How can detachment be loving?
When I first heard the term “loving detachment” I thought I understood what it meant. I was already familiar with the concept of detaching and I knew how to detach when I needed to.
But what I didn’t understand was that there are different styles of detaching. The style I used was actually not a form of loving detachment. I had a lot to learn.
The concept of detaching with love
When we let go, we’re affirming that a person has the right to:
- make their own choices and mistakes.
- learn their own unique life-lessons.
- experience their own hard-earned personal growth.
I wasn’t able to lovingly detach until I learned about codependent behavior and setting healthy boundaries. Even after becoming familiar with it, exercising loving detachment was anxiety-provoking because it was outside my comfort zone. So I decided that to get comfortable with it, I would take any appropriate opportunity to lovingly detach when one presented itself.
Working on self-care isn’t important when we’re codependent, but eventually, I became comfortable with using loving detachment as a form of my own self-care.
When we establish healthy practices (such as boundary setting) in our daily lives, we begin developing healthy new perspectives and attitudes. We start feeling a little differently about ourselves and others. We may see ourselves as autonomous individuals for the very first time. We may see separateness and uniqueness as positive and valuable attributes. We start recognizing our personal strengths and using our personal power. We tentatively believe that we’re not responsible for other peoples feelings or for fixing their problems. We learn that we have our own needs and that our lives matter. We acknowledge that isolation isn’t good for us and that “connection” requires proactive behavior, like reaching out. We start trusting and become more willing to be let ourselves be vulnerable. We begin taking emotional risks and sharing our private stories.
If you’re familiar with The Toolbox blog, or if you’ve been actively engaged in personal growth, recovery or healing work, then you’re already familiar with concepts like codependency, boundaries, isolation, self-care, mind-reading, and expectations.
And all of those bring us to the concept of “Loving Detachment.”
“Detachment” sounds negative, doesn’t it? And how can detaching from a person possibly be a “loving” thing? If you’re confused, don’t worry. I was too.
Let me start by telling you what loving detachment is not.
Loving detachment isn’t mean, harsh or selfish. It’s not an “either/or” mentality; it’s not yes we’re doing it today and no we’re not doing it tomorrow. It’s not something that we turn on and off. It’s a way of “being.”
It isn’t aggressive, rather it’s compassionate and kind.
Loving detachment is a type of healthy boundary.
The kinds of detachment I’ve outlined here are taken directly from conversations I’ve had and from my own experiences. I’m sure there are types of detachment that I haven’t experienced and that I don’t know about, so this is not an exhaustive list. If you have experience with a detachment style that I haven’t mentioned, I’d love to hear from you about your experience.
There are several theories out there about various detachment-styles, but I’m not going to use those here.
Instead, let’s see if we’ve used any of the following four detachment styles with our qualifying person.
When we numb ourselves to avoid feeling pain, we usually do it by using something to assist us in “shutting down” emotionally. “Numbing” includes “escapism” and using avoidance-behaviors. Numbing-out involves distracting ourselves with activities like cleaning, reading, social media, binge-watching TV, or immersing ourselves in church, school, eating, drinking, shopping, or community service.
None of these activities are wrong or hurtful, yet they can be used maladaptively. When we use numbing behaviors we’re not intentionally trying to be mean or hurtful, but it can happen. Numbing-out is all about protecting ourselves but if we’re not careful, it could hurt others.
Pretty much any activity can be used to distract, escape, avoid and numb. When we want to immerse ourselves in an activity, let’s remember to take a look at our motives and see if we’re actually avoiding or numbing. Is the activity a way for us to evade a person, painful circumstance or memory?
First of all, it’s important to understand that anger is a secondary emotion. There’s always a primary emotion felt before anger is felt, and that first emotion triggers the anger. It’s so fleeting that oftentimes we don’t even notice that first emotion. For example, if I suddenly become angry at someone because I feel they disrespected me, more than likely the anger I feel was triggered by a primary feeling of unimportance. The feeling of unimportance is the emotional “trigger.”
So angry detachment is a reaction to a trigger. When we detach in anger, we often feel like saying something nasty or hurtful, or we feel like doing something destructive or vengeful. Sometimes we actually take those actions rather than just feel them.
Angry detaching feels like an attempt to control. It feels like it’s the “last straw”. It’s when we realize that our former attempts at controlling or manipulating aren’t working.
It has a punishing vibe to it. “We’ll show THEM!” Outwardly we give the appearance of being emotionally detached because we make ourselves unavailable; we physically or emotionally “walk away”, we don’t take their calls or respond to texts. We may even actively ignore the person when they’re nearby.
But inwardly we continue worrying, thinking, and obsessing about them or their behavior. We know what’s going on in their lives because we talk to others who know them or we stalk social media. We haven’t really detached. We’re punishing and manipulating them with our anger and silence, but because we’re not interacting with them, it feels like detachment.
Apathy (or indifference) involves suppressing all feelings of interest or concern, and it takes the idea of detachment to an extreme. When we’ve detached with apathy, we no longer acknowledge the person at all. It’s as if they don’t exist! We couldn’t care less about them and we don’t want to hear about or have anything to do with them.
A therapist friend once asked me “what is the opposite of love?” and I responded “hate.” He replied “most people would agree with you, but no. The opposite of love is indifference.” Mic drop. Boom.
Using apathy or indifference as a way of detaching is maladaptive and it can cause irreparable damage to a relationship. In fact, the degree to which indifference exists in a marriage can accurately predict the probability of divorce.
When we emotionally distance ourselves from a situation and it’s consequences with the understanding that the person is entitled to make their own choices and deal with the consequences, we’re lovingly detaching. With loving detachment, we take the focus off them and put it on ourselves. We feel compassion for the person but we focus on ourselves and we feel at peace about whatever happens next.
Loving detachment is judgment-free and it allows us to intellectually, emotionally and compassionately separate the person from their behavior. It means that we understand that the person and the behavior are two separate things. We can choose to love the person and feel compassion for them while simultaneously despising their behavior. We emotionally or physically distance ourselves from their behavior not to punish or control them, but as a demonstration of self-care.
As with boundary-setting, there is no need to discuss your intent to detach or to get permission, and they do not need to agree to it. Sharing your intent to detach with them may remove punitive overtones and it’s a respectful thing to do, but it’s not necessary. Whether you inform or not is up to you. But if you choose to inform, remember that it’s just that: information. It’s not a threat or an ultimatum issued as an attempt to gain control. Remember to check your motives when informing your person about your intent to detach.
You may be asking “But why do I need to be the one to do all this work? Why can’t THEY just change or shape-up or get-their-act-together?” Well, that would be great if it happened, wouldn’t it? If they would just change their behavior and do what we want or expect, our lives would be so much nicer, right?
But, as we’ve probably figured out, that’s not the way it works.
We can’t control other people. The way their behavior affects us isn’t about THEM, it’s about ourselves. Take a pause to think about that for a minute. This is about us. It’s about controlling our own choices.
When I feel the need to detach, I find it helpful to accept and validate myself first, including my thoughts and my feelings. Then I commit to maintaining my focus and productivity by concentrating on only myself and my life. Doing these puts me in the right frame of mind to lovingly detach. There’s no anger, no fear, no need to go numb or to become indifferent. It’s like what my teacher-friends say to their students: “Keep your eyes on your own paper.” I commit to keeping my eyes on my own needs, my own life, focusing on my own work. Easy-peasy. I can do this.
When we view it from this perspective, it’s clear that loving detachment is not “running away.” Loving detachment is more like “running towards”. When we use loving detachment we are running to ourselves.
We are separate and whole
Lovingly detaching reminds us that we’re separate people in our own right, with our own likes, needs, feelings, desires, and goals and that we have choices and consequences of our own. It reminds us that we’re not responsible for fixing another person’s feelings or problems.
In each of the above detachment scenarios, the end result is always the same for us: we emotionally or physically “walk away”; we remove ourselves from the situation.
The difference between these scenarios is how we feel after we walk. Of the four, loving detachment is the only one that leaves us at peace, no matter what the other person is feeling, doing, or what happens next.
Detaching this way allows us to drop our need to control the outcome. Shifting the attention to our own lives allows us to focus on our needs, wants, feelings and goals while providing that same opportunity to the other person. (See codependency)
- Learn how to set boundaries
- Pause to think.
- Respond rather than react. (Homework: look up the difference and try responding instead of reacting the next time you have the opportunity. See how it feels)
- Practice “Live and let live” and “Not my circus not my clowns.” We can allow others the dignity of making their own (good or bad) decisions and then let them experience the consequences of their choices. When we mind our own business, we are free from the responsibility of rescuing other people.
- How important is this really? A shift in our perspective can help us determine what’s most valuable to us so we don’t get upset over things that aren’t as important.
- Identify your codependent thoughts and behaviors
- Don’t play the game. Drop your end of the tug-of-war rope. There’s no tug-of-war if there isn’t someone pulling on each end.
- Use your voice. Say what you mean and mean what you say.
- Know when something is your responsibility & when it’s not. Say it nicely, say it with firmness. “No, I’m sorry I can’t do that” or “No, that’s actually something you should be doing for yourself”
- Remind yourself that you’re worthy of being fair to yourself.
- Remember- “I’m in control of me”. We can choose to focus on and be responsible for ourselves, our thoughts, actions, and behavior. We can change ourselves with patience, persistence, and practice. We can take responsibility for getting our needs met, instead of waiting for someone to change or to meet our needs for us. We are in control of ourselves and no one is responsible for us but us.
- Remember: “We don’t have to attend every argument to which we’re invited.”
About the author
Diane Metcalf earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology in 1982 and a Master of Science in Information Technology in 2013.
She has held Social Worker, Counselor and Managerial Positions in the fields of Domestic Violence and Abuse, Geriatric Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities, and Reproductive Health. She is an experienced Advocate and Speaker on the topics of Domestic Violence and Abuse and has been a guest on Lockport Community Television (LCTV), sharing her knowledge and experience regarding Domestic Abuse with the local community. In addition, she experienced Maternal Narcissistic Abuse and has been involved in other toxic relationships. She purposefully learned (and continues to learn) appropriate coping skills and strategies to live happily. She shares those insights here.
Her books and articles are the results of her education, knowledge, and personal insight regarding her own abusive experiences and subsequent recovery work. She is no longer a practicing Social Worker, Counselor, Program Manager or Advocate, nor is she or has she ever been a licensed psychologist.
Currently, Diane runs her own website design company, Image and Aspect, and writes articles and tutorials for Tips and Snips, her inspirational blog for creative people. She continues to learn and write about Emotional Healing.
This website is intended for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional therapy.