There is a concept of love that goes like this: two people are in love, thus they are so intertwined that they could not live without each other. We idolize stories of the elderly dying in bed next to each other. We pity but also crave the kind of love that persists after the death of a partner; where one can say, “They were the love of my life. No other will make me as happy.”
There’s nothing inherently wrong with this picture, but it may contain a subtle causal fallacy. People believe that love itself is what makes a relationship strong and leads to happiness; that is, a person needs only find a powerful love with an equally matched partner and lifelong happiness will follow. Therefore if the one we love leaves or if the love fades, then so, too, does our happiness. But what if the truth is actually the reverse of that? What if it is an ability to be happy—with or without a partner—that leads to sustainable love?
I’m not proposing that this is the only path to happiness and love, only that it is one of many possible paths and one that works well for me. And central to this path is the concept of non-attachment.
What is Non-Attachment
First, let’s talk about what non-attachment isn’t. Non-attachment is not detachment, where detachment is the inability or unwillingness to connect and feel emotions towards a thing or person. Detachment, I would argue, is a psychological disorder or maladaptive coping mechanism. It is something that fosters isolation, not independence. It is the absence of happiness, love, and desire.
Next, we need to discuss what attachment is. Attachment is desire. In the particular way in which I use the term, it’s desire that crosses the boundary into craving or need. In other words, there is the sense that without that thing or person to which you are attached, you will lack an essential component of your self. Thus you cling to it. You behave irrationally about it. You fear its loss. When it is gone, you feel as though you cannot be whole, happy, sane, or same without it.
Where detachment and attachment are those which lead to an absence of emotion or to negative emotions, non-attachment is that which allows for positive emotions to flow unhindered. Non-attachment begins from a place of wholeness. It is what happens when you allow yourself to find happiness that is not contingent on any external factor. It is a freedom from want.
True non-attachment is an ideal; and thus is something to strive towards, but not something that most of us can realistically expect to perfectly achieve in our lives. Thus, our happiness will always be dependent upon the structure of our lives: our careers, our relationships, our sense of stability or change. The truth is that we do derive happiness from relationships in general and to special people in specific. Some part of our happiness will always be tied to the person we love. I would even argue that, for myself at least, some amount of attachment per se is necessary and enjoyable, and therefore we must find a healthy balance between our ideals and our nature.
Self-Love and Happiness
This isn’t going to be a guide to self-love and happiness; that’s too large of a concept to handle here, and each person has an idiosyncratic path towards it. Rather, I’ll treat the subject generally. That is: it benefits a person to pay attention to what makes them happy, to learn to trust their gut, to pursue their fears and dreams alike, to widen their experience and thus expand their taste for enjoyable experiences. Often this is done through travel, experimentation, openness to new opportunities, and approaching fear and anxiety as challenges that more often yield value through transformation than they do pain or loss.
A person should always seek wholeness with the self. You don’t need anything else in life; but anything positive that comes your way is happily accepted as a bonus. My lovers and I frequently repeat the idea to each other, “I love you, but I don’t need you,” or, “I don’t need you, but each day I choose to add your happiness into my life.” We don’t make each other happy; we create our own happiness.
It should also be noted that it’s okay to love and to not be whole or happy. There’s no point to waiting for wholeness until you find someone to love. You’ll simply be missing out. Rather, you should only make sure that you are not replacing your own sense of self with your partner. Your partner is not a substitute for your happiness. They are an addition to your happiness but not the source. You may accept their support through hard times—that’s one of the many benefits of love—but never to the point of permanent reliance. Your partner should relieve some of the weight of life, but you should not stumble nor fall without them.
Loss and Change; Possessiveness and Jealousy
When you no longer rely on another person for your own happiness, you are freed from much of the negative emotions associated with loss and change.
Fear of Losing Your Partner
This is the essential, most powerful, most apparent effect of attachment. We dread what might happen if our partner leaves or is taken away from us. So we cling tightly, and by clinging we restrict. Restriction affects the independence our partner has from us—often bringing them uncomfortably close and making them crave distance. It affects the kinds of behaviors we allow our partners to enjoy, as our feelings of jealousy prevent them from interacting with people who might take up our partner’s time, energy, or emotions; since we rely upon these things, any disruption to them is a threat to our sense of self.
Non-attachment dissociates our sense of self from our partner. We are our own person; complete. Though we might feel some sense of discomfort if our partner seeks more distance, we accept it—after all, they’re just as responsible for their own happiness as we are for ours, and we trust them to make rational decisions that will improve their lives; who are we to stand in the way?
And sometimes we do separate completely from our partners, as in a breakup or a death. It is natural to feel sad when parting ways with love, but by practicing non-attachment we are better equipped to continue onward after a painful split. In many cases, it makes it easier to break up, which is a good thing—too often two people remain intertwined long after the relationship has become toxic, solely because they have grown to depend upon each other. Non-attachment allows us to more easily back away from a relationship that does not serve us; and it allows us to more easily enter deeply into a new relationship because we trust in our ability to step back out again unhindered, if the need arises.
Fear of Change
All relationships change. Each person strives for growth, and a couple grows together (and sometimes apart), and the world changes around all of it; this is the natural flow of life.
Attachment is a clinging to a particular way of being. “This is how the relationship is now; this is how it will always be.” But that perspective leads only to disillusionment and pain when the relationship inevitably begins to shift and strains under the pressure of one partner trying to maintain an outdated status quo. Instead, we must come to terms with this change and allow it. Only through change can we grow.
And within the concept of change: cycles. Like breathing, like day and night, like the physiological changes within our own bodies; a relationship and the people within that relationship need room to expand in one direction or another. We are not always fully introverted or extroverted, we are not always fully independent or dependent, sometimes we want our partner’s love and sometimes it’s overbearing. By being unattached to any particular state, we can allow our partners the room they need to breathe.
Attachment, then, is very closely related to an acceptance of temporariness. The way things are now is not how they will always be. If we try to enforce a vision of how things were or how things should be onto the current moment, then we live in a world of self-delusion. Instead, we must accept that all things are temporary; even the way in which we are loved by the most important person in our life.