Love and Attachment
by Abba Jepsen, M.A., LPC
"He who binds himself to a joy
Does the winged life destroy
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sunrise."
-William Blake, Eternity
What is attachment? Attachment is a state of binding oneself with personal ties and bringing oneself into association with another. I believe it occurs in all relationships, when there is discomfort and fear of simply being in the moment- a fear of the unknown and of losing the love we feel. This fear propels us to attach to our partner.
As we attach emotionally, we rely on our partner (what they say or do) to make us happy. Even though we think we are becoming closer, we are losing who we are in the context of our partner. I sometimes think of attachment as proximity. If relationship were a camera, with love we'd be in focus; when attached we are so close that we become blurry. Attachment manifests as grasping, controlling and being jealous. When we feel attached, we usually act and speak negatively to our partner. Attachment fuels emotional dependency on our partner, making us enmeshed and codependent.
With attachment there comes a tight sense of urgency, as if things are not and will not be okay... unless someone or something else changes. We react and our partner's smallest gesture and word threatens us, torments us, burns us. As a result, attachment fuels abuse, revenge, and manipulation. When attached we have a selfish focus, wanting that which benefits me, mine and my agenda. We fail to see that it is our own clinging to our partner, the relationship and our ego self that creates our misery. Charlotte Kasl writes, in her book, If the Buddha Married, "In relationships people become attached to praise, validation, sex, security, status and affirmation of their worth. Sentiments like, “You make me feel so bad” or 'You make me feel so good' are both forms of attachment because no one can make us feel secure and our partner is not here to tell us we're okay. This doesn't mean that loving couples don't validate or give support to each other, it's that they don't depend on it from their partner."
To love someone is to set them free, to wish them well, expecting nothing in return. Love is not self-absorbed, but allows us to extend to others without feeling drained. When we love someone and something happens to him or her, we are very sad but we know that in the end, we will be okay. We need to experience this confidence so we do not expect our partner to save us and make or keep us happy. This is not possible.
Love happens in the moment when we open our minds and hearts to our partner (and ourselves). It is intimacy and understanding. In his book, Passionate Marriage, David Schnarch refers to love as differentiation. This is the process of becoming a separate, whole self within the context of a relationship. When we first meet and fall in love, we are differentiated. Over time we become more attached and enmeshed. Schnarch suggests that to differentiate from our partner is what makes passion. When we can work on keeping our attachments in check, we free up space for more love.
From Attachment to Love
How do we move from attachment to love, from enmeshment to differentiation? How do we, peel the vine that we have become off the wall? To be completely free of attachment to our partner is an ideal. This is something we can work on throughout our lives.
The first thing we can do is study ourselves and become aware of the attachments we have to our partner. A clue for our attachment is the feeling of pain. We can watch how we react, how we have high expectations, how we no longer treat our partner like a respected friend. We can watch our motivation for saying and doing what we do and get clear how fear drives us.
Next, we can make the intention to let go of this entanglement. However works best, try to drop the attachment. Sometimes this means feeling deep sadness and grieving the losses in our relationship. This involves feeling our own pain without trying to blame our partner or have them take it away. We can also learn to "hold onto ourselves," which means turning inward when we feel rattled, to calming and soothing ourselves so that we do not demand this of our partner. We let our partner have their anger and pain and hurt without trying to rescue them so that we don't feel uncomfortable.
We can also learn to not react. We do this by ignoring the voices and story lines in our mind that fuel the fear and perceived threat. We can take responsibility for our choices instead of feeling like a victim. We can take responsibility for our own happiness. Without being so self-important, we can humbly focus on ourselves instead of making our partner the object of our constant attention and criticism. Instead of trying to find or mold the perfect partner we can become the perfect partner.
"Vitality, spontaneity, and freedom emerge as we become able to see our partner clearly-free from images, illusions and expectations...understanding our attachments- how our expectations, fears, and demands lie at the root of our individual suffering, including our suffering in relationships… We discover how we can use our highly charged flashes of emotion to help us wake up rather than retreat from our relationships. We learn to stay present to ourselves and acknowledge our anger, fear, or hurt, so we cease hiding from ourselves and those we love." –Charlotte Kasl If the Buddha Married, p.xvii.
Abba Jepsen, MA, LPC
Abba Jepsen, MA, LPC has a private practice in Crestone and Salida. She works with couples, individuals and groups.