Words: Maisie Smith (she/her)
Content warning: references to addiction
I’m not a therapist or a psychologist. I can’t give a lecture on the neurology of attachment nor can I provide a singular answer to healing a strained or unbalanced relationship. What I do know, however, is that it is possible to love without compromising yourself in the process. At first, my explorations left me with more questions than answers. How are you expected to remove yourself from a relationship without feeling like you’ve broken a bond? Or that you’re neglecting someone who is in need of your help? Can you claim to be treating someone with love if you’re not present? What’s the difference between detachment and giving up? What I came to realise is that all these questions put the other person at the centre of the relationship. Ignoring your own needs as an equal participant. I would argue that identifying a need for change and asking questions are the first steps in the healing process, but inciting action from these ideas leaves a better chance for continuity.
The detachment method is primarily used within the context of addiction. It is useful for all types of relationships including familial, platonic, or romantic in which the dynamic involves one person constantly having to put themselves in a compromised position to support another. The fundamental principle of detaching from a loved one is the refusal to harbour their problems. It doesn’t involve letting go of the love you have for someone, rather allowing them to confront the natural consequences of their actions without your intervention. Some examples of ways to detach include: saying no when you feel uncomfortable or manipulated; refusing to accept the blame for the mistakes of your loved one; stopping any attempts to control the actions of your loved one; avoiding catastrophizing possible outcomes. When taking these requirements out of the context of addiction, they appear as the bare minimum of how you’re meant to be treated. This may make it easier to view the method of detachment as an impartial act. The mutual aid organisation Al-Anon (derivative of Alcoholics Anonymous) who pioneered this method, defines detaching as ‘neither kind nor unkind’ but simply the installation of a boundary.
I understand this all sounds simple in theory and if one were able to distance themselves, they would have done so already. However, there are many circumstances where detachment isn’t seen as plausible because of reasons motivated by guilt. Guilt has a powerful hold over logic and reason because, in this context, it’s driven by the innocent desire of wanting your loved one to recover; an objective that feels incompatible with ‘toxicity’. It’s easier to assume that because they aren’t responsive to the current amount of help you’re giving, they just need more, rather than considering the possibility that they might lack the capability to access the support at all. There is an element of narcissism in the desire to fix somebody. To assume yourself as the saviour of someone else’s recovery strips them of autonomy and prevents them from healing according to their own timescale. A dangerous potential outcome of this dynamic is that the helper becomes as harmed as the helped. Detachment alleviates a fabricated responsibility that was never expected from you.
Another element of this method which may be difficult to engage with is the role of protection. The human instinct to protect those who you love is innate, however, in many unbalanced relationships, such protection can be enabling as it removes clarity from the potentially negative consequences of a person’s actions. By being selective in how you protect your loved ones, you are reinstating objectivity. For example, if a person’s addiction means they are showing up to work intoxicated and there is a possibility they may get fired, it’s not your place to make excuses to the workplace on their behalf. Possible outcomes, with no outside interference, would be that the person makes an effort to stop showing up to work intoxicated; they ask for some time off to deal with their addiction issues; or they get fired. Each of these consequences is proportional to the actions that caused them, and therefore can give the person a better insight into the ways their addiction has the capacity to impact theirs, and other people’s lives. As encompassed by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, ‘detachment with love means caring enough about others to allow them to learn from their mistakes’. Protection doesn’t always have to be active, it can also involve looking at what short term repercussions can teach someone in the long term.
It can be the case that once you start making yourself a top priority, moments of happiness can feel uncomfortable and shameful, as though your happiness is disloyal. But in understanding detachment as a method of love, one must remember that a person’s mental condition belongs to the carrier alone and no one else can rewrite its narrative. Understanding this sentiment will facilitate acceptance that, specifically in the case of addiction, a person can only get better once they decide to get better. It must come from within. There are endless complexities when regarding topics of mental health, relationships, pain, healing, and subjectivities that will alter what advice is given. However, some instances don’t belong in such grey areas and, despite my lack of psychological training, can be presented as black and white. Detachment is not neglect. Detachment does not yield the decrease of love. Your distance does not have the capacity to cause harm. You are not wrong for taking the required space to protect yourself from the consequences of someone else’s actions. The method of detachment can begin the journey of healing for both yourself and your loved one, because it incites change. And that is how to love from afar.