What is emotional detachment?
Why is emotional detachment sometimes necessary?
How to tell when it’s time to detach emotionally?
Tips for a smoother emotional detachment. The people in our lives are so often sources of joy, love, nurturing, and companionship even when they hurt us, whether through commission or omission; their presence is usually a net good.
That’s not always the case. Sometimes, someone you’re close to can be toxic, undermining your self-esteem and well-being. If you wonder how to detach from someone like that, you’re not alone.
What is emotional detachment?
“Emotional detachment is a conscious process of disconnecting from an unhealthy relationship.” “It may end the relationship completely, like the breakup of a romantic relationship. Other times, it may create more distance but not end the relationship, like with a family member with whom you limit contact.”
Whatever form the detachment takes, setting healthy boundaries is integral.
Why is emotional detachment sometimes necessary?
Emotionally detaching someone is rarely fun. If someone’s close enough to require an explicit setting of boundaries like this (or even ending the relationship), you likely have a host of positive feelings for them or at least reasons for having them in your life.
Maybe the person is a parent or family member, and you have a long history and many positive memories with them. Nevertheless, they clearly don’t have your well-being at heart. Maybe an ex-partner you stayed close to is hampering your ability to move on. Maybe a friend has relied on you too much for too long, to the point where the friendship no longer works.
“Emotional detachment is sometimes necessary because of the ongoing negative impact the relationship has on your life and health.”
How to tell when it’s time to detach emotionally.
Knowing how to detach from someone emotionally is one thing, but first, you need to understand when it’s necessary. Your first instinct might be to try to avoid this person simply. But that’s not always feasible.
“You can avoid someone if you do not have any emotional investment in the relationship.” For example, that could include “the co-worker who gets on your nerves or the person you sometimes see at parties. But once you have a relationship and feel a connection with the person, you’re beyond being able to avoid them simply.”
If things are serious enough to warrant emotionally detaching, warning signs include:
Compromising your values to maintain the relationship.
Becoming anxious or depressed.
Withdrawing from other relationships in your life.
Increasingly engaging in escape behaviors (e.g., drinking, endless surfing online).
If this person’s negative impact on you is driving you toward any addictive behavior to cope, that’s a sign that detachment may be necessary. Of course, this kind of behavior may be long-running, and you may have already normalized it to some extent.
“Sometimes your need for validation can blind you from seeing the need to detach.” “You will tolerate things by minimizing their impact or explaining away the behavior. This is where a trusted friend is vital to give you a reality check.”
Knowing how to detach will be slightly different for every person and in every relationship. But several best practices can help make what can often be an unpleasant experience somewhat less so.
1. Know why you’re doing it. Emotional detachment can permanently end close relationships. So don’t take it lightly. That’s why being clear on why you’re doing this is a crucial first step.
“Identify the toxic impact—physically, mentally, emotionally, socially, and spiritually—that the relationship has on your life.” “Recognize how your boundaries are being violated.”
2. Recognize your role
Reflect on your own role in the relationship—even if the other person is the primary or sole person engaging in harm.
“There are two sides to every relationship.” “You have a contribution to the dynamic. Understanding your part will help you not only detach now but prevent it from happening again in the future. Sometimes boundaries are being violated because of a lack of self-respect that allows unhealthy patterns to persist.”
3. Be clear about your vision. Understanding what you want the detachment to bring about is important.
“Identify your vision for what will happen—how you will detach and what it will look like when you do.” “Be clear about the new boundary. Write it down. Writing makes it more real, helps maintain your focus, and assures that you will stay consistent.”
4. Plan for the aftermath
Part of that vision should be what happens just after you emotionally detach. What is going to keep you going, who is going to be there for you, and how are you going to function day to day?
“Set up your aftercare plan before you communicate with the other person.,” “People relapse when they don’t have the support to sustain the change. Identify the people and activities that will support your vision.”
5. Plan for the disconnect
Address how you’re going to communicate your new boundary to this person. You don’t need to know how right away—this can be something you work on or brainstorm.
“Develop a plan for detaching,” DiPaolo said. “Work with someone to craft your plan for disconnecting with the other person. Practice with someone how you will communicate it to them.”
6. Emotionally detach from the other person
This is the big one. Once you’re clear on your why, your own role, your vision, the aftermath, and the detaching itself, put your plan into action.
“Clearly and respectfully communicate with the other person.” “How much you communicate with the other person depends on the nature of the relationship and how toxic it is.”
Sometimes you can have lengthy conversations in service of detaching. Other times the interaction needs to be very brief and perhaps be written communication.
7. Start engaging in self-care
Once you’re out of the immediate interaction, engage your strategies for self-care.
“Put the aftercare plan into effect right away,” DiPaolo said. “Pull out that toolbox and get into action.”
This could look like taking time off work, offloading chores to a partner or roommate for a time, engaging in soothing or stimulating activities, or just eating some ice cream— whatever works for you.
8. Take some time to experience the feelings
However, your aftercare shouldn’t exclusively mean you indefinitely avoid thinking or feeling things about what just happened.
“Don’t just move on. Take time to process the relationship.” “Learn about yourself to have healthier relationships in the future.”
9. Congratulate yourself
If you’re mourning the relationship or your memories with the person, you just detached from, celebrate your progress.
It may sound odd, given that you may be grieving something that you’ve lost. But emotional detachment is hard work. Give yourself kudos for your progress.
Bonus: get help
A step-by-step plan can help make something as scary as emotional detachment feel manageable. But there is no guarantee that something—or several things—won’t go wrong.
The other person could lash out or react badly in various ways, or you could find yourself backsliding or incapable of moving forward with the plan. That’s when you may need to call in a professional.
“If you get stuck at any point in the process, reach out to a therapist.” “If you’re getting stuck, it’s a sign of a mental block that you’re not seeing. A good therapist will help you see it and empower you in the process of detaching.”
Tips for a smoother emotional detachment
If those 10 tips were a how-to for emotional detachment, consider these next tips a primer for making the process as painless as possible.
1. Boost your self-care
If post-detachment you feel vulnerable or emotional, focus on your own self-care.
“Whatever regular practices you do to take care of yourself, do them a little more.” “Think of it like taking extra vitamin C when you feel a cold coming on.”
2. Engage in mindfulness
If you want to know how to practice detachment in a low-stress way, some mindfulness may be just what you need.
“A mindfulness practice (e.g., meditation or contemplative prayer) is essential in this process so that you can be more fully present.” “The more present you are, the more likely you’ll stay on track.”
3. Tap into your network
Detaching someone may feel like a lonely process, but it doesn’t have to be. Now is a good time to reach out to the people you can rely on the most.
“Talk to trusted others but not everyone. not to share details on social media publicly.
Instead, turn to your closest friends and family for help.
“You need to have trusted friends you can share with—friends who will support you, not bad-mouth the other person, and accept even if you slip up.”
4. Don’t assign blame
Sorting out your emotions in a situation like this can be tricky, but you should stay away from one in particular: blame. That doesn’t mean you can’t be angry.
“Anger is healthy, but stay away from blame,” DiPaolo said. “Anger is a God-given emotion that can help you reclaim your right to care for yourself. Blame is projecting your own pain and shame onto someone else—it prevents you from growing.”
5. Forgive yourself
Another person you shouldn’t put the blame on? Yourself.
“Forgive yourself if you slip,” DiPaolo said. “There is a reason you were in the relationship. You got something very important out of it. Giving that up is hard. So, if you slip, forgive yourself. Start beating yourself up, and you’re more likely to head down the slippery slope toward entanglement.”
6. Try to forgive the other person, too
If you want your detachment to last, finding some forgiveness for the other person is a good idea.
“Work toward forgiving the other person.” “Forgiveness is not the same as reconciliation. Forgiveness is the internal work that gives you freedom.”
Disclaimer: The above is solely intended for informational purposes and in no way constitutes legal advice or specific recommendations.
Michael DiPaolo, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist