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Irrational Attachments in Human Relationships

Critical thought process as a path to well-being.

Key points

  • The inability to leave an unhealthy relationship can stem from a healthy capacity for attachment, loyalty, or a passion for problem solving
  • A critical thought process can be crucial to letting go.
  • One can be freed from undermining relationship patterns through emotional processing as well.
by Chloe Barron
Source: by Chloe Barron

Attachment styles, originally described by John Bowlby include anxious, avoidant, disorganized, and secure. These categories capture the early relations between caregiver and child, and predict the kinds of challenges people might have in future relationships. An anxious attachment style may lead to hyper-vigilance or clinginess, avoidant to dismissiveness or isolation, and disorganized to ambivalence, chaos, and mistrust. Inconsistency or unpredictability in caregiver responsiveness leads the child to feel unsafe or not grounded.

Secure attachment is the most ideal. The core belief is that the loved one will be there in spite of inevitable conflicts and challenges. Often this kind of caregiver or loved one can absorb some anger and try to understand rather than retaliating or getting defensive. A good parent tolerates some aggression and in doing so, helps the child contain and manage his own anger. By letting the child know that he or she will not destroy the source of love or themself in moments of rage, the child is free to be real, spontaneous, able, creative, reflective, and curious. Secure attachment is not created by platitudinous expressions of love but rather by the acceptance of another human being with a range of emotions. It is the integration and acceptance of love, hate, good, and bad in our psyche that allows for emotional health and growth. Of course, affectionate gestures and loving messages are great, but they're best if sincerely felt as opposed to dutifully delivered. Psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut wrote about the gleam in the mother's eye, which can bolster a healthy narcissism. You can't really fake the gleam. It is felt by the child.

While developmental factors such as environment and interpersonal dynamics influence how personality unfolds, innate, biological factors determine disposition as well. Much is yet to be learned about the neurobiology of attachment but Bowlby's helpful framework has guided generations of thinkers and researchers. The book Attached: The new science of adult attachment and how it can help you find and keep love, by Amir and Heller, re-examines attachment styles.

Irrational Attachment

Irrational attachment is a term originally coined by psychologist Ellen Langer. It was described further in the book Critical Mindfulness, by psychologist Dan Ariely, and applied to the field of behavioral economics. Langer explores why people love what they own or why they are attached to objects or trends that may not serve them. (In the context of this post, the term is being used to explore bonds to people as opposed to things.)

Irrational attachment to others is a common phenomenon in adult relations and an issue with which many people struggle. The mind and the feeling are in conflict: "Why do I want to remain attached to someone who is not good for me, has mistreated me and who maybe I do not even like or respect that much?" "Why do I hang on when, rationally speaking, this relationship does not make sense and makes me feel pretty badly much of the time?" Cognitively, it is clear that walking away is warranted, whether you hear it from friends, loved ones, a therapist, or your own rational mind. Because even if a partner suffices in one way or is super at something else, you are not thriving, flourishing, okay, or perhaps even functioning well at all. Those who know and love you can see it. They've held you, hugged you, helped you, and asked you why are you still hanging on. For whatever reason, your thinking on the matter is not rational. Or maybe it is, but you still don't get up and go.

Why can't you let go? What is stopping you? There are myriad answers. Every individual has unique, deep-seated psychological and practical reasons which make it hard to change a life, whether financial or involving young children or a community of friends one does not want to relinquish: Habit, for one. So-called codependent patterns, trauma bonds, neurotic tangles, and fraught histories can also cause people to perpetuate the nightmare or nothingness. A long-standing pattern of faulty, relationships can be preoccupying, taxing, and hard to see, much less address. Children do not have the ability to just depart. Many adults technically do, but cannot, will not, or do not because they are caught in an unconscious bind. When an attachment is steadfast yet senseless, an insidious, draining, soul-crushing existence can ensue.

There are ways to emerge and begin again. Some people can rise up out of dysfunction more easily than others because they have inborn or learned resilience. After enduring calamities or wrong choice sequalae they can find a fragment of hope or crack of light in a situation, expand it, and keep living. They are stronger, wiser, and more able because the trauma elicited growth. For some, post-traumatic growth doesn't even capture it; they actually feel a whole lot happier after exiting a gnawing relationship and embarking on something better. Right-fit in persons, landscapes, communities, etc. can be curative. But it might take a critical thought process to let go of one thing and engage in another.

Would altering your thinking help you relinquish an irrational attachment? Some literature suggests that a critical thought process can help you to take an action you thought improbable or impossible. In some cases, there is no way to alter angst, stagnation, and emotional turmoil without a deep psychotherapeutic working through of the past. Moving through the painful feelings allows freedom and capability to unfold. It works. In others, changing the thoughts changes the feelings and leads the capacity to take action. Cognitive reframing techniques such as Socratic questioning or a guided critical thought process can also spur change.

Three themes cited in the research explain some of the reasons why people may have steadfast attachments to unsuitable figures. There are others, but I chose to focus on these because they deal with an entrenched set of beliefs that, if challenged, could open up a life.

  1. The overvaluation of romantic love.
  2. A false set of beliefs about the other person's identity.
  3. Separation is the hardest human task and harder for deeply loyal problem solvers in a toxic bind.

One thought now is that if you are holding on, it could reflect your capacity to form a real, continuous, caring, in-depth attachment in the first place. Not everyone can do this. It's healthy. One of the problems might be that the "other" you cling to doesn't have this capacity. Because of their slipperiness or as-if quality, you are intermittently conditioned to stay put in the hope of fixing things. This BF Skinner type of conditioning is an evidence-based, logical, behavioral phenomenon that is "irrational" when it comes to your health.

So, one good thing is that you have the capacity for true attachment and a good dose of tenacity. Re-directing these strengths in more" rational" ways is a great start for a good life.


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