Attachment, Relationships, and Misconceived Buddhism

A common misconception about Buddhism is that it teaches its adherents to rid themselves of all attachments—including relationships. Attachments, according to Buddhism, ultimately cause suffering. This is something that, despite my interest in Buddhism, has kept me from really appreciating it until recently. Even psychologist Jonathan Haidt made this mistake in his book, The Happiness Hypothesis: “Yes, attachments bring pain, but they also bring our greatest joys…” Haidt proposes that the Buddhist teaching of non-attachment may be extreme.

The misconception occurs in how one defines attachment. Buddhism does not denounce possessions, hobbies, interests, food, or most importantly, relationships. It teaches that clinging to these things causes suffering. Clinging to a partner in a relationship would better be defined in the Western view as insecure attachment, not attachment. People with an insecure attachment (either avoidant or ambivalent/anxious) resort to the behaviors that Buddhism warns against in the face of loss: a craving or thirst for something. Craving occurs when one’s desire is excessive. Buddhism teaches that suffering ends when craving disappears.

Attachment theory posits that the more securely attached we are in our relationships, the more separate and independent we can be. Attachment to key others is a universal need that we never outgrow. Buddhism teaches against insecure attachment. Another point of confluence is that if we are insecure in our attachment style, we need important others in order to become secure. Sometimes we need professional help as well. We can’t do it alone, just like in Buddhism. We need others.

There is nothing wrong with desires and relationships as long as one does not cling. I can truly enjoy a movie or a restaurant as long as I do not cling to them. I can have a meaningful and happy relationship with my wife as long as I work with her to mediate the tendency to either pursue (i.e. criticizing, complaining, endless questioning, etc.) or withdraw (getting defensive, checking out, shutting down, avoiding, etc.) during conflict. Both pursuing and withdrawing are clinging. Both are suffering.

Go here to find out your attachment style in a brief but reliable quiz. Find out how much–or not–you cling or avoid in your relationships.

Sources, and other definitely related posts:

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"Patience is not learned in safety." View all posts by shenpa warrior

21 responses to “Attachment, Relationships, and Misconceived Buddhism

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  • Kwelos

    Difference between Love and Attachment…

    Love is: “How can I make you happy?”
    Attachment is: “How can you make me happy?”

  • adamf

    Thanks for the comment, Kwelos. I’m assuming that by “attachment” you are referring to the Buddhist definition. In that case, I agree 100%.

    • thabomophiring

      I think since we are talking Buddha”s views we really should be talking the Buddhist definition, Secondly why cling to a word like attachment with all its connotations, when a word like love will do perfectly well.

      • shenpa warrior

        Well if we’re using the Buddhist definitions, I agree, why “cling” to the word. :)

        As for using the term in the psychological sense, “attachment” is not necessarily equal to love. You can love someone, yet they may not be an attachment figure for you.

  • Sean

    I don’t know why so many make the misconceptions that Buddhism says to get rid of all posessions and whatnot. I like that you pointed this misconception out though, the more people that know about this, the better.

  • Emily

    What I have appreciated about Buddhism (at least Zen) is its extreme practicality. Another synonym for ‘attachment’ or ‘craving’ is addiction. To the extent any relationship is being used to prop up / feed emotional addictions, suffering will ensue – but by that same token, relationships offer the best opportunity to become aware of how one is burdened by such cravings or addictions and practice cessation. My sense of the ‘ideal’ relationship is very Buddhist, I guess, because it would transcend the ways ego makes us believe we’re separate from each other. Maybe the ultimate secure attachment is to realize that everything and everyone is one. Not everybody is meant to go be a monk, and even the celibate monks have to do a whole lot of relationship work (as I observed when I visited Shasta Abbey). I think the best way to practice for 99% of people is in intimate relationships. Way easier to practice realizing oneness with a partner than with ‘God’ and the whole universe, at least for a start. A loving relationship is a microcosm of the vast reality.

  • adamf

    Thanks for the comments, Sean and Emily.

    “Maybe the ultimate secure attachment is to realize that everything and everyone is one.”

    I’m wondering if that may be one of the places where attachment theory and Buddhism are not quite compatible, given that Buddhism, at the ultimate level is being one with everyone, while attachment theory posits a primary attachment figure and often a hierarchy. So we may be one with a partner, and that unification is more important than being one with the universe… I need to think more about this though. I do like the idea of relationships being a perfect place to practice.

  • Nobo Komagata

    Hi.

    “Attachment theory posits that the more securely attached we are in our relationships, the more separate and independent we can be.”

    This seems misleading. Avoidant people too are “independent” in a sense, but in a different way. Securely-attached people are certainly NOT separate. They tend to get along with other people better than the insecurely-attached.

    “Buddhism teaches against insecure attachment.”

    I don’t think Buddhism teaches against or for attachment security. However, I still think parents who follow Buddhist teachings would (ideally) offer unconditional love and raise their children, who would in turn be securely-attached to them.

    “Secure attachment” (as in attachment theory) is just a state of relationship. There is no “ultimate,” etc. The state of being securely attached to a small number of caregivers is not necessarily inconsistent with the notion of being one with everyone, which is different from attachment security.

  • adamf

    Hi, thanks for coming by! Your paper was VERY helpful (I cited it, as I did here, of course) in a paper I wrote for a class recently. My upmost thanks! I am humbled that you would leave a comment here.

    RE: your first point, I can see how it would be misleading, but I think the idea is that the more secure we are, the less need we have to cling. The more secure we are, the more autonomous we can be. It may seem like a paradox, but I think it is true. Securely attached people have less of a need to cling, or compulsively take care of others.

    RE: ““Secure attachment” (as in attachment theory) is just a state of relationship. There is no “ultimate,” etc.” & “I don’t think Buddhism teaches against or for attachment security.”

    I’m not quite sure what you mean here, but it seems like you are saying that secure attachment is not something that one can actually work towards. If I am missing your point, please let me know and explain it a little more… If I’m understanding you correctly, than we disagree. I think Buddhism, just as you quoted His Holiness in your paper, teaches ANYTHING that is true. All truth is part of Buddhism. I also think that attachment it is definitely something more than just a “state of a relationship” that nothing can be done to change. I’m not sure what you mean by “ultimate” either, but I do think attachment security is on a spectrum of sorts, and one can become more secure in a relationship through therapy, for example.

    I do find it amusing that much of this post, which you don’t agree with, was inspired by your paper. :)

  • Nobo Komagata

    OK. Here is my response. I tried to phrase my thought differently.

    Securely-attached people do not cling to other people as much as insecurely-attached people. However, even securely-attached people can cling to various other things, e.g., money, status. About 30-40% of the population is said to be securely attached. But would they all be free from attachment? Buddhism teaches non-attachment to anything, not just the limited aspects of non-attachment generally exhibited by securely-attached people. Naturally, this goal is much harder, and if attained, one would encompass secure attachment along the way.

    Does this make sense?

  • adamf

    Thanks for the clarification. That does make sense.

  • jmb275

    Thanks adamf. I just finished “The Happiness Hypothesis” and was equally bothered by this confusion. I think you have it right though. I was finding it hard to believe that this is what Buddhism was teaching.

  • carlos

    Hi,this is good , I think that the attachment that buddhism talk about is when we make the other thing or person part of our identity, like when we find someone that we consider has characteristics that are very good on our view and because we want to think the best of ourselves we somehow, since that person is close to us, we make one of both of us without thinking and add the other person or thing good part to what we think we are. so when sort of think about our goodness we add the other part to it, it hurts a lot losing it .
    Be well

  • shenpa warrior

    Thanks for the comment carlos. I agree – there is a difference between attachment theory and “attachment” in Buddhism.

  • Douglas McCool

    I still don’t think I quite understand this paradox. As a husband and a father, I am attached to my family. According to the quiz, I was ‘secure’ in this relationship. I imagine my wife would be the same. Our children are young so they can’t really answer the question. They are certainly dependent on us, as would be expected.

    But, I feel very much attached to all of these people. I can accept that they will all die (as well as me). But I feel that I not only WILL grieve them much when they die, but also that this would almost a good thing to do. That is, it seems to me at this point, that should I be alive when any of them die, it would be doing a dis-service to their memory, and the relationship we had, if I simply say “Oh well” and try to act as if it wouldn’t bother me. Or worse, act that way because it genuinely DIDN’T bother me.

    The Buddha himself had a wife and child, and, as I understand it, he went back to them after his enlightenment at some point to teach them what he had learned. Unless I missed somewhere that he disowned them after that, it would seem even he would have wanted them in his life.

    Forgive me if I missed something that was presented. I am new to Buddhism, and a few questions, such as this, are nagging at me. I have been unable to find anything that seemed to be the proper answer.

    • shenpa warrior

      Thank you for your comment Douglas! I apologize for taking so long to reply.

      I agree with you, grieving the loss of someone, especially re: an attachment relationship, is not a “bad” thing or one that need to be about “suffering.” It of course can be very painful and lonely for many people, but those are healthy experiences of being human. Secure attachment in the psychological sense doesn’t bring suffering, even if it doesn’t prevent pain.

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