Romantic Attachment versus Buddhist Attachment

Separating two vastly different definitions of “attachment”

Language is such a tricky bastard. We depend on language for clear communication, but language is filled with ambiguities and nuances! In particular, the way we refer to vastly different concepts using the same word can trip us up bad. Most recently, I’ve struggled with the confluence of language around the word attachment.

I’ve read and deeply enjoyed Amir Levine and Rachel Heller’s book “Attached”, which lays out the models of emotional attachment between romantic partners. This book sings the praises of a well-chosen and mindfully cultivated attachment between romantic partners. For example, it talks about the dependency paradox, which states that people act more independently when they have a stable source of dependence on a trusted partner.

In a similar vein, social science is concluding that healthy partnerships have significant impact on everything from our lifespan to our finances (this includes nontraditional and non-hetrosexual partnerships).

Thus, attachment is good. Which immediately flies in the face of my buddhist studies: attachment is the issue, practice non-attachment. The issue, unsurprisingly, is one of definition.

Defining Romantic Attachment

When it comes to defining romantic attachment, we can call on the vast body of relational sciences, kicked off by the eminent psychologist John Bowlby in the aftermath of World War II. He formulated the first theory of attachment, and introduced the term attachment. He used “attachment” to refer to the psychological and physiological systems inside humans (and other animals!) that allow us to form a deep emotional bond to another individual.

Romantic Attachment means Pair-Bonding: a strong behavioral and psychological relationship between two individuals, which may or may not include a strong preference for sexual interaction between individuals.

This type of attachment — a pair-bond — help us create longer-term stability, and underlies much of our society. It’s a natural phenomenon that arises between individuals, as natural as any of our biological processes. It’s the natural response of our organism to its environment.

Defining Buddhist Attachment

As for the Buddhist notion of attachment, we’ll call on my man Alan Watts to help us out. He describes Buddhist attachment in his lecture series “Out Of Your Mind” as follows:

The sanscrit word is klesha, and a better translation that “attachment” might be the slang term “hang up”, or what psychologists refer to as a “block”. You know, we get hung up on this or that thing — we get stuck or blocked or can’t remove ourselves from a waggly hesitation.

This type of attachment — a hangup — prevent us from either letting go or taking action. It might be some sort of mental flaw, something we developed in our psyche where we strain against accepting reality.