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Attachment, Relationships, and Misconceived Buddhism

By Peter Vredeveld at
attachment in buddhism
"Attachments, according to Buddhism, ultimately cause suffering"

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.