By Ken Wells - 01/08/2021


“I believe detachment can become a habitual response, in the same manner that obsessing, worrying, and controlling became habitual responses” — Melody Beattie

There was a couple in my life who were the best friends I have had. Many times we talk about people or an experience that saved our lives. Literally, these two people did this for me. Once when I was deep into depression, I attempted to walk in front of an airplane. They rescued me before I could walk out the door onto the runway. Another time, when I was caught in a riptide in the Atlantic Ocean, he rescued me from drowning. We did a lot together. We shared many meaningful experiences. We even moved our families across country together to start over in a new environment. Yet, for me a very toxic dependence and enmeshment overwhelmed my relationship with these two great people. It was not sustainable. It interfered with the healthy connection with my own family and theirs. There came a time when they decided to end the enmeshment and the relationship. At the time, they were stronger to make the severance than I was. Yet, it was clear that it needed to be done. 

This happened over thirty years ago. I have not spoken to either of them since that day. It was one of the most painful experiences of my entire life. It took between 7 to 10 years to get over the personal pain and struggle of the loss of this great friendship. In some ways it will always be painful. However, without the detachment, I could have never healed from my codependency and addiction. I could never have embraced healthy balanced living as long as I depended on these two wonderful people for my happiness, security and esteem. There are times that I have dreamt about them that we were friends just like old times. Many times I wish that I had not been so unhealthy when we crossed paths.  There have been many lessons I have harbored since our separation those many years ago. One important insight is the value of healing through detachment. At the time, detachment seemed impossible, maybe even cruel. I would curse that I ever knew my friends. I would think of them being close to others and not me. At times I would go to the desert and scream because my friends were not there anymore. Yet, I learned to detach when it seemed impossible to do. I learned to sit with pain that seemed to endure forever. 

Across the landscape of human suffering, countless numbers suffer from this pain, not knowing if the deep emotional pain from relationship loss will ever stop. I have learned that the only way through the chaos and craziness of an unhealthy relationship is through detachment. You will need to learn to detach from unhealthy relationships. There will be some people you will need to detach from and it will be extremely painful to do so. It could be a friend, family member, life partner or business entity. There will be other situations that you will need to detach that won’t end a relationship but will stop an unhealthy dependent dynamic. 

Detachment does not mean you do not care about others’ issues. When my friends detached from me, it didn’t necessarily mean they no longer cared. It meant that they determined to ask and answer the question “what do I need to do to take care of myself?” and did that. Others may not understand your answer. Though it is not critical, I would suggest that others can understand in time if they will practice their own detachment. You can learn to care and love and be responsible without going crazy. You make your best decisions when you are not caught in reactivity, thrashing about trying to please or rectify something that is irreconcilable. When you detach, you learn to let go and live in a more peaceful state of mind with more balance in your life. You learn to let go of the stress in trying to control what you cannot. 

Control is something every human being innately wants to experience. Yet, when we try to control what we cannot to the extreme, we lose our way. It’s understandable that betrayed partners want to control every behavior that their loved one does because they have been traumatized. They frenetically can check the histories of all their partner’s devices, put tracking devices on their addict partner’s vehicles, do FBI work, never believe anything their partner says, etc. Yet, eventually this becomes unsustainable. It becomes necessary to detach. With pain always comes the addictive demand to frenetically do something—anything. Living with the confusion of an unsolved problem can feel crazy making. Many times you can do something premature, only to have to go back and redo it. There comes a time to let go and release. When you have done all that you know to do, it is time to detach. Turn your focus on your feelings. Face your fears about losing control. When you feel used and sorry for yourself, it is time to stop rescuing others from their responsibilities and allow people to take agency for themselves or not. Detachment is what is necessary. So, how do you detach?  Here are some considerations:

1. First step is to separate with no engagement:

Most people refuse this first step. Not to engage a person, an issue or relational dynamic is like throwing a pitcher of ice-cold water in your face. When you are absolutely engrossed with another person’s problems or behavior, you need to have the pitcher of ice-cold detachment thrown in your face. It will take your breath and needs to. You must radically separate from the experience that you have lost yourself. Stop the rescue. Simply genuinely ask yourself, “what do I need to do to take care of myself?” and do that. We play tricks on ourselves with the illusion of worry and our attempts to control others.  People who need to detach struggle with this radical separation. Work with bringing yourself back to center again and again. Give yourself 3 seconds of obsessive thought and then release it by focusing somewhere else.  Be patient with detachment. Seldom, is it one and done. Detachment requires training and daily practice.

2. Create accountability and live in consultation with people of support: 

You won’t be able to detach alone or you already would have. It’s a paradox. In order to learn to live without almost everybody in a dependent way, you need to lean into the support and accountability of others who are safe to depend upon to hold your feet to the fire. You don’t learn detachment alone in isolation. You must practice letting go in the presence of those who will give fair witness and encouraging support. People who won’t blast you but who will nurture you like the sun nurtures a flower.

3. Focus on taking responsibility for your own pain.

When you can stop expecting others’ behavior to make you feel better about yourself, you have taken an important step toward detachment. You can then begin to take responsibility for all of your feelings and take care of yourself first. This is the power of detachment. It doesn’t mean you stop caring for others. You learn to love others without getting so emotionally enmeshed while forfeiting love for yourself.

4. Unravel the family of origin issues that fuels becoming stuck with someone else’s life experience.

The more you address the unresolved issues of loss and pain from the family you grew up in, the less you will try to work through those issues with the people that you are attracted to. The need to be an excessive caretaker will draw you to people who will want you to take care of them in extreme ways. Addressing family of origin issues is a way of learning to respect yourself and will draw you to people who will safely love and respect you. This process is necessary to detach from people who are emotionally unavailable and behaviors of others that are disrespectful.

5. Do the work of grief that detachment requires:

Detachment is painful and therefore is not easily embraced. Those who do embrace detachment are desperate. It will require that you sit with the pain of separation from the relationship to the person or the behavioral issue. You will need to embrace all your feelings. Embrace the anger with experiential, expressive work. Screaming and crying your anger is helpful to move the anger energy out of your body and from the person to the issue to an empowerment of what you want. Boundaries will require moving anger energy from the person or issue to the limit you desire. It is helpful to have a fair witness who will validate your feelings. It is helpful to write journal letters to the person or behavior and to read the letters to an empty chair, imagining placing the person in the chair to listen to your feelings. You may also consider further processing your feelings through drawing or painting a picture of what you feel inside. This has proven to be a powerful expression of grief. If you choose this medium of expression, do not become stuck with judgment or self-consciousness about your ability to draw. Just put it out there and then explain to a dear friend what it represents. Go the distance and do the grief work that will help you successfully detach. 

Relational healing comes when you learn to let go of your expectations from others. Sometimes what you hope for in the relationship will happen and sometimes it will not. Yet, when you detach from what you cannot control, a dream of what you can control will replace the illusion of the one you just let go.

Recent Articles

Subscribe and thrive.

Subscribe to receive the latest stories, thought leadership, and growth strategies from PCS therapists.

© Psychological Counseling Services