Detaching is an effective way to cope with a codependent relationship or any toxic or dysfunctional relationship, whether its with an alcoholic parent, an addicted child, or a narcissistic spouse.

Detaching is the opposite of enabling because it allows people to experience the consequences of their choices and it provides you with needed emotional and physical space so that you can care for yourself and feel at peace.

Codependents often find themselves in dysfunctional relationships where they spend an inordinate amount of time worrying and trying to control or fix other people. This is done with a loving heart, but it can become all-consuming. The problem is, sometimes your loved one doesnt want the help youre offering; they want to do things their own way. This creates a maddening push and pull where no ones happy and youre both trying to control and force. This can feel like an upside down roller coaster ride that never ends!

Because of their caring nature, codependents can become obsessed with other peoples problems. They have good intentions and a real desire to help, but this fixation on problems they cant actually solve (like your Moms alcoholism or your adult sons unemployment) isnt helpful to anyone. Its a distraction from taking care of yourself and solving your own problems. It also prevents your loved one from taking full responsibility for their life and learning to solve their own problems.

You cant solve other peoples problems

According to codependency expert Melody Beattie, Detachment is based on the premises that each person is responsible for himself, that we cant solve problems that arent ours to solve, and that worrying doesnt help. (Codependent No More, 1992, page 60)

Detaching is a way off of the relationship rollercoaster. Detaching allows you to take care of yourself, honor your own feelings and needs, and let go of the guilt and shame that result from taking responsibility for other peoples bad choices.

Al-Anon (a 12-Step group for people affected by someone elses alcoholism) describes detachment with this acronym:

Dont Even Think About Changing Him/Her

Detaching means you stop trying to force the outcome that you want.

Detach with love

We use the term detach with love to remind us that detaching is a loving action. Detaching doesnt mean pushing people away or not caring about them. Detaching isnt angry or withholding love. Its letting go of controlling and worrying and putting responsibility back on the individual.

Detaching also isnt cutting ties or ending a relationship (although, at times, that can be the healthiest choice). Detaching helps you to stay in relationship and not lose your sense of self.

Detaching is similar to setting boundaries. Detaching puts healthy emotional or physical space between you and your loved one in order to give you both the freedom to make your own choices and have your own feelings. I think of detaching as untangling your life from someone elses so that your feelings, beliefs, and actions arent driven as a response to what someone else is doing.

A popular Al-Anon reading advises: I must detach myself from his [the alcoholics] shortcoming, neither making up for them nor criticizing them. Let me learn to play my own role, and leave his to him. If he fails in it, the failure is not mine, no matter what others may think or say about it (One Day At a Time in Al-Anon, 1987, page 29).

Detaching is a process

Detaching is something you do over and over again in relationships. Like setting boundaries, its not something you do once and then forget about!

Emotional or psychological detachment:

  • Focus on what you can control. Differentiate whats in your control and what isnt.
  • Respond dont react. Take time to figure out what you want to say and say it when youre calm rather than being quick to react in the moment.
  • Respond in a new way. For example, instead of taking it personally or yelling, shrug off a rude comment or make a joke of it. This changes the dynamics of the interaction.
  • Allow people to make their own (good or bad) decisions.
  • Dont give advice or tell people what they should do.
  • Dont obsess about other peoples problems.
  • Set emotional boundaries by letting others know how to treat you.
  • Give your expectations a reality check. Unrealistic expectations are often the source of frustration and resentment.
  • Do something for yourself. Notice what you need right now and try to give it to yourself.
  • Stay on your side of the street (based on a 12-Step slogan). A reminder to deal with your own problems and not interfere with other peoples choices.

Physical detachment:

  • Take some space from an unproductive argument.
  • Choose not to visit your alcoholic parent or dysfunctional family member (or arrive late and leave early).
  • Leave (potentially) dangerous situations.

It gets easier

As I mentioned earlier, detaching is something that you will need to practice. It goes counter to a codependents nature, but its possible when you work at it. Youre stronger and more capable than you may think. Detaching is a way out of the chaos, worry, and emotional pain youre experiencing. Detaching isnt something that you must do all or nothing. Begin where you are, practice and learn, and in time youll see that detaching is not only possible, but freeing.


2017 Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved. Image: