“Is it attachment or is it love?”
To me, this is one of those deceptively easy questions – the ones we automatically think we know the answer to.
When I listen to a friend retelling a painful relationship story on the topic, it feels so easy – effortless, almost – to think to myself, “No way would I ever make that mistake with my own partner!”
And yet I made it again just the other day, and my mentor, Lynn, had to leap in to help me untangle the crisis I had yet again created.
Embarrassing. Truly cringe-worthy.
But attachment can be oh so canny – a real master of disguise. Some of its disguises are easier to see through, while others are pretty much impossible…at least at the time attachment is parading around wearing them.
For instance, my personal attachment nemesis often arises in the form of the “ultimatum.” My mentor describes an ultimatum as follows:
You either get what you want or you are outta here.
This made perfect sense when she explained it to me. Unfortunately, often when I am in the process of giving someone I love an ultimatum, I don’t realize that is what I’m doing. I think I’m doing something completely different, such as “standing up for myself” or “being honest about what I want/need.” Or I just think I’m “being loving.”
Lynn is in the process of teaching me (mostly by endless rounds of painful repetition) that it is fine to stand up for myself and to ask honestly for what I want/need. But it is not fine to insist the other person change their ways right now or else.
(One caveat here, which is that in the particular situation I am describing here, I was not dealing with abuse from the other person. Abuse follows an entirely different process, because the consequences of not addressing it promptly can be particularly severe).
But back to my situation – let’s say I have been in a productive partnership for some time – like, say, years. Then something crops up that isn’t working well for me. It is totally fine to bring it up. It is completely appropriate to be honest about what I want/need.
It is NOT fine to expect the other party to instantly grasp what I feel is wrong and agree with me and change it right away.
It is especially NOT fine to expect the other party to change just to keep me around, even if they feel strongly that I’m way off the mark.
All of this, Lynn tells me, is not love. It is attachment.
Lynn often reminds me about how Jesus, her own closest and most personal mentor, describes love:
Love is patient, love is kind.
It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.
It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking.
It is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.
Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.
It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
I think this is very lovely. I also think it is a tall order. Because of this, I mostly try to work on just one of these at a time (to date, I’m still working on “love is patient”).
Lynn also often reminds me that feelings of peace are how I can know I am doing the right thing and moving in the right direction. If I don’t feel peace, she says, I should turn around and go the other way…or at the very least, pause and re-evaluate.
Attachment doesn’t like to change course or re-evaluate. It likes to charge. Attachment is very impatient – so clearly the opposite of love.
Attachment also (at least in my personal interactions to date) doesn’t tend to be that kind. Instead, it is demanding, judgmental, entitled, unfeeling, self-righteous, angry. It is perfectly willing to punch itself in the face, if that will help it make a stronger argument.
In fact, attachment and anger feel a lot alike to me. One time one of my mentors was telling a story of how he used to get angry a lot. His teacher came along one day when he was stewing over one of his favorite “angry” topics – people who litter. She looked at him and calmly said, “It feels good, but it doesn’t work.”
Her point was that the anger wasn’t evolving into anything that could be productive. While he stayed angry, all his energy and creativity remained tied up in that anger. He couldn’t just bend down and pick up the trash and pop it in the wastebasket, or do anything else more productive to take action on the issue, as long as he kept clinging to his anger.
That is what attachment feels like to me, although usually only after the fact, in the same way that this man would get angry about the litter long after the litterer had dropped the trash and moved on.
I am learning that I can know I’ve been acting out of attachment instead of love when the so-called “peace” I thought I felt (which is usually associated with the relief of being honest rather than with receiving a specific outcome) devolves into grief, denial, anger, bargaining….love doesn’t usually evoke any of those experiences.
Love evokes peace. And love.
Of course, each time I get tricked by attachment again, I get angry. I start by being angry at the other person for not instantly handing over whatever I want/need, and end by becoming wildly angry at myself for causing a crisis when what I was really hoping for was a conversation. I wanted something gentle, like a light spring rain, and instead I’ve cooked up a typhoon. Again.
So then I have to forgive myself. Again. Which is tricky, because I am very mad at myself. Again.
Here and there I’ve been blogging on thoughts from a new book a dear friend gave me called “The Five Invitations.” Written by a Zen Buddhist hospice founder named Frank Ostaseki, the book talks about love and death and forgiveness and grief and all the other experiences that tend to crop up when someone we love is dying, or when we are the one who is dying, and there is both attachment and love present for the big event.
On the topic of love versus attachment, Ostaseki writes:
Loving and letting go are inseparable. You can’t love and cling at the same time. Too often we mistake attachment for love.
Right. We sure do. He goes on to write:
Attachment masquerades as love. It looks and smells like love, but it’s a cheap imitation. You can feel how attachment grasps and is driven by need and fear. Love is selfless; attachment is self-centered. Love is freeing; attachment is possessive. When we love, we relax, we don’t hold on so tightly, and we naturally let go more easily.
This reminds me very much of one of my favorite songs by my all-time favorite artist, Sting. Back in 1985, on an album that has to have just about the best album title ever (Dream of the Blue Turtles), Sting included a song called “If You Love Somebody Set Them Free.”
From the moment I heard this song, I knew this was the ultimate goal to strive towards. How could anything in life – any achievement, any goal – be better than this?
After all, I don’t want to love and be loved with superglue and duct tape.
I want to love and be loved with freedom and wide open spaces and soft feathery wings to fly anywhere and everywhere I want, even at a moment’s notice.
If I want this, and if this feels like love to me, surely others want this too. Surely this is more like love – to tell someone, “I love you so much that I want you to be happy and follow your path more than I want you to stay here with me just to please me.”
Just – wow.
Today’s Takeaway: Do you sometimes feel like love and attachment are identical twins, and only those who know them really, really well can see that the twin on the left has a devilish gleam in their eyes and the twin on the right has eyes that emanate peace? I sure do! Do you have a good way to tell the difference between the two so you can choose love over attachment?