She began to sob as she talked about all she had done over the years to get her “functioning alcoholic” husband to love her again. She thought that if she just tried a little harder, he would stop drinking. How many times would she have to nag him before he would stop? She was his target for verbal abuse and her self-esteem was at a record low. Megan knew she was losing herself. She longed for the woman she used to be and despised herself for the person she was now. She fantasized about leaving her husband, but struggled with guilt and emotional exhaustion. Deep down inside, she knew she had to rescue herself, that the time spent waiting for her husband to quit drinking must end. The time for detaching and living her life had come.
Eric called and said his 30 year old daughter was currently off her anti-psychotic meds for schizophrenia. His daughter was living with her abusive boyfriend. Eric agonized about saving his daughter from the self-destructive path she was on. He experienced sleeplessness, anger, helplessness, and had problems focusing at work. His mental, emotional, and physical energy was depleted. He withdrew from family and friends. Ruminating night and day, he obsessed about how he could help his daughter and was literally ill from worrying. Eric made a decision to see a therapist who had experience with co-dependency. He wanted to learn how to love and care about his daughter without allowing her self-destructive behavior to consume his life. Eric wanted peace of mind and longed to have his life back.
Melody Beattie in her book, Co-Dependent No More describes detachment well:
“Detachment is not a cold, hostile withdrawal…. Detaching is releasing from a person or problem in love…it does not mean we don’t care. It means we learn to love, care, and be involved without going crazy.”
Detaching from someone we love does not mean taking away our love for them. It means we stop controlling the behavior of another and we stop having any expectations that they will change. We allow another to experience natural consequences to the choices they make, and we take responsibility for ourselves and how we live our lives. It is not our job to be continually cleaning up the messes of the adults we love. What we have control over is expressing our love for the person we are concerned about. We tell the truth and urge them to get help. The bottom line is…we are accountable for ourselves only. We cannot save others from themselves.
Another way to think about detachment is to imagine some relationships as having tree roots that are entangled. Each root system needs space and its own water for the tree to grow and thrive. We may have the task of untangling from roots that are cutting off our life supply, those roots that intertwine with others in ways that strangle our peace and our life. We separate ourselves in loving and healthy ways from others who are on self-destructive paths. We are not meant to lose ourselves saving others. As we untangle our roots from others, we come to know that we deserve joy and to live a life of peace. Is there someone you are trying to save? Encourage them to get help, tell them you love and care about them. Then, place the focus on living the life you came here for.
Suggestions for detaching from others include the following:
- Find a 12-step group such as Alanon or Co-Dependents Anonymous.
- Develop a spiritual practice, pray, meditate, exercise, visualize the person you are concerned about being cared for by their Higher Power, handing that person over to the power that is bigger than us all.
- Surround yourself with emotionally healthy individuals.
- Spend time in nature; let it calm and center you.
- Finally, keep the focus on living your life purpose and being a force of love and kindness.
Kate V. joined Empathia in 1997 as an EAP Counselor. Kate has a bachelor’s degree in Elementary Education from Winona State University and a master’s degree in Social Work from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Kate enjoys reading, the outdoors, and spending time with family and friends.