves, and that is beautiful.

Attachment is surface level. Love is deep.

I know this one might feel confusing, because when you are attached to someone you feel so tethered to them. When you are attached to someone, as we have already said, you are attached to them because of how they make you feel. And when you’re approaching a relationship from this place, you’re validated enough and affirmed enough just through their presence, you often don’t dive into the heart of them. You are getting complimented and supported, and that is all you need from the relationship.

Love is the complete opposite of that. When you are in love, you feel so passionately for this person from a place of curiosity, and joy, and hope. You want to know everything about them, what they desire, what they dream about being. You want to know their history, what their childhood was like, and all of the things that make up their interior world. You want to know how many sugars they take in their morning coffee, and what songs makes them cry, and the way it felt to go through the things in life that weathered and built them. You want to see them. You want to dive into the heart of them, and understand them on a level that transcends transaction, but rather, bonds you to them because you fundamentally see them. In this way, you are creating an unbreakable connection with them, getting to know them deeper better than you have with anyone else ever before, and that is extremely special, and that is extremely rare. To be understood by someone, to be seen by them, to be held by them in all that we are are, and all of our mistakes, and all of our shortcomings and dreams and thoughts, etc is so beautiful. And that is what makes love so much deeper than attachment.

Attachment is controlling. Love is freeing.

When you are attached to someone, because you desire to spend so much time around them in order to feel good, you might realize that you are using controlling behavior in order to do so. For example, this shows up a lot in unhealthy attachments as one person in the relationship convincing the person they are attached to not to hang out with their friends, or their family, and instead to hang out with them, and this is where we often see a lot of manipulation. I don’t even think this manipulation is something most are aware of, but it’s there, because an attached person wants the focus on you and you only. This is really unhealthy behavior, and it shows that you are definitely not in love with them. You are trying to control someone, and you wouldn’t do this if you really cared about them and their feelings.

When you are in love, of course, you want to spend as much time as possible with the person that you care for. Love is beautiful, and it adds a sunny kind of happiness into your life, it feels like a blessing. But when it comes to genuine love, you would never put your needs above theirs, in the sense that, if they have their own individual lives, if they have their own desires and hobbies and things that also add happiness into their life, you would never ask them to give that up in order to spend more time with you. You understand that what’s going to make them happy is to keep spending time with their family and their friends, so there is encouragement there. You respect them and care about how they feel, and because of that you would never tell them what to do. You would never try to manipulate them into spending time with you because then it isn’t real. When you love someone you don’t ever put them in an ultimatum position where they have to choose you over their own freedom. A deep, and compassionate, genuine loving relationship goes off the basis that two independent people come together and love each other, without controlling each other. It is a union, and appreciation.

Attachment stifles growth. Love encourages it.

When you are attached to someone, as I said before, you want to be around them all the time. And in doing so, you become a very integral part of their life as well. As long as they make you feel good, you’re happy, and you don’t want anything to change. So, you won’t encourage that change, or that personal development and growth for them, you won’t encourage them to follow their dreams and to become the absolute most evolved and aware and happy human being they can be, because you are afraid that once that occurs, you will lose them. You grip at who they are, and you don’t give them the space to become who they can be. And within this, you are also restricting that same growth for yourself.

When you are in love with someone, you will try to encourage them to be the best version of themselves. They will also do the same for you. You both positively impact one another, you are overwhelmed with joy at the thought of them being happy and fulfilled and growing into the kind of person they have been working so hard to become. You will provide support for your partner, and they will do the same for you. You both care about what the other person wants, so you will help them to achieve whatever it is. A loving relationship is where you both stimulate each other to take on your lives in the most successful way possible, knowing that you always have someone that will be there to help you, support you and love you.

Through loving someone genuinely and compassionately, you will become a better and more loving person yourself. Instead of needing to be pacified, or appeased, and built up constantly, never called out or challenged to grow, love helps for you to be able to notice the more negative qualities that you have, and you will try to fix them so that they don’t harm your relationship. Love inspires you to be better, not from a place of being self centered, but rather, from a place of gratitude. How do I work on becoming whole on my own, so that I can better show up? How do I work on healing my wounds, so that I do not allow for them to wound this person I care for? By loving someone else, you can look deeper within yourself and fix the parts of you that don’t resonate with your kind heart or the kind of connection you have. You grow.

Attachment is difficult. Love is easy.

When you are attached to someone, it is always rooted in this concept of being made whole by them, of needing them in your life because they are the source of your happiness or fulfillment. They make you feel good, and instead of understanding that you will be completely fine if this relationship leaves your life, or if you just can’t make it work, attachment grips. It clings from a place of neediness. You feel distraught, you feel anxious, you feel overwhelmed and almost manic at times because you are always worried that you are going to lose someone. You hold on so tightly, and that is overwhelming, and exhausting, and it burrows into the heart of you and can make you feel distress, because you cannot possibly love someone you are constantly worried you are going to lose. That takes you out of your presence completely. And you can’t love someone when you have convinced yourself that that love is the only reason why you are happy — when you use it in that way, you will do anything to keep it around, and that isn’t healthy. There are no boundaries there. It becomes a toxic attachment for self preservation, rather than choosing someone from a compassionate, and balanced, place. From a place of knowing that you get to appreciate and care for them as they are, for as long as life affords you the beautiful opportunity, and you won’t be destroyed without them, bur rather, you’ll be thankful for what they taught you. If things get hard, not in the sense that you should run away when life gets tough, but if you genuinely cannot make up the miles, or if you genuinely cannot make the dynamic work any longer, you let go. You love from a distance, you lay that hope down. You appreciate what it was without needing to ask it to be more than what it can be. There is acceptance. There is flow. There is calm.

And that is what love is. Love is ease. Love is calm. Genuine lovers choose each other each moment. Again and again, each day that they’re together, they wake up and choose each other. There are no hooks into the future of what will be and for how long, and there are no promises or guarantees. There is just calm. And acceptance. And gratitude. And appreciation. And there is no fear of loss, because you know that you will never lose something you have felt so deeply. You will carry it within you forever. This love does not make you grip. You hold it gently. You are at peace within it. Genuine love is detached love in the sense that it embraces uncertainty. It embraces that fact that the only thing we know for sure is that everything is going to change. It embraces this and still chooses to be open and vulnerable and, in this way, detached love is the most courageous act. It is beautiful and selfless and full of gratitude and appreciation.

To sum it up:

Attachment, is overwhelming bouts of anxiety. It is clinging tightly for fear they might leave. It is shutting down emotionally instead of opening up. Attachment is idealizing your relationships instead of seeing them for what they are. Attachment is feeling like you need more, like your partner is never enough. Attachment is relying on your partner for your own fulfillment. Attachment is always waiting for the other shoe to drop, like you are stuck and trapped and without other options because you are so deeply dependent. Attachment is blaming your partner for your unhappiness. Attachment is hiding who you truly are, because you are afraid of rejection. Attachment is heavy.

Love on the other hand, is openness and expansiveness. Love is embracing vulnerability as a strength, not a weakness. Love is having a strong sense of self worth. Love is trusting in yourself and the other person. Love is growing closer to your partner everyday. Love is empathy, and understanding and forgiveness. Love is giving, and receiving, unconditionally. Love is listening without judgement. Love is communicating even when you would rather walk away. Love is sharing your feelings openly and honestly. Love is taking responsibility for your actions. Love is learning more about yourself through the freedom of your connection, and growing with one another. Love is knowing, above all else, that while you absolutely enjoy and feel so grateful to have someone in your life, you’ll be okay even if it doesn’t work out.

So, now that we have differentiated between attachment and love, how do we move towards more secure connections? How do we reframe our relationships?

Firstly, it’s important to understand that attachment isn’t wrong. It isn’t a dirty word. Yes, there are forms of attachment that cause anxiety, that feel painful, that we only keep in our lives to fill a void or to keep someone around for the attention, but there is also secure attachment. Good attachment. And that kind of approach to a relationship, is secure, and that is where genuine love thrives. So if we know that sometimes we chase the insecure form of attachment, if we have differentiated between attachment and love, it’s important to become aware of our patterns and really dive into why we choose the painful relationships versus the secure ones in our lives. It is within that understanding that we can move towards more secure relationships, relationships that are rooted and grounded and foundationally beautiful to the point of being peaceful for us. Love should always be peaceful, and if we work towards healing the parts of ourselves that do not defend that, we have a chance at finding something really tender, and really beautiful in our lives.

Attachment isn’t a bad thing. We are always going to be attached, and dependent — it is an evolutionary trait we have inherited. Yes, independence is necessary — to be an individual is important. But independence is strengthened through dependence. It’s called the dependence paradox. We need one another. Do not feel shame for needing someone, or for wanting them close. Don’t listen to a society that tells you that caring or relying or depending on another human being is wrong. We wouldn’t be here, as a species, if we hadn’t relied on our tribes, our family structures, etc to protect us as we evolved. We have always been a connected species. Humans crave connection because connection was safety, connection was structure, connection was security within the knowledge that you had someone to lean on, that you weren’t always in danger, and we evolved from there. It is so human.

So instead of convincing yourself that you need to detach, or be less connected, I really hope you understand that that isn’t the case when it comes to healing a tendency to love from a place of attachment. Instead, we just want to work on ways to turn an anxious, sometimes toxic attachment, into one that is more secure.

It’s important to remind ourselves that our attachment style has been handed down to us within the ways in which the world has treated us, or cared for us. They say that we inherit our attachment style from the ways in which we were cared for as children. And so the way we approach relationships, the way we act within them, our patterns and our emotional responses, are deeply rooted and constructed before we are even fully aware of that. And that understanding is freeing in a way, because I know how difficult it can be to read articles like this and to think “My goodness, I really don’t have a healthy approach to relationships, or love.” You can blame yourself. You can wonder why it is so difficult to just crash your heart into the good kind of love, instead of always experiencing the kind of connection that hurts, that feels almost too heavy to hold. But within this lesson, we learn that it isn’t our fault. These patterns are deeply rooted, and so, all we can do is become more aware of them. All we can do is acknowledge them, so that we may work towards healing them.

When it comes to attached love, there is often a fear of abandonment. I think a lot of people can relate to this. So many of us are terrified of those we care for walking away from us. That kind of attachment causes you to always be loving from a place of never wanting to lose someone. It causes anxiety, it causes stress, it can cause you to grip. And when we love from a place like that, it isn’t really love, because it is hurting you. You strive so deeply just to keep something in your life, because it is filling a part of you, or validating you, or taking up space in your world, and you are so scared of losing someone, that you end up losing yourself.

When we attach anxiously, or fearfully, we are constantly seeking external validation in love. We need that person in our lives because they make us feel complete. And so, because of that, maybe you don’t set boundaries in your relationships. Maybe you stay silent when you really feel like you want to speak. Maybe you are so scared of being alone, you settle for those who don’t actually fulfill you. Maybe you are so afraid of being walked away from, that you grip so hard, and so tightly, that you suffocate love or experience extreme insecurity within it.

This can cause you to lose your relationship to yourself because you will constantly try to please the people in your life, at your own expense.This perpetuates the lack of relationship to yourself because you’re so focused on others, and not on your own needs, your own relationship with yourself, your own happiness, etc. And then when things go wrong, or when the person who was fulfilling so much of you walks away, or does leave, or needs to take time for themselves because they are their own individual with their own needs and their own lives and sometimes people have a change of heart, when that happens — it can be really disheartening, and really debilitating. Your brain doesn’t say “Okay, we just weren’t meant to be!” but rather, it says “I am not good enough to be loved.”

Because you have constantly sought out others to prove your goodness to yourself, because you have constantly placed your worth into the hands of others and how they love you or if they stay, it can become very hard for you to let go of love. You can try to grip at it, or manipulate situations in order to keep it in your life. You can quiet yourself as not to disturb your peace. You truly do lose yourself, and that is why we say that attached love isn’t love. Because love helps you find yourself. Love helps you grow yourself. Love is freedom, genuine love pins hope to your bones and never makes you question yourself.

Attached love is built on the most fragile foundation. Because if you spend so much time making your confidence dependent on the outside world, and something goes wrong, in your mind you make that mean that you’re not good enough, and that is so fragile. That is not how love should make you feel. That is not secure.

So how do we reprogram this? How do we teach ourselves to break these patterns? To heal them? How do we move forward in our life and approach relationships from a place where we are cultivating real and genuine love?

Firstly— know your pattern. Create a cohesive narrative.

Remember — you cannot heal what you do not acknowledge. And the biggest thing you can do for yourself is to really dive into your self awareness, and ask yourself hard questions. You need to get to a place where you can see yourself in the cycle or the pattern.

So ask yourself: What is it you are drawn to in love, and how has that made you feel in the past? What is it you ignore in love, the things that you quiet yourself from caring about because you don’t want to come off as too needy or too this or too that, because you want to people please? What is familiar or comfortable for you, what do you often chase even if it hasn’t necessarily felt secure or good for you in the past? What scares you in relationships, what ignites fear in you, what makes you want to leap into action and fix things, and make sure that the people you love don’t leave? How do you show up, and have you been showing up, fully and authentically in your last relationships? If you are constantly afraid of losing the people you love, have you truly been showing them the most honest and authentic aspects of who you are? Or have you been loving them from a place of wanting to keep them in your life? Do you use people to externally meet your needs? Do you use love and relationships as a dependent way of proving to yourself that you are worthy and good and deserving?

Explore why that is so. You need to have an understanding of yourself to know it’s not random. Attachment traumas happen so early that we think it is our fault. “That’s just me, that’s just how I am and it won’t change” But you have to be honest with yourself. There is a version of you that is beyond this. That will find genuine love.

Learn how to meet your own needs.

Get in touch with your feelings and your needs on a regular basis. Really evaluate what you want in a partner, and try to teach yourself how to seek out secure forms of love rather than insecure ones. This has a lot to do with learning how to be your own foundation, learning how to take care of yourself and validate yourself so that you do not put all of that pressure on your partner or the relationship you are in. When you are your own home, the dependency isn’t codependent, it’s just human, it’s secure, because it’s something that is beautiful in your life. You don’t need it to feel fulfilled, you appreciate it because it adds joy into your life.

And when you learn how to meet your own needs, you are telling yourself that you can be your own home. That you have the capacity to determine your own worth, your own goodness, and your own security without needing another person to give that to you. You don’t always have to meet your needs through your partner. In secure love, leaning on a partner is an incredible asset. There is open communication, there is understanding, there is a safety that you feel knowing that someone is in your corner. In insecure love, there is anxiety, because you don’t know how to lean on yourself. All of the pressure it put in your needs being met externally, your worth being validated externally, your goodness being validated externally, and if that external factor ever left, your foundation would also leave with it.

You don’t want that. So how do you learn to meet your own needs? You start small. You start with awareness. Each day, really assess your emotions. Ask yourself what you need. When you are feeling sad, what do you need from a place of security and not fear? When you are feeling exhausted or burnt out, what do you need? And then figure out a strategy to meet those needs. What can you give yourself? What can you do to show up for yourself? What are the smallest things you can do for yourself that teach you that you have the capacity to take care of yourself, that you can be a safe place for yourself as well?

And within this understanding, and this learning, you will slowly start to understand why you might have chosen insecure love on so many occasions. You thought that you needed it in order to be okay. You can really pinpoint the moments where you chose people from a place of fear, rather than from a place of genuinely wanting them in your life. Within all of this awareness, you can start to choose people who can meet your secure needs, people who will truly add value to your life in a genuine way.

And that changes everything. Because it helps you to create boundaries. Usually, when we are afraid of losing love, we say “Okay — I want to make sure I do everything right. I can’t afford to make any mistakes. One wrong move and I could jeopardize the entire relationship.” When you learn how to meet your own needs, you don’t silence yourself or your communication at all. You learn how to embrace who you are, because you derive your own worth. And from there, you approach people differently.

In dating situations, your thinking will shift from “Does he or she like me?” to “Is this someone I should invest in emotionally? Is he or she capable of giving me what I need on a fundamental level, not from a place of fear?” Going forward with a relationship will become about choices you have to make. You’ll start asking yourself questions like: “How much is this person capable of intimacy? Is he sending mixed messages or is he genuinely interested in being close?” You won’t grip at the first sign of attention. You won’t be afraid. You will only put your energy and your time into the things that are secure, and you won’t lose yourself in love. You will grow in love.

Deepen your connection to the world around you, not the world you’ve created in one person.

You want to have a lot of ways to really enrich your life outside of the relationship. Hobbies, a job you love, etc. You want to make sure you’re living your life on purpose.

So ask yourself ‚ what are the things outside of this person that make you feel the most you? What are the things you leap towards, that genuinely make you want to get up in the morning?

And if your answers for those questions were — well, my relationship does, or the person Im with does, then you have to understand that is okay. When you are so enmeshed, as we have spoken about, you can make another human being the centre of your universe. Step back into yourself. Give yourself permission to stand in who you are, and what you want, and create the structure for that life.

In a secure relationship, you should be excited to have another person in your life, they should bring joy to your day. But you should also have other things that spark something beautiful inside of you, other things that feed into your sense of self. This world is the most incredible place. There is so much to discover, so much to learn, and if you allow yourself to chase the things in life that really help you to come back home to yourself, you won’t feel lost of destroyed or anxious if things change in your relationship. You will know that you can stand in yourself, you can stand in your passion, you can stand in your hobbies, in the things that genuinely crack light into your soul, instead of just standing in another person and thinking that is living.

Live your life with purpose. Really show up for yourself and who you want to be in this world. You deserve that.

At the end of the day, you deserve to find good love. You deserve to find secure love. You deserve to have the kind of relationship that feels like peace, that genuinely feels like a beautiful addition to your already beautiful life. You deserve to feel like you can be yourself. You deserve to communicate your needs. You deserve to know that you are your own home, that you have the capacity to love and take care of yourself, that you have the capacity to derive your own worth. You deserve love.

So remember, an activated attachment system is not passionate love. Next time you date someone and find yourself feeling anxious, insecure, and obsessive—only to feel elated every once in a while—tell yourself this is most likely an activated attachment system and not love! True love, in the evolutionary sense, means calm. Means peace. I hope you feel inspired to seek that out, to heal patterns that maybe are blocking you from finding that, or encouraging you to settle for less. I hope you believe that there is more for you out there. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

About the author

Bianca Sparacino

Bianca is the author of The Strength In Our Scars and A Gentle Reminder.