“Detach With Love”: The Why, The How, The Meaning

We can still love the person without liking the behavior. From Al-Anon literature, about being able to detach with love

The phrase “Detach with love” is advice that’s a big focus in Al-Anon. What’s it really mean?

As explained by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, loved ones need to consider such questions as “What are your needs beyond the needs of the alcoholic or addict? How can you take care of yourself even if the person you love chooses not to get help?”

Furthermore, “Detachment with love means caring enough about others to allow them to learn from their mistakes. It also means being responsible for our own welfare and making decisions without ulterior motives–the desire to control others.”

More specifically, Wayland Myers, PhD, offers the following definition: “Currently, I consider myself lovingly detached when: I am willing and able to compassionately, and without judgment; 

  • allow others to be different from me,
  • allow them to be self-directed,
  • and allow them to be responsible for taking care of themselves. 

Lisa Frederiksen, on her blog Breaking the Cycles, provides yet another view:

…In the case of detaching with love from someone with the brain disease of addiction, it helps to think of it as you having accepted that addiction is a brain disease and that the behaviors exhibited while your loved one is active in their disease were/are the result of the chemical, structural and functional brain changes caused by their disease. Therefore it’s okay to love the person but hate their disease. Truly accepting that you cannot control that person’s brain (regardless of whether they’re using their substance of addiction but especially if they are) is a huge piece to being able to detach with love.

In addition, Martha Beck, Huffington Post, talks about a variant she calls detached attachment. “Attached” because you care and are in a relationship, “detached” because your care is actually more effective this way. “Real healing, real love comes from people who are both totally committed to helping — and able to emotionally detach.”

This is because, on an emotional level, our brains are designed to mirror one another. As a result, when we’re anxious and controlling, other people don’t respond with compliance; they reflect us by becoming — press the button when you get the right answer — anxious and controlling. Anger elicits anger, fear elicits fear, no matter how well meaning we may be.

Detachment with love and detached attachment aren’t just for relationships with an addict, moreover. As stated by Randi Kreger, expert on Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) and Narcissism and author of The Stop Walking on Eggshells Workbook, it’s “actually a tool that we can apply with anyone.”

An excerpt from the workbook advises how not to get overly involved in the crises of someone with BPD. “In this case it means, ‘I care about you, but I recognize that you must make your own choices in life. I can love you, but I can’t live your life for you. I can point you in the right direction, but I can’t push you down the path.'”

Via analogy, Kreger illustrates how this important concept works:

…If the world were a store and someone came up to you looking for the auto parts section, detaching would be like saying, ‘I’m sorry, but I’m not the sales clerk. I don’t know where the auto parts are; perhaps you can find a sales clerk at the customer service counter.’ It’s not saying, ‘Let me find out for you,’ and it’s not snapping ‘Do you see me wearing a uniform? No? Then leave me alone!’

When you do try to detach from problems that aren’t yours, there will likely be resistance, however, at least at first. If you can hang in there, though, the rewards will come. The detached, for example, can get some relief and become more centered, while the detachee can learn increased self-responsibility for his or her actions.

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