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Detachment: A Strategy for Friends and Family of Adult Addicts

For every adult who struggles with addiction, there are many affected by its destruction. Family, co-workers, and friends are among those who become witnesses to the downward spiral of self-destructive behavior. Attempts to fix a friend or loved one experiencing addiction become increasingly frustrating as the chaos becomes a part of daily life.

When you are affected by someone else’s drinking or drug use, it is important to remember that even though you cannot prevent what’s happening to them, you can regain your sanity by practicing detachment.

What is detachment?

Detachment is when you let other people experience their consequences instead of taking responsibility for them. This is a key component of the recovery process for family and friends of addicts. Redirecting focus away from an addict’s negative behaviors can restore the balance of the relationship dynamics, as well as re-start self-care.

Of course, detachment doesn’t mean that you stop caring. The popular phrase is “to detach with love” promotes loving the person, even when you don’t approve of the behavior. Detaching means that you lovingly let go of solving the problems associated with the addiction.

When a person experiencing addiction misses work, neglects his or her responsibilities, or does something like crashing the car, let them handle it. This invites the addict to take responsibility for his or her own mistakes and take control of his or her own life.

The central premise of detachment is letting go of trying to fix the addict’s life. This becomes especially difficult when the alcoholic chooses to do nothing because that refusal often triggers loved ones to rescue them.

However, by solving problems for the addict, you are preventing him or her from experiencing the pain associated with the addiction. Such pain is necessary in order for an addict to choose sobriety.

Family and friends of addicts often fear that the addict will end up incarcerated or dead. This fear is not unfounded; sadly, many addicts continue using despite the consequences to their health and well-being. Therefore, that fear leads you back to rescuing them. However, rescuing addicts trigger a cycle of control that depletes family and friends to the point of emotional and physical exhaustion. 

In Al-Anon, a 12-step program for friends and families of alcoholics, there is an important saying to help remind us of those necessary boundaries in relationships with addicts: “You didn’t cause it, you can’t control it, and you can’t cure it.” This phrase is helpful to consider in its parts:

You Didn’t Cause It

Regardless of why the addiction started, you are not responsible for the behavior of a loved one experiencing addiction. You are only responsible for your own behaviors and your own actions.

You Can’t Control It

Once a brain becomes dependent on a substance, rational decision-making is significantly impaired. This explains why an addict’s behavior is no longer rational: they cannot see the impact that using has on their own behavior.

You Can’t Cure It

An addict’s brain gets hijacked by the dependency, which impacts his or her ability to think and make sound decisions. These physiological changes make it impossible for the addict to see what’s happening to them.

To a non-addict, it may look like the addict can stop using. However, those who have never experienced addiction can’t understand the physical allergy that creates the addictive response. This lack of control is the hallmark of addiction.

The Affects on the Family

Over time, living with active addiction creates anxiety, depression, and chronic stress for those closest to an addict. Many family members suffer in silence, while the addict doesn’t see a problem. Children in particular act out and may become depressed or anxious.

The shame associated with addict’s behavior prevents family members and friends from seeking help. As family members of addicts, you may isolate socially because it’s embarrassing to witness the outbursts. You may stop talking to family and friends because you fear being judged.

Practicing good self-care becomes essential for restoring emotional and physical health of entire in the family. Dealing with active addiction creates a pattern of self-neglect that needs healing. Redirecting the focus back on what you need makes detachment possible because your energy is no longer spent solely on the addict.

How to Start Practicing Detachment

Detachment works best when you can detach with love. This means letting go of the anger and finding alternatives ways to handle the stress of living with an addict. Here are some beliefs that need to be addressed in order to detach:

  • Avoid making assumptions — if you stop helping, something bad will not necessarily happen.
  • Challenge the belief that you have all the answers.
  • You are not responsible for an adult addict’s problems.
  • It’s okay for you to get your own support system.
  • Self-care isn’t selfish, regardless of other well-meaning people say.

Detachment can transform the entire family dynamic. Practicing these behaviors will indirectly benefit the addict because he gets an opportunity to face the truth about his own behavior. Detaching also restores the family’s equilibrium since the attention is no longer focused solely on the addict.

By detaching, you will:

  • Not make excuses for an addict’s behavior;
  • Stop handling an addict’s problems;
  • Avoid becoming a passenger while he or she is intoxicated; 
  • Leave a situation before an addict becomes abusive;
  • Stop responding to an addict’s attempts to blame; and
  • Accept that you are powerless over the addict’s behavior.  

Simple Detaching Behaviors That Work

  • When confronted with verbal attacks, silence works. If you need to, leave the room.
  • Recognize that rescuing doesn’t help the addict long-term.
  • Take care of YOURSELF instead of trying to fix them.
  • Refrain from giving advice or preventing their use.
  • Keep children safe by minimizing their exposure.

Finding Additional Support

When considering options, recovery may include inpatient or outpatient treatment, individual and family counseling, and 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous and Al-Anon.

Families often seek help before the addict does because watching the addict self-destruct becomes too painful. In recovery, the family learns not to force treatment but instead give the addict the dignity to decide on his own. Hiring a professional interventionist provides a more structured approach when the addict is out of control. 

In particular, consider Al-Anon, a free support group for families and friends of those who are struggling with addiction. They also have groups for children affected by the disease. If you are not comfortable in groups, try some individual or family counseling for a more private place to heal.

Detaching is not easy but it does preserve the relationship without participating in the addict’s disease. It separates the person from the addiction. Keep in mind that any addict has a disease much like mental illness. The addict cannot control their behavior, though they are responsible for their choices. Starting the process of growth and recovery is a delicate balance of loving the addict without attempting to rescue them.

It is very important that friends and family of addicts focus on taking care of themselves. To engage in self-care is difficult and takes practice; but ultimately, there is no lasting relief without it.

Detachment: A Strategy for Friends and Family of Adult Addicts

Michelle Farris, LMFT

Michelle Farris is a marriage and family therapist who specializes in helping people with codependency and anger management. She shows others how to be more authentic in relationships by setting healthy boundaries and improving self-care. In her early twenties, she fell in love with the process of personal growth. She is a therapist who “walks her talk” and loves supporting others towards positive change. She writes a blog called Relationship Rehab that offers helpful tools to create healthy and happy relationships. Michelle also offers online classes on anger and codependency for additional support. Signup for her FREE 5 day email course on anger.


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APA Reference
Farris, M. (2017). Detachment: A Strategy for Friends and Family of Adult Addicts. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 20, 2018, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/detachment-a-strategy-for-friends-and-family-of-adult-addicts/

 

Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Dec 2017
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 8 Dec 2017
Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.