Relationships. They constantly surround us. For most of us, we have relationships of all varying degrees such as romantic relationships, platonic relationships, relationships with our families, friendships, and even other social relationships such as with our coworkers, acquaintances, and others. As humans, social connection is a highly sought out quality and resource we offer to one another. Social relationships are part of our human nature. We even develop these relationships with our non-human friends such as cats and dogs. As a human race, relationships have allowed us to communicate, unite, thrive, build families, and even empires. Many of our holidays center around the core ideals of connection, family, and relationships. This is all to say that we place a large emphasis on having and maintaining relationships.
With holidays like Valentine’s Day fast approaching, we may even look deep into ourselves and reflect on where we are in our lives. We may start to ruminate at the prospect of being alone or romantically partnered during this holiday. We may even start to feel the pressure to be in a relationship at all costs due to the belief that being lonely seems like the worst possible outcome. We may find ourselves having feelings of depression, anxiety, and loneliness. Given this prospect we may find ourselves swiping right on all dating profiles to have a chance at not being alone. For some, this works out well and they can find the love of their life with a simple swipe but for most of us, this rarely works out. We may find ourselves going on countless dates out of an obligation rather than enjoyment and we may also tend to overlook red flags that are very evident. If we are lucky though, we can find the perfect partner and find ourselves in our ideal situation.
Logically the next step would be starting a relationship and as most do, the beginning of the relationship can feel amazing and almost magical to us. We may find ourselves intrigued by our partner and even start to blush and smile at the sight of a text message from them. We may also start thinking about them when they are not around us and we can start picturing a life with them. The feeling is unique. We find that we start to form a meaningful connection to them.
As we start to form and cultivate this connection, we may start to ponder the question if we have connection or attachment to our partners and this is not a straightforward question to answer. In popular culture, we often see the “overly attached partner” trope that has become popularized on social media, tv, movies, and in songs. It is easy for us to second guess if the connection we are fostering is truly healthy. We are inundated with lists of “toxic relationship characteristics” and messaging that at times are misguided and posit normal healthy connections and attachments to our partners as harmful. While there are certainly toxic traits to look out for that are completely valid and warranted to be on the list, being attached to our partners should not be one. This messaging makes it sound like connections and attachments are diametrically opposed and this is simply untrue. This makes it hard for us to decipher what is a normal and healthy connection versus one that is not.
As mentioned before, humans have a predisposition for human connection, we are creatures that seek connection and attachment. Connection and attachment are great, they help us feel closer to our social circle and allow us to communicate meaningfully with one another. The truth of the matter is that connection and attachment are more similar than you think. For most, connection speaks to the quality of relationship one has, think of this more so as the chemistry you have with someone. When you have a good connection, you might view yourself as having good chemistry to an individual. As part of the developing chemistry, you might share common interests, similar life experiences and upbringing, and you might also find each other sexually and/or emotionally attracted one another. That is great! Attachments might be viewed as having a similar or higher levels of connection with the individual. You might find yourself feeling closer to the individual and feeling secure with them. This is because when we have an attachment, we find ourselves seeking security, availability, and responsive from our loved ones.
The ways in which we attach to individuals is also different for each person and in psychology we posit the idea that there are 3 main forms of attachment styles in our relationships as per John Bowlby’s Attachment Theory. They are Anxious, Avoidant, and Secure. You might also see a fourth option typically labeled as fearful or disorganized but there is considerable overlap to anxious and avoidant so we will instead opt to use the first three to describe attachment. To say that there is one best attachment style would be very misleading. There is nothing wrong with the way we attach to people, it just describes how we find availability and responsiveness to the person we find most comfort and security with (Secure base). As with most things, there is no one size fits all in this approach and the attachment styles more so speak the needs we have in order to find availability and responsive from our partner. We might find ourselves being preoccupied with our relationship and start to worry if our partners love us back, this would be most associated with an anxious attachment style. We might also view getting close to someone as being difficult and impeding on our independence and so we try to minimize the closeness, this would be more in line with an avoidant attachment style. Lastly, we might find ourselves feeling welcoming to the closeness and intimacy we get from our partners and can find ourselves being flexible to the needs of our partner and this is more in line with Secure Attachment. While Secure attachment might seem like the most ideal attachment or “the best”, having needs is not a bad thing either, it means you are able to recognize that your needs, so that you can feel that sense of safety with your secure base.
When you are attached to someone, you have a connection to them but like most things, our connections can become muddled and at times start to veer into territory that is problematic. As the saying goes, we “can have too much of a good thing”. When we start to see our partners or ourselves start to demand more and more than what our partners can offer, we start approaching territory that describes an unhealthy relationship. These are characteristics that are most used to describe the popular term “codependency”. The term codependent carries a lot of meaning in various contexts and therefore it is also important to unpack what it could mean. The term codependent is a very popular term in current day vernacular and has a lot of misuse as a result. In various think pieces and searches, you might find codependency being described as a one-sided relationship where one person takes all and the other person sacrifices all. While these experience are valid and carry merit, it is important to understand where the term was popularized. The term codependency found its roots in substance use communities where families and loved ones experienced these relational dynamics. Often, the individual afflicted with substance use occupied much emotional, physical, and financial needs due to their substance use issue that their loved ones often felt drained and/or unable to care for themselves. This experience is valid and should not be minimized. When using terms like codependency, we should evaluate the context for which we use them.
The term in pop culture is more so used to described dependency as a whole and that is where there is confusion about what is a good healthy relationship as opposed to a bad one that is often labeled as codependent. Dependency is not a bad thing and has been the subject of research. Dependency to a secure base is actually a very good thing! Studies show when you find yourself with a partner that you feel secure with and have their support, you can reduce your blood pressure, feel more emotionally regulated, and become more independent (Link to Dr. Levine’s book down below). The opposite of the physical and emotional symptoms tends to occur when you have a secure base that is infrequent or fails to meet your needs. This includes heightened blood pressure, more emotional dysregulation, and lack of independence whenever in proximity to the infrequent secure base.
All of this is to say that finding a partner that feels comforting, secure, and present can yield great outcomes. Dependency is not a bad thing but be aware of how much you are putting into a relationship and examine if your needs are being met as well. No relationship should be one sided and it is okay to take a step back and examine if being in a relationship in this moment is right for you. While the pressure to find love and build that connection to an attachment certainly exists, we must approach it in a way that is sustainable and sensitive to our needs. Lastly, being single is also valid and awesome, you don’t have to find a partner if it’s not right for you or if you choose to not have a romantic partner. Platonic friendships and relationships are all great source of a secure based and you can find those meaningful connection and attachments with what makes you feel the most assured.
Levine, A., & Heller, R. (2011). Attached: Identify your attachment style and find your perfect match. Macmillan.