Comments on
Emotional Attachment: 5 Unhealthy Relational Patterns


Photo credit: Unsplash

What were your thoughts when you read this article title? You might believe that attachment has nothing to do with mental health but it most certainly does. In fact, some people believe that topics about attachment only have something to do with newborn babies or toddlers. But the reality is that attachment is a natural phenomenon that occurs in every human relationship and begins during the first few years of life. Some people believe that attachment begins as early as in the womb between baby and mother. Our early life relationships often set the stage for how we will function within future relationships and will affect the boundaries we employ in each relationship. Research has suggested that healthy boundaries often include the ability to attach and detach when appropriate, foresee relational dangers, and employ appropriate boundaries. Unhealthy (or poor) attachment includes the inability to be independent when necessary, high levels of fear and anxiety when separated from a relationship, and very poor boundaries. This article will discuss how poor attachment correlates to unhealthy relationships in the long-run. This article will also highlight 5 unhealthy boundaries, often found in individuals with personality disorders or trauma histories, that we all should be aware of.

34 thoughts on “Emotional Attachment: 5 Unhealthy Relational Patterns

  • July 1, 2015 at 1:09 am

    May or may not have had this. I definitely lost track of myself in teenaged hood, to the point I lost skills and the ability to advocate for myself.
    Intersting article!

    Reply
    • July 1, 2015 at 11:15 am

      Thank you Girtl for your comment. I’m glad you enjoyed the article.
      I find it interesting that adolescents seems to struggle the most with unhealthy relational patterns than adults at times. It isn’t until adulthood that some people mellow out. Other individuals struggle for a lifetime. As I told a commenter above, we all have some form of unhealthy attachment at times. It’s a human thing. But if it interferes with your overall development and life, that’s where the problems begin.

      Reply
  • July 1, 2015 at 7:25 am

    A good article, but like many you don’t understand the reasons behind self-mutilation. Speaking as one who did this a lot as a teen and very rarely afterward (only under extreme stress) it has absolutely nothing to do with attention seeking behaviours: this is an action that causes a physical pain to distract one from their emotional pain. Nearly all who do this hide the scars or wounds with long sleeves, wrist bands, pants or eventually tattoos.
    The pain that causes this is often self hatred-at least mine was.

    Reply
    • July 1, 2015 at 11:10 am

      Hi Persephone,
      Self mutilation is a complicated subject and something I have studied for years. In fact, I am very familiar with the challenges and as you stated, many people don’t understand it. This is because some teens engage in the behavior to help regulate their emotions, while others use it to gain attention. I’m glad you are able to offer some understanding of this complicated subject.

      Reply
      • July 5, 2015 at 8:24 am

        Thx so much for great article. I got out of an emotional and psychological abusive relationship 2+ yrs ago. I think my story is the stuff horror movies are made of yet I was only hit once. Gaslighting was a major weapon. I wandered aimlessly around the house when he was at work trying to see the reality he had convinced me of. There was much that indicated I was crazy yet I just couldnt believe it. Now, I know what I believed in myself was probably the only turth in my entire life. I have learned much, grown more than I ever dreamed and have the most amazing contentment with being single and being me. I know turth these days and no matter how many times I suffer his ‘holy righteous judgement’ I will never again accept it. My desire is to save others from the mistakes and trauma I experienced. I know of ‘red flag’ behaviour but often lament for a simpler and concise list of things to be wary of. I loved your first point which was explained simply. I’d appreciate it so much if you know of a brief list and/or teaching of red flag behaviour. My other pet project is to increase awareness and education about boundaries. Thank you again.

        Reply
      • July 5, 2015 at 1:09 pm

        Hi Cleverblonde,
        Thanks so much for your comment. I love considering certain topics for my audience and providing you with resources you believe you would benefit from. I do indeed have a “red flag” list and you can expect that article to appear on this site on 7/15!

        It’s truly a blessing that you were able to set yourself free from an emotionally toxic relationship. Sadly, many people are held so captive by the emotional bonds of the relationship that it is hard to see that they need to escape.
        I wish you all the best

        Reply
    • July 2, 2015 at 3:52 am

      Every person I know who is a cutter or self-mutilates is an incest survivor. Every one.

      Reply
  • July 1, 2015 at 7:39 am

    Hi Tamara. I am Borderline and identify with most of the five patterns you mention. Although I have been in traditional therapy for a very long time, these attachment issues persist and cause immense pain almost all the time. While I know DBT is hugely beneficial for emotion regulation, do you happen to know if it can also help with attachment issues? Thank you!

    Reply
    • July 1, 2015 at 11:07 am

      Hi Dusty79, thanks for your comment.
      Firstly, I want to say that most of us, as humans, show some of the 5 patterns mentioned in this article. It’s the “extreme” that causes these 5 patterns to become an issue. For example, I tend to be “overly protective” of those I love and care for. But for someone who has, for example, BPD traits or a trauma history of poor attachment, this over protective stance can become obsessive or smothering.

      Now…to your question. DBT is basically the golden treatment for BPD-like symptoms. I am not aware of any research that points to DBT as being helpful for attachment issues. But there are other therapists who can be helpful. Depending on your childhood or hx, you may benefit from trauma informed care or a trauma therapist. You can certainly call your local crisis hotline or a mental health clinic and ask for a listing of local trauma therapists. Trauma therapists, those who are good at what they do, can help you figure out why you exhibit these relational patterns and how to cope with them. There are also group therapists who offer groups for women who have attachment issues as well. Try http://www.psychologytoday.com or therapytribe.com to search for these kind of therapists.

      I wish you well

      Reply
      • July 1, 2015 at 1:43 pm

        Exactly what I was looking for. Thank you so much for taking the time to reply!

        Reply
  • July 1, 2015 at 2:56 pm

    Hi Tamara,

    I identify greatly with the features you discussed in your article and can see how I display most of the things you mentioned. Your description of an adult with serious attachment issues is a pretty accurate description of me.

    However, one thing I wish you had mentioned (or perhaps could mention in a future article) is the ambivalence and fear that many of us feel when it comes to attachment relationships. For people like me, it’s not just an endless search for a mother or rescuer with anybody who is nice to us. We may feel that initial draw toward someone, but due to earlier rejections and abandonments, we have become nearly PHOBIC about allowing ourselves to connect even with a safe person like a therapist. This has been my problem in therapy.

    On the one hand, I can feel that intensely scared, needy, little child part of me inside that is frantic to be noticed, cared about, or protected in times of danger. But I am also very aware of the limitations of others and very afraid to come across as too demanding. Early in my therapy with my therapist, we had a couple of ruptures because she could not reply to my messages a couple of times when was in crisis. After finding out that she felt my needs were perhaps too demanding, I felt complete shame and self-disgust. I pulled way back and ever since, I have tried my hardest not to be too needy or reliant on her.

    The problem is, now she is offering more support and even encouraging it. Yet can’t seem to permit it. I HATE the idea of being a burden in any way. I always felt like my needs were a burden to my mom, and that she only met my needs because she had to. I can’t seem to rid myself of the thought that maybe my therapist is only offering more support now because she feels obligated or because I’ve somehow made her feel that way.

    My hesitance to rely on her emotionally, and my fear that allowing her to reply to messages, offer a hug, or provide any extra support of any kind is standing in the way of the therapy work we need to do, which involves working with my huge need for, and fear of, attachment.

    In addition, I understand that for people like me, the goal is to internalize my t’s caring and support as a way to learn how to then provide those things for myself. But I am finding it extremely hard to internalize her caring, or hold the connection we have, between therapy sessions. My t says that if I allow myself to believe and feel her caring inside, it will help me internalize it. But I am too fearful to let myself feel attached to her, for fear that when it is time to terminate, I might not have learned how to internalize her. If not, then losing her really will feel devastating.

    I keep trying so hard to be self-sufficient, independent, and handle things myself with coping skills, prayer, and just plain willpower. But it does nothing to help that part of me that continues to feel like a scared, neglected, endangered child who is all alone and in danger, with nobody there to help me.

    My t is great and she has helped me make many steps forward. But in the area of attachment, I feel very stuck! We’ve worked together a number of years already, and she will be retiring within the next year or so. I don’t know how we should move forward from here. I’ve gone through DBT and have also tried CBT-type exercises and just plain trying not to think about or talk about my deep attachment issues, but they never really go away.

    My husband is also seriously ill with a number of diseases, a couple of them life threatening. I have no children or grandchildren, no nieces or nephews, and no close friends, except a handful of very general acquaintances. My parents live out of state, and we don’t have a close relationship. Since my husband is an only child, if he passes away, I will be the only one available to care for both of his elderly parents, and it is possible I may have to take care of all three of them. That scares me too! I feel alone and afraid much of the time. I work a full-time job, as I am the provider for our household, and I am good at hiding my problems and pain from others. But inside, I am so afraid that I will be unable to deal with the losses sure to come in the future. I have had too many losses already!

    I am 51 years old and am diagnosed with PTSD, GAD, DDNOS, and formerly depression. Do you have any tips for me?

    Reply
    • July 4, 2015 at 2:53 pm

      Everything’s going to be okay. Don’t let fear take the steering wheel. You have everything it takes in life already within, so everything is going to be okay. Sometimes you gotta take it day by day and just keep moving forward.

      Reply
      • July 4, 2015 at 2:56 pm

        That’s so true Stace. Thanks so much for that down to earth reminder.

        Reply
    • July 11, 2015 at 12:57 am

      Denise,
      Firstly, thank you for your first comment. Due to the volume of
      requests, emails, etc. that come to many of the writers hourly, it is
      difficult to respond to each one. However, I will periodically answer questions related to
      the articles published or provide some guidance. Most writers,
      therapists, psychiatrists, psychologists, etc on Psychcentral only reply
      to a select few. It is a courtesy if a writer responds at all.

      That being said, I do see that you have put a lot of energy and time
      into your questions/concerns that were written on the site. I think it
      is certainly important to mention the ambivalence often experienced by
      those who struggle with attachment and appropriate interpersonal
      relationships with others. I find that for a lot of my clients with
      attachment issues, they tend to exhibit the same negative and
      destructive patterns of communication in their relationships with
      everyone they encounter (stranger or not). Part of this is because of
      fear (that causes self-destruction) and the other part is due to a lack
      of insight into symptoms and how they affect others. For many clients,
      feeling needy and afraid is often at the core of the negative relational
      issues encountered.

      I like the fact that you are articulate about your needs and you appear
      very insightful. I find this quite rare in client’s with attachment
      concerns. It is a strength. Have you ever considered engaging in trauma
      or grief therapy? This might be something worth looking into.

      All the best

      Reply
  • July 4, 2015 at 2:59 pm

    Upside Daisy, at least 50% of my current clients have or do self harm. Rarely, in 30 yrs of practice, have I had invest survivors. Self mutilation is absolutely a coping mechanism for those who have been abused but it is, by no means, the only reason. I am very sorry this has been your experience. I hope you have been able to work on healing–I know it is a very long and difficult journey. I agree with the Tamarack that the reasons for self harm vary from the coping mechanisms that Persephone describes to attention seeking that clients will admit openly. Like most difficulties, there is no one reason for the cause.

    Reply
  • July 6, 2015 at 7:46 am

    Thank you for the much needed conversation about attachment issues that was appropriate and informative. I have found at times, that some clinicians tend to write and add too much subjectivity. Conversely, you have discussed an array of possibilities and kept to the facts. I would like to add…for those who have a loved one who has been coerced, manipulated or exploited by an undue influence, totalitarian group, high demand group or cult…. reading about attachment issues could sound plausible. Many “leaders” in any attempt to break the bond with a child’s first attachment, their mother… manipulate the true feelings of attachment of their target and methodically destroy that relationship…substituting themselves and the group as the “mother figure.” (transference) For any parent who has experienced this “journey”…one could read your well done article and think “perhaps my child had attachment issues which caused them to abandon their relationship with their mother,father and everyone they loved…because they became so enmeshed with the person who was building a relationship with them for their own purposes. I wanted to point this out because on many platforms…including my own on FB “Gone”…we are comprised of parents, families and loved ones who most times have a child who is now alienated from their family of origin. You can imagine the pain we all suffer and trying to delve inside “why,” is something that just never ceases. In my own situation…my oldest daughter with several siblings was always close to everyone in the family and was a loving, involved, nurturing and brilliant young woman who was exploited in a boundary crossing way by someone in a position of trust. They then used her to cross that line and use the same tactics to “snap” a couple of her other siblings. It would be great if in the future you can address something for parents on this topic as attachment plays a part in this most unhealthy and dastardly connection that our children have succumb to. Thank you

    Reply
    • July 7, 2015 at 8:33 pm

      Hi Elizabeth,
      Thank you so much for your kind comment. I appreciate that.
      I also appreciate your insight on the topic. I would certainly love to open up this discussion more in the near future. I will consider adding an article about parents and how attachment plays into the parent-child unit. I will be discussing attachment therapy pretty soon and would definitely consider adding an article on attachment issues with parents and signs of problems within the family.

      Thanks again

      Reply
      • July 7, 2015 at 8:44 pm

        You are most welcome. I look forward to your future article and will certainly share with my readers.

        Reply
  • July 8, 2015 at 11:05 pm

    The 5 attributes I can completely with. You described what happens to someone who is deprived of love and nailed it. I was abandoned by my mother officially at the age of 12. Unofficially I believe she stopped caring for me around 9. I have no family. Any long term relationships I did form did end abruptly and left me feeling humiliated. Any valuable moments of what I thought love was cannot be retrieved without the feelings of shame. I feel as though this article is isolating for individuals who never had resources or an opportunity to form healthy relationships. There are several case studies that show when primate babies suffered overwhelming stress that had long lasting biological effects. I wish the article delved into a message of informing how to build healthy boundaries and identifying relationship warning signs. I am ill-equipped and lack the intuition that comes from a feeling of not being good enough. Also being in survival mode at a very young age and having to raise myself. It feels like you are warning healthy and resilient people there are clingy, unhealthy, attention-craving people out there with these 5 characteristics but some lucky ones can be healthy.

    Reply
    • July 9, 2015 at 8:55 am

      Hi Tia, thanks so much for your comment. I’m glad you found the article interesting. As stated in a previous reply to someone, I absolutely love considering the topics that you guys bring up so I will definitely consider adding some components of what you have discussed in a future article. On July 15th I will have an article about the red flags that often arise in the parent child relationship and I will definitely add some points about developing healthy relationships. You might also be interested in my article that’s going to come up pretty soon which talks about “attachment therapy.” It’s a type of therapy that is very questionable but a lot of people seek it because they believe it can help them develop healthy relationships. I don’t particularly agree with it and as a matter of fact I think it’s a dangerous type of therapy. That you might enjoy!

      All the best

      Reply
  • July 10, 2015 at 4:47 am

    Wonderful article! We are linking to this
    particularly great article on our website. Keep up the great writing.

    Reply
    • July 10, 2015 at 8:20 pm

      Thanks so much for that wonderful comment! It’s so great to know that you can write something and affect somebody in a great way.

      Reply
  • July 22, 2015 at 2:50 pm

    Hi Tamara,

    A lot of the points in this article actually validated my experience with attachment issues. I’ve been struggling most of my life trying to understand reasons why I have these issues and trying to explain them to others has been unsuccessful. I was abandoned emotionally by both parents. My father had Narcissistic Personality Disorder. I have borderline traits. I have always had push pull relationships with others. I was never taught healthy boundaries towards myself and others as my parents often violates mine. Its very disheartening to be experiencing this. I keep telling myself I will never find love or get married. I’ve been single for 3 years because I get overly attached to others and would not survive a possible break up. I am also one of those people mentioned in the article who take a kind gesture from someone (usually a man) and think we will be happily ever after. It makes me feel pretty pathetic but I know deep down I just long for acceptance and genuine care from a healthy individual. Still doesn’t stop me from berating myself over it though.

    Reply
    • July 24, 2015 at 12:08 am

      Hi Stacie,
      Thank you for your comment. I am glad that you found the article useful.
      As I read over your comment, I want to make something clear to you and to other readers as well. I think many of us have “push-pull” relationships, but some of us have them more than others. Healthy boundaries are difficult to develop if you have never been taught about them, suffer from a traumatic history, or, as you stated, if you have borderline traits. It’s a learning experience to develop appropriate and healthy relationships. A lot of what you mention seems to be rooted in fantasy or a deep desire to be loved, wanted, or perhaps needed. A small kind gesture that is taken as a romantic sign, can mean that you desire this but are having trouble finding it. That’s okay. Your time will come and when it comes, you will know it. In the meantime, have you ever had a therapist to talk to about this? It might be a great experience to have someone who can process this with you and help you develop more healthy patterns of attachment.

      You seem like a very insightful individual on your own emotional voids. That’s great! Many of us don’t. Recognizing there is something “wrong” is a great way to find the motivation to change it.
      All the best to you

      Reply
  • August 6, 2015 at 11:38 pm

    This is so me. Omgoodness I’ve only been recently introduced to the world of bpd after being declared bipolar for 10 years.. but like this article describes every single relationshio of every kind I’ve ever had. Including the boyfriend I’m fighting for now.. just so eye opening and is making me question everything I’ve ever felt my entire life.

    Reply
  • November 23, 2015 at 4:53 pm

    Both I and my girlfriend exhibit several aspects of the attachment deficiencies listed in your article. Your observations help explain my behavior in every romantic relationship I have ever had. I’m scared.

    Reply
    • November 28, 2015 at 8:54 pm

      Hi Carlo,
      I understand your concerns and fears. The only way to protect yourself in such a relationship like this is to seek therapy. A therapist can help you explore attachment and encourage you to engage in more healthy behaviors in your relationship. Reading more on this topic online can be helpful as well.
      All the best

      Reply
  • January 19, 2016 at 4:38 pm

    Hi,

    It is with tears in my eyes that I write this, since by reading your article I felt quite identified. I have an anxiety disorderwith BPD traits.

    Right now, I have big problem: I have a huge crush on this woman I barely know. And this is definitely not the first time this has happenened. I’m desperated. I “fall in love” too soon, too deep, and for the other person, I’m probably a run-of-the-mill person. Again, I’m desperated.

    I’ve decided to completely shut down my romantic life because I’m unable to control my feelings. What can I do to overcome my situation?

    Reply
    • January 24, 2016 at 7:24 pm

      Hi Dave,
      Thank you for your comment.
      I am sorry you feel this way but please be comforted by the fact that you are not alone. So many people have experienced or are currently experiencing what you are. Sometimes distancing yourself from romance to obtain a clearer picture of your life’s goals, your emotions, and your thoughts is a good idea. I think it’s very important to remind yourself of the facts which is that you do not truly know this person, it is unlikely that you “love” this person based on the little you know of them, and that perhaps your soul and heart are trying to “alert” you to pay attention to symptoms that need attention (further treatment, therapy, etc). Do you see anyone for therapy? It might be very useful to speak with someone who has experience with BPD traits about this and explore why this is a pattern for you. It’s not healthy, as you point out, for you or the other person.

      I wish you well

      Reply
  • April 6, 2016 at 5:52 pm

    Hi Tamara,
    Thank you a lot for this great article!
    I really wished that you left some notes/tips/strategies to deal with such unhealthy relational patterns..
    I can relate to this. I am 26 years old.
    I am in love with a girl whom i barely knew.. I was just following her on facebook and I felt that I love her.. Although we totally have different view and opinions on many issues.. But she is very nice and innocent in the way of she speaks and think..
    I have been feeling that I “love” her for more than a year,, and when i told her that, she refused having any kind of relationship! I feel bad about this.. I still feel that i love her..
    I know that i fall in love too soon and too deep and that was totally wrong but it was out of control..
    I still don’t understand why that happened as its not the first time! Please help understand myself and guide me to a solution!
    Thank you so much!

    Reply
    • April 9, 2016 at 10:46 am

      Hi Mike,
      Thank you for your kind comments. I’m glad you found the article helpful. I know for me, there are times when all I need is an article to confirm what I already know or suspect about something. It can be very reassuring at times. I will be writing about the strategies that we can all use to avoid emotional attachments that are unhealthy. I will be talking about this subject a bit more next Wednesday. You might find the article helpful.
      I will encourage you, however, to think about your early attachments (parents, friends, extended family, etc) and how you felt about them, were treated by them, etc. I believe that a lot of our attachment “attitudes” are buried in our early development. Stay tuned for my article next Wednesday.

      I wish you well

      Reply
  • December 13, 2016 at 6:20 pm

    Hi Tamara,
    I have a young lady living with me who has autism and has just been diagnosed a couple of months ago with emotional attachment .she’s in her late 20s and has been in care and had lots of homes since pre school.her last placement was a very negative one where she was contained and didn’t really access the world !
    the physicatrist who she was assesd with says she’s needs physiology help and I am trying to find someone to take this on but in the mean time I have to deal with her reacting badly if I give someone else in the house a simple job.she worries about leaving the house if the other young lady is left in the house with me.she wants to sit jext to me all the time but I have put 2 days in place where I sit next to her and two days she sits down last.
    She wants cuddles all the time but I have said I am in charge Iof my cuddles,who I give them too and when I also only cuddle people that I think deserve a cuddle i.e. Well behaved people !
    I’m not sure if a family environment is right for her anymore but I keep trying because her life has been quite dramatic and I’m trying to keep going thinking she will turn a corner and feel less insecure and feel loved because that is what she is looking for !
    But it’s hard one day you think it’s all ok and you can do it,another day you think she’s kicked off cause of the slightiset thing and you have to end it ! And I know she picks up on this making her feel more insecure but it is very hard !

    Reply
  • December 2, 2017 at 3:40 pm

    I’ve recently had a friend going through depression, who reached out to me. I spoke to him and comforted him, and advised him to seek professional help- even stepping in when he didn’t. I knew him from a class we shared for a few months, I bounced jokes and ideas off him but that was about the extent of our interaction. He’s three years younger than me, and I’ve had experience with younger boys having an infatuation with me in the past, so I had stated clearly on several occasions that “we’re just friends, and thats all that will ever happen”. Well, he sent a friend to stalk me. She followed me through my day, texting this friend of mine details of where I was, what I was doing, and who I was with. He confessed to me that he had cut himself whenever he saw or heard I was with another guy, then he professed his love to me. I felt I had to cut ties with him the day before, so I did. Officially ending all communication between us. My question is, do you think this would cause him to do anything rash? It was very interesting reading this article since I indentified with him most of the behaviors you had mentioned. What would you suggest to have done if you were in my shoes?

    Reply
    • December 5, 2017 at 10:47 pm

      Hi Scarlett,
      Thanks for your comment.
      It sounds as if you did the right thing. I don’t blame you for cutting all ties. He sounds incapable of connecting on a healthy level and may benefit from therapy. Of course, you should most likely not be the one telling him this as you should keep your distance. Stalking, controlling behaviors, manipulation, etc. are all legitimate concerns that could lead to legal consequences for him if you were ever to call the police. I would stay separate from him, put up firm boundaries, and avoid any contact.
      Take care

      Reply
 

Join the Conversation!

We invite you to share your thoughts and tell us what you think in this public forum. Before posting, please read our blog moderation guidelines. A first name or pseudonym is required and will be displayed with your comment. Your email address is also required, but will be kept private. (Please note that we use gravatars here, which are tied to your email address.) A website/blog/twitter address is optional.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *