“What is love?” is an age-old question, and one that countless of poets, artists, writers, musicians, and even scientists have tried to answer for centuries. But the simple truth is, love means something different to everyone. And yet, we all just know it when we feel it. Right?
Well, maybe not. Because although love is just like every other emotion that comes and goes, we tend to put more meaning into it than we probably should. The most common example of this is when we mistake that fleeting feeling of attraction or fondness we feel for someone to blind us from all the red flags in our relationship saying otherwise.
According to therapist and dating coach Kelsey Wonderlin, healthy love requires three things: love (the emotion itself), compatibility, and attachment. So while you can feel love for someone even without the rest of these things, this doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s healthy love. It could simply be attachment. And we can get attached to anyone, even when they’re not good for us.
So, how can we know the difference? Well, here are 6 psychology-backed signs:
1. Healthy Boundaries
In his book “Boundaries and Relationships: Knowing, Protecting and Enjoying the Self”, Dr. Charles Whitfield tells us that having healthy personal boundaries is key to nurturing a strong and loving relationship, one that’s built on a foundation of mutual trust, respect, genuineness, and care. Some of Dr. Whitfield’s examples of when our boundaries are being disrespected include: when others try to control or manipulate us; when they purposefully hurt or harm us; when they don’t take no for an answer; and when they tell us what to do or how to feel. Which brings us to our next point…
2. Validating Needs
Whether someone validates or invalidates your needs is a pretty good indicator of the quality of your relationship with them, but one we may not always be aware of. Think back to the last time you shared some vulnerable feelings or concerns with another person. Did they respond with empathy, support, and understanding? Or did they try to minimize your feelings, judge you for what you shared, or disregard it entirely? The latter is something psychologists call “emotional invalidation” and according to psychology writer Brittany Carrico, it can often lead to feelings of worthlessness and isolation, as well as feelings of distrust and insecurity in the relationship.
3. Coping With Conflict
In a relationship that’s just about attachment (especially the unhealthy kind), it’s likely that there’s a maladaptive way of coping with conflict. In an article for PsychCentral written by Dr. Karen Sosnoski and Kristin Currin-Sheehan, some examples of this include: codependency (i.e. coping with conflict by simply refusing to disagree with the other person), manipulation (i.e. the cold shoulder, withholding affection), and a general power imbalance in the relationship brought about by one party’s need for power and control.
Going back to what Dr. Kelsey Wonderlin stated, we can feel attachment towards anyone. So the key to telling the difference between love and attachment is consistency. Is the relationship consistently fulfilling? Do you both consistently engage in positive relationship maintenance behaviors (i.e. spending quality time together, verbal affection, physical affection, emotional intimacy)? Because if not, it’s possible that the “love” you think you feel for this person could just be a product of your attachment towards them (i.e. you’ve just gotten so used to one another, you feel you don’t have any better options, etc).
5. A Feeling of Safety
Another crucial difference between love and attachment, Dr. Wonderlin tells us, is if the relationship creates a feeling of safety for everyone involved. If this person judges you — for your body, your past, your goals, and so on — then it’s not healthy love. Because criticism, according to the two leading experts of relationship psychology, Drs. John and Julie Gottman, is one of the quickest ways we can ruin our relationships. It makes us more defensive and hostile towards one another, and it takes away that feeling of safety we need in a relationship to allow for a deeper sense of connection, intimacy, mutual acceptance, and healthy love.
6. Added Value
Finally, but perhaps most importantly, healthy love should add value and meaning to your life, unlike mere attachment. Psychologist Elaine Hatfield, who’s often credited as one of the pioneers of the scientific study of love, along with professor and historian Richard Rapson, wrote that, “Anything that makes adults feel as helpless and dependent as they were as children should increase their passionate craving to merge with others.” The authors then go on to cite having low self-esteem, issues with dependency and insecurity, anxiety, and neediness as the most likely reasons why some people often mistake unhealthy attachment for love. But healthy love, on the other hand, gives us a feeling of being understood and accepted, feeling safe and secure, as well as a strong sense of belonging and a significant improvement in our overall well-being.
So, do you relate to any of the things we’ve mentioned here? Did learning about all of these psychology-backed signs help you to better differentiate between love and attachment? If you’ve been unhappy in some of your relationships lately but are still struggling to leave, thinking “But I love them!” is a good enough reason, it might do you some good to consider if it’s just attachment you’re actually feeling.
- Wonderlin, K. [@kelseywonderlin]. (n.d.). Posts [Instagram profile]. Retrieved January 09, 2023, from https://www.instagram.com/kelseywonderlin.
- Whitfield, C. L. (1993). Boundaries and relationships: Knowing, protecting and enjoying the self. Health Communications, Inc.
- Carrico, B. (2021). What Is Emotional Invalidation? PsychCentral. Retrieved from https://psychcentral.com/health/reasons-you-and-others-invalidate-your-emotional-experience
- Sosnoski, K. & Currin-Sheehan, K. (2022). Differences Between Love and Attachment. PsychCentral. Retrieved from https://psychcentral.com/health/attachment-vs-love#unhealthy-attachment
- Hatvany, O. (2016). The Effects of Criticism on Relationships. PsychCentral. Retrieved from https://psychcentral.com/lib/the-effects-of-criticism-on-relationships#1
- Hatfield, E., & Rapson, R. (1993). Love and attachment processes. Handbook of emotions, 595-604. In M. Lewis & J. M. Haviland (Eds.), The Guilford Press.