On Love & Attachment

Why do we get jealous? What does it mean to become possessive of those we love? How can we cultivate love without attachment? Bowlby’s (1979) proposed that attachment is an innate and evolutionary adaptive system that fosters proximity-seeking and emotional connection between individuals. Originally developed to understand the bond between infants and their primary caregivers, he identified three primary attachment styles: 1) Secure attachment, where individuals tend to have healthy relationship dynamics, feeling comfortable with intimacy and autonomy, 2) Anxious attachment, where individuals crave closeness but may exhibit clinginess or fear of abandonment, and 3) Avoidant attachment, where individuals fear intimacy and may distance themselves emotionally. Bowlby (1979) posited that the quality of early attachment experiences can often shape an individual’s internal working models, influencing their behavior in and expectations of future relationships. In the context of romantic love, these attachment patterns can significantly impact dynamics including responses to conflict, communication patterns, and overall relationship satisfaction.

Fromm (1956) noted a sort of love that is developed in modernity, love as teamwork, where “everybody adjusts [their] behavior to the expressed needs of the other person in the pursuit of common aims”. Modeled after the same cohesiveness found in sport teams or efficient office spaces, centering collaboration can improve facets of relationships such as trust, tenacity, and unity; however, this concept fails to address why we seek partnership from others in the first place. Fromm (1956) suggests that the “neurotic lover” wants to be loved without being required to love in return. This regressive outlook encourages grandiose, unrealistic, fantastic expectations of romance. In the event that the neurotic lover finds a partner, they willfully ignore the person within—a human being with independence, agency, and a life with thoughts outside of their relationship. Inevitably, the partner cannot and will not live up to the pedestal they’ve been placed upon; they will not fulfill the fantasy constructed, nor gratify the neurotic lover freely and indefinitely as they hoped. Subsequently, the neurotic lover may feel deeply hurt, perhaps even betrayed. They may deem their partner selfish, or think they’ve fallen out of love.

Hook (1999) observed this neurotic romance to be historically gendered, and depicted it as a “project” in which “women [were] the architects and planners”. Specifically, Hook argued that women were socialized to be “the givers of love”—to sacrifice their agency, individuality, and personal aspirations in the name of dedication to the project. Inversely, men were taught that love is an immediate and sustained high, received passively and always, guaranteed for them if they achieved certain patriarchal standards that frequently involved repression of emotion and an obscure, unnamed suffering. Therefore, when demands were made of men in pertinence to their relationships, men perceived the underlying dissatisfaction, or lack, as a failure on the part of their partner. Suddenly, this “love as teamwork” idea seems lopsided. Possessiveness is historically tied to the antiquated sociolinguistic identity of men: to be a man was to be loved by a woman, and to be loved was to hold power over them. Boundaries were all so often misused as forms of policing and correcting the ways in which their partner was supposed to love them.

Despite today’s strides to dismantle gendered norms, and the conscious effort made to balance the scales between all gender identities, possessiveness in relationships has ever-lingered. It transcends gender because it is so deeply rooted in self-image. Insecurity and lack of control in oneself breed attempts to own and dominate another. Narcissism does not respect the autonomy of others; it is motivated by desire and fear. “So long as we depend on another for our psychological well-being, intellectually or emotionally, that dependents must inevitably create fear from which arises sorrow”, writes Krishnamurti (2001), “and furthermore, any alteration of these dependencies we violently oppose because we depend on them for psychological security”. To love without attachment is above all else to get over oneself. Fromm (1956) recognized the overcoming of one’s narcissism as the most vital condition for achieving true love. To seek self-image through another is to create a false image (or fantasy) of that other, and fixate on that image as absolute. Any deviation from this delusion that they are as we say they are is intolerable. Like many features of psychosis, the belief is foreclosed, and thus we imprison our partner in this false image of who they are through manipulation, deception, and control.

Yet through this attempt to possess, we also imprison ourselves. “Love is a verb, not a permanent state of enthusiasm”, said Esther Perel in a 2018 interview with the New Yorker. To assume otherwise is to cut ourselves off from being able to experience it. Contrary to the media-driven depiction of passion, eroticism, spontaneity, and drama, proper love involves a holistic view of one’s partner(s). True love, as it were, encompasses, integrates, and accepts both an individual’s strengths and shortcomings, successes and failures, wonders and dreads. True love abandons self-prioritization and resists the temptation of our possessive, childish, narcissistic mind to pigeon-hole another to serve a role. True love involves humility, which is informed by a significant faith that through recognizing, trusting, and nurturing the collective potential and pair bonding between oneself and one’s partner, love will indeed flourish. On this side of the fence, boundaries come about through education, rather than manipulation. Identifying and enforcing these boundaries invites one’s partner to do the same. Needs may not be identical and paths may not be fully aligned. The crucial and scary part about love without attachment is the vulnerability toward one’s deepest fears: the possibility that things might not last, that people grow apart, feelings change, people die, etcetera.

The world is random, but the learning process is reciprocal. It will bring both love and pain, often simultaneously, seldom expectedly. Krishnamurti (2001) argues that “passion comes through learning rather than through desire or gratification, and it is within this intense curiosity we have for the other where love emerges”. How could we ever truly know the people we say we love if we limit them to only what we know of them? To only what we want of them? How dull. Assuming we’re experts on the subject of our partners is to fall prey to the Dunning-Krueger effect. To love without attachment is to listen without judgment, and if “true love is unconditional”, then it requires “an ongoing commitment to struggle and change” (Hooks, 1999). If it’s meant to be, let it be.

References:

  1. Bowlby, J. (1979). The bowlby-ainsworth attachment theory. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, Vol. 2(4), p. 637-638.

  2. Fromm, E. (1956). The art of loving. Harper & Row: New York.

  3. Hooks, B. (1999). All about love: new visions. William Morrow: New York.

  4. Krishnamurti, J. (2001). What are you doing with your life? K Publications.