Attachment and detachment

Who is attached to what? And what makes it quite hard to be clear about this?

(Note that I am using the term ‘attachment’ in a common sense way, rather than as in attachment theory. The more I am attached to things or people, the more I want to keep them close, and the more difficult it is if they are taken away.)

Maybe like most of us, I've found it easy to say to myself, I'm not over-attached, nor am I over-detached. After all, I've had relationships that I've left, as well as others leaving me; I've not been incapable of relating closely to others; I'm reasonably normal, am I not? At least ‘good enough’ normal – as in the phrase, ‘good enough parenting’?

I also wonder if other people have similar internal defences against this kind of questioning. As a defence, I look for some piece of evidence in myself that I can use to convince myself that I don't have that particular problem, and I alter my view of the problem itself so that, for me, the meaning of the problem relates to something that I don't do (or if the problem is not doing something, something that I do do).

To get over this “immunity to change” I find I need to reconsider what ‘attachment’ or ‘detachment’ means, and only then there appears a window of opportunity in which I can re-evaluate myself. That re-evaluation is helped by a little historical retrospection, so I'll start with that.

Looking back, I would say that my mother was over-attached, and my father was over-detached. (Neither is still alive, so I feel free to talk about them in this way.) In my mother's case, I see pretty clear signs. I think she saw herself, first and foremost, as a mother, with children born over a period of 13 years (of which I am the third of four) and she had a pre-school child for the much larger part of 18 years. She seemed reluctant to give up her role as mother, so I'm not sure whether she was more attached to us, or more attached to her identity as mother. I guess it must have been quite a wrench to send her children off, at various ages, to boarding schools, but maybe she had convinced herself that it was in our best interests (us living in a town with little going for it), so she had to do this to fulfill her role as a good mother, in her own eyes.

My father was a family doctor, by all accounts very good with his patients, but he seemed scarcely available to us. To him, bringing up children was for women. As a newly qualified doctor he had served in the thick of fighting in WW2, and that must have been traumatic, as he never spoke about it. (He did write about it in his later life.) Not only that, but he came from a family where both parents were family doctors and, so I gathered, there was little warmth. What I felt was that he was not available, at least not emotionally. (Available across the chessboard, yes, but not emotionally available.) In my most commonly recalled evenings, when I was home from school or university, my mother would be washing dishes in the kitchen, and he would be watching television.

Back to me. I suppose I had been thinking of ‘attachment’ as ‘attachment to outcomes’, and I tell myself I've got quite good at not being attached to outcomes. But looking at my family history reminds me that perhaps the significant aspect of attachment for me is attachment to relationship. In terms of traditional values, that looks good: just like my parents stayed with an awkward marriage for over 60 years, I wasn't going to be the one who walked away from either of my marriages. In some ways it also looks good from today's perspective: I want to stay in relationship even when difficulties appear, and work through them. Though that is only one side of the issue.

Coincidentally, I came across an article today called Sacrificing Authenticity for Attachment. This resonates with a sense I have had at times, of putting aside my own genuine preferences in favour of maintaining a relationship. To be sure, sometimes we do need to put aside our personal preferences; but perhaps it needs to be done with a sense of balance; give and take. Looking deeper, maybe it is best not to do that simply for the sake of relationship in and of itself, but rather for the sake of what the relationship contributes towards. Sure, being in (good) relationship is good for us in many ways, but for what good are we being used? If our partner, or anyone else in a close valued relationship, is also in tune with our calling, what we are here on earth to do, then there really should not need to be conflict over this. Either the relationship helps us to play our part of the larger jigsaw, or it doesn't. If it doesn't, then that is the one good reason to move on. The mere fact that all our preferences are not being indulged is not a good reason, just by itself. In anything like a couple relationship, this needs to be done mutually, not just one way, and with balance. Does the other person sense that their relationship with me is helping them, in some way, towards their raison d'être?

Let me make a guess about what happens in me. I would say I've got used to being fairly detached from outcomes, but I may still be over-attached to relationship for its own sake. This comes out when someone close to me does not communicate. I can quickly become very anxious and push for communication. (I have also felt myself pushing for communication with some of my children.) Or else, due to that inner pressure, I can detach instead, suppressing my own need for communication, and instead playing at ‘strong, silent’ even though my emotions are saying something different. What I would rather do, rather than either of those, is to focus on what actually matters in the bigger picture. Am I helping ‘you’ to grow, develop, continue to find your own role and play it to the full? Are ‘you’ helping me to do the same? It's a variant of the very old advice: stick with people who bring out the best in you – and you in them, of course.

There is a step further. What is it that ‘you' and I are called to do together, that we can do, helped by our unique combination of abilities? Does our relationship help ‘you’ to help ‘us’ to fulfill our purpose in common? Does it help me, likewise? We need to allow for the fact that I, or you, may not be there yet, but the question is, can we at least grow into serving the purposes of the other, and us as a pair, as well as following our own light? And then I want to hold that focus lightly enough, so that I don't force that focus on anyone who doesn't want it. I want to step back if the time is not right.

As I was thinking about this, yesterday, I recalled some short passages from the Gospels, which I don't recall hearing read out in churches. Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell the story of the mother and brothers of Jesus wanting to talk with him. Jesus makes a strong point: he counted those who (in whatever words) are following the leading of the Spirit as his mother and his brothers. To me, that's a very clear confirmation: it is the higher purposes that matter. We are not called to be more attached to our earthly relationship roles than to our heavenly purposes – quite the opposite. Could we discount that as an aberration? Far from it: somewhat later in the Gospels comes an even clearer passage, from Matthew and from Mark. Jesus seems to be saying that all family ties are secondary to fulfilling your divine calling and purpose in the world. I wouldn't expect that kind of challenge to the established social norms to be read out often in an establishment church. That's one of the benefits of reading the Gospels yourself. Of course, many people won't be familiar or comfortable with the theological language here, but I hope the point I'm drawing attention to is not limited by a particular religious or non-religious outlook. The nice point about quoting from the Bible is that it becomes very difficult for traditionalists to argue back – so we are sidestepping, not inviting an argument.

What has brought me to this realisation? Partly, seeing a pattern in less formal relationships where I get too attached to the idea of relationship with whoever else it might be, and slip into the pattern of my (over-)attachment to relationship. Which, of course, is offputting to the other person. Even though I may have been genuinely open in terms of outcome, I imagine I am needlessly coming across as needy. That's clearly an old pattern thing, not my present reality. Also, I sense that to some extent fasting helps to put immediate patterned desires into perspective. For a few odd days recently I've allowed myself to get through with eating nothing. The gospels come back with the phrase “prayer and fasting” as a powerful influence. (OK, the ‘fasting’ bit may be a later addition – see Mark. But some writer or later editor thought it worth mentioning.)

Maybe one last point to mention. As any couple relationship has two sides, so this kind of hidden attachment might be happening in them as well as in you. That needs some pretty deep insight, to be clear about just what is happening; it's not necessarily what first comes to mind. We can all think that we are not over-attached, by pointing to what we are not attached to. The question remains, for each individual, what are we attached to, what are we afraid of letting go of, or losing, which we don't need to be afraid of letting go of, and which is actually getting in the way of doing what is ours to do?

Topics: Complex psychology; Personal development

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