The idea of detached love comes from the Buddhist practice of unattachment, which is to be with any thought, feeling, or experience without getting hooked. It’s different than attachment theory, which explains the psychological experience of how we learned to bond with others beginning in infancy, and then how that learned style of attachment plays out in relationships.
One example of the Buddhist concept of attachment is this: If we feel anger, we can experience that feeling and allow it to pass through our experience. No biggie. But, if we’re angry and then we come to think and then believe that we’re an angry person, or we become prideful of being angry, or we feel badly about ourselves for being angry, then we’ve become attached to the emotion.
Here’s another example: Say we have a high-profile job from which we derive an identity. We’re not simply ourselves, we are this person who does a job and has a title, and so if something happens to that job — say the company is bought out and our job is eliminated — then we lose not just an income but we also lose our sense of self.
This can go on and on and on with anything and everything that one can attach themselves to. It could be the identity of being a parent. We can become so attached to parenthood and our kids that our sense of self is dependent on our offspring. It could be the neighborhood we live in or the car we drive, and it doesn’t have to come with a high price tag. Perhaps you grew up in a poor neighborhood and have attached to the identity of being poor or disadvantaged. Maybe you were abused or traumatized and have attached to that identity as well.
Whatever it is, what’s most important is to remember that our attachments are not failures. They are not yet another reason to self-criticize. They are entirely human, and they connect each of us to the whole of humanity. We’re all attached in some way to something, for better or for worse. So, take a breath. It’s okay. I’m going to walk you through how to attend to your attachments, but first — what’s this got to do with love?
When we become attached in love, we begin to derive our identity or mental or emotional state from our partner, the nature of the relationship, and/or our relationship status. If we’re attached to our partner, then we likely need them to be, look, or act a certain way to feel good about ourselves and the relationship.
For example, if we’re attached to their appearance and it changes in a way that we think is for the worse, then we may feel badly about ourselves and our connection to our partner. Conversely, if we’re attached to their appearance and find them to be attractive, then part of what we like about them is how being with an attractive person makes us feel. No matter what side of this attachment you’re on, you can see that it’s shallow and ultimately unkind to our partner.
If we’re attached to them behaving a certain way and they have a bad day or simply fail to meet our needs, then we’re likely to be triggered and reactive and direct criticism and blame at them without considering that they may be in the midst of a struggle. Our attachment dictates that they behave a certain way and they haven’t, leaving us feeling let down.
If we’re emotionally attached to the relationship status, then we need reassurance about the status. We need to know that this thing we’re holding on to will be there. Maybe we try to secure the relationship by moving in together or getting married, and maybe we also need lots of verbal and physical evidence that our partner is there for us and all in.
We can be so attached to a relationship status that we ignore abuse to avoid changing that status. We can be so attached to an aspect of a person, or to simply having that person or a person in our lives, that we tolerate all manner of mistreatment or stay with a person we don’t love or admire to avoid letting go and facing the unknown.
Being attached in relationship is so normalized in our culture that I expect many of you have experienced more than one of my examples, and that when it happened or as it’s happening now, you accepted it as a normal and healthy expression of love and caring. Truth is, this kind of attachment is not only unhealthy it’s actually harmful.
It erodes relationships, prevents true intimacy, and threatens autonomy and a sense of self. It creates relationships where partners make choices from a place of fear (the fear of being alone), instead of being together because they choose to be.
When we’re attached to our partner, we approach them from a place of need and clinginess, instead of a place of love and openness.
If we’re feeling attached in a relationship and our partner hasn’t texted us back or called to check in, we may take it personally or as a comment on the relationship. When, in truth, their communication or lack thereof is entirely about them and their choices.
Perhaps we’d like more communication from a partner, and that’s a legitimate ask in a relationship. Perhaps it’s also true that they’d communicate more if they cared more, which is another legitimate issue. But it is, again, about them and not us and we don’t get to prescribe a communication style or frequency to another. We can receive their communication and then decided if it suits us or not, but to try to change or alter them for our purposes isn’t love.
When we love someone we see and accept them as they are.
If we say, hey I need more communication and am thinking this isn’t going to work because you need less and they in turn say they want to make a change in their communication style that they feel would be supportive to their personal growth and then, by their own volition, they make some changes that better meet your needs, great.
But, if you hand them an ultimatum, insist that it be another way, assume that you know what’s best for them and the both of you, that’s not love. That’s control.
What we can do instead is take a look at ourselves and our need for more communication. Is there something lying beneath our need? Maybe we need to feel more loved and cared for? We can attend to this need by ourselves by first by asking if there are there ways we could give ourselves more love and care. If it’s that our partner isn’t demonstrating enough attention or affection to make their feelings clear, then we can ask specifically for that because now we know exactly what’s up for us.
With all of that said, it’s certainly healthy and within our right and definitely not a sign of attachment to set boundaries and to only accept treatment that’s kind and respectful. Outside of this, trying to bend someone to our will or to issue directives to “make a relationship work,” is not love. It’s control.
Detached love is deep and powerful and abiding. It takes in the whole person and accepts them as they are. It doesn’t ask them to dress better or cuss less or quit smoking. Detached love is loving the other exactly as he or she is, while also knowing that at any time the nature of the relationship could change.
The beloved doesn’t belong to the other.
The lovers choose each other each moment. Again and again, each day that they’re together, they wake up and choose each other. There are no hooks into the future of what will be and for how long, and there are no promises or guarantees.
Detached love embraces uncertainty.
It embraces that fact that the only thing we know for sure is that everything is going to change. It embraces this and still chooses to be open and vulnerable and, in this way, detached love is the most courageous act.
We can be in a long-term, committed, and monogamous relationship and practice detached love. Detached love doesn’t mean you don’t want to be deeply connected and connected for a long time; it means that while you’re connected you choose to allow the beloved to fully be themselves without expectations about the outcome of your relationship. Outside of healthy and supportive boundaries, treatment, and behaviors, detached love loves without conditions.
Here are some tips to help you navigate your attachments and ultimately detached love:
- Love yourself first. Loving without attachment will ask you to address all of your insecurities and to learn to love and accept yourself as you are right now. This is a work in progress for most of us, and that’s totally okay. Just remember that self-compassion and acceptance are key and return to the practice of loving yourself again and again.
- Identify your attachment triggers. What behaviors in a partner cause you to feel clingy, needy, jealous, possessive, or controlling? Notice when any of these feelings come up and be curious. Am I feeling this way because an old pain is triggered, or has my partnered behaved in a way that truly threatens our relationship (been dishonest, unreliable, etc.)? If it’s an old pain, then you’ve identified an attachment trigger. Next time it gets tripped, stop and notice before reacting. Breathe. Take your time. Explore the feeling. What’s it connected to? Feel it as much as you can, but then let it go. Reconfirm reality, which is different from what the trigger is telling you.
- Let your partner in. Talk to your partner about detached love. Do they share this way of loving, or does it sound like a bad romance novel? I’ve known people who found this kind of love threatening and the opposite of how they imagined romance. Also, share your insecurities and triggers and how you’re working on them.
- A lifetime is a reasonable time frame for learning how to love. When it comes to love, many of us are unlearning and learning at the same time. It takes a lot of trial and error and a willingness to admit when we’re wrong, and then the desire and the skill to learn to do better. Be kind and patient with yourself.
- Keep a journal for your feelings. This is a great way to track and begin to understand what sets you off and what feels really good. Start by making a list of what you feel attached to and reflect on each one. Here’s an example: Being a mom is a huge part of my identity, and I have a strong attachment to my kids. This attachment is different than my bond and connection to them, which is also strong. My bond and connection aren’t changed if something happens to them, say they get sick or are injured. However, if they are in any kind of danger, my attachment can actually get in the way of me taking appropriate action. I can become too emotionally distraught to think clearly. I’m sure lots of other parents understand this; and, while it’s common, it’s can be problematic. I can love my kids just as fiercely without being so attached that I’m prone to become reactive or ineffective in a crisis.
- Allow your insecurities to breathe. Journaling and talking about our insecurities brings them into the light where they can be seen, heard, and healed. Many of us have been conditioned to be stoic and strong, and to not reveal weakness. Being open about our insecurities may feel really awkward and uncomfortable, but it’s necessary if we want to heal and be free of the bondage of insecurity.
- Try and try again. It won’t be perfect. We’re not always going to get it right, but we can always try again. Renew your commitment to loving without attachment as often as needed. In mindfulness meditation, I teach that progress is made every time we notice our mind wandering and bring our attention back to the breath. The same is true in life and in love. Progress is made every time we notice that we’ve gone off track, and come back to our original intent.
Remember, just being willing and able to love is a triumph. No matter how it turns out, I hope you’re able to be grateful for your open heart. And no matter how or who you choose to love, may you love well and be loved in return.