Unhealthy Relational Patterns

By: Lisa Philippart

Emotional attachment is one of the most important capabilities we possess. Emotional attachment is defined as an emotional bond we form with someone at any time in our lives. The most common concerns brought to my attention during counseling sessions revolve around the development of positive and negative attachments. Unfortunately, someone with meager attachment skills often has developed unhealthy relational patterns, which are characterized by poor boundaries, poor personal insight, and poor judgment. These clients ask me to explain what unhealthy relational patterns look like so they can begin to understand how to “attach” in a healthy way. I believe there are five patterns or limitations that are common to those with attachment challenges:

1. Those who become too close too soon. This is part of setting up and maintaining appropriate boundaries. Have you heard or said anything like, “I know I’ve only known him for two months, but…?” Relationships take time to form and develop. It’s okay to connect with people and enjoy connecting with new people. But red flags should be raised when you or someone you know is too emotional or connects too fast with nothing but shallow interactions.

2. Those who go to great lengths to be close to anyone positive. Some people seek to enthusiastically connect with those in perceived power. I’m sure you know people who love to be surrounded by authority figures, actors, politicians, supervisors, professors, doctors, or administrators. Their “power” causes individuals to either become romantically involved or believe they can receive some kind of love or affection, or even a transfer of that power. People with this skewed relational view taken to the extreme become stalkers.

3. Those who overidentify with strangers. These are people who attach themselves to others who show them the slightest amount of attention or affection. This leads to believing that all encounters are closer than they really are. As a therapist, I have had clients who desire a close relationship to a parent so much that they begin to see me as fulfilling that parental role. I have had to maintain appropriate boundaries so that neither of us gets sucked into that emotional neediness. (Think: Bob in What About Bob?)

4. Those who become clingy. This is emotional attachment to the extreme. These are people who think they cannot live without a certain person, and that their connection is somewhat “divine.” There is a delusional element to their emotions, which tends to distort the reality of the relationship. A person who is clingy needs someone else to meet his or her needs in that relationship, which will never be enough. Sadly, these people are starving for a connection that they won’t be able to experience.

5. Those who get sucked into the status quo. If you lack an identity, or a certain level of self-confidence, you will be forced to seek people to mimic or emulate. Such individuals might pursue ways to fix personal flaws or seek friends who are attractive. They make a lifestyle out of pursuing things that keep them attractive and current. But, what they are truly seeking is some sort of relational validation through shallow compensation.

As you can see, individuals with poor attachment issues can become needy and emotionally hungry. Look for my follow-up article on how to break the cycle of unhealthy relationship patterns through positive emotional attachment.

By: Lisa Philippart
Licensed Professional Counselor