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The What, Why, When and How of Detaching from Loved Ones 

Codependents become overly attached — not because they love so much but because they need so much. Attachment is based upon need — need for someone to be a certain way so that you can feel okay. Although it’s painful to see a loved one being self-destructive, detachment allows us to enjoy our life despite another person’s problems and behavior. What gets in the way are codependent patterns of managing and controlling, reacting and worrying, and obsessing. 

Attachment and caring are normal. It’s healthy to get attached to someone in our family or with whom we’re intimate, but codependent attachment cause us pain and problems in relationships. We can become over-involved. The antidote is to detach and let go. 

What is detaching?

Detachment implies neutrality. Detaching is a way of separating the unhealthy emotional glue that keeps us fused in a codependent relationship. 

What Detaching Isn’t

It doesn’t mean physical withdrawal. Nor is detaching emotional withdrawal, such as being aloof, disinterested, emotionally shut down, or ignoring someone. 

Detaching doesn’t mean neglecting family responsibilities or leaving someone. Although physical space or separation may be useful as a means of setting boundaries and centering ourselves, this is not what detaching means. For example, some people decide to not have contact with someone, because the relationship is too painful.

Physical proximity is irrelevant. In fact, some divorced couples are more emotionally attached and reactive to one another than most married couples. Someone living far away can push our buttons in a phone call. We might dwell on the conversation for days — or we dwell on the fact that there wasn’t a phone call! Detaching is about refocusing and taking charge of ourselves.

Key Ingredients of Detaching

It involves letting go of our expectations and entanglements with other peoples’ problems and affairs. We stop reacting to things they say and do and obsessing and worrying about things. We take control of our feelings and thoughts, and mind our own business. It doesn’t take away our feelings and concern, but channels them in a healthy manner. In practice, it’s more compassionate and loving than codependent attachment.

Detaching involves four key concepts:

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  1. Having appropriate boundaries
  2. Accepting reality
  3. Being in the present, not the past or future
  4. Taking responsibility for our feelings and needs

Detaching is letting go with love.

When first learning to detach, people often turn off their feelings or use walls of silence to refrain from codependent behavior, but with persistence, understanding, and compassion, they’re able to let go with love. Gradually, rather than be invested in changing or controlling others, we can be compassionate and encourage them. We have no need to argue or persuade others, but instead are curious of differing points of view. This shows respect and honors boundaries and separateness.

Rather than manipulate people to be like us, we risk being authentic. For example, we can say, “I feel sad when I see you depressed.” Instead of trying to change someone’s need for space or silence, we enjoy our time alone or with someone else. This may sound impossible, but the pay-off is rewarding. 

Are You Over-Involved?

When we worry, it’s a sign that we’re attached to a certain outcome. When we’re frustrated with someone, it’s because we’re attached to them being different from who they are and accepting their flaws. When we’re giving unsolicited advice, we’re crossing a boundary and assuming a superior position. We all do this sometimes, but codependents do it excessively. Instead of two people with separate minds and independent feelings, the boundaries are blurred. Does this apply to you? 

  1. Do your moods and happiness depend on someone else?
  2. Do you have strong emotional reactions to someone’s opinions, thoughts, feelings, and judgments?
  3. Do you spend time worrying and thinking about someone else’s problems?
  4. You analyze someone’s motives or feelings?
  5. Do you think about what someone else is doing, not doing, thinking, or feeling?
  6. Do you neglect your career, hobbies, activities, or friends due to a relationship?
  7. Do you drop other activities if someone else won’t join you or disapproves?
  8. Do you please someone because you’re afraid of rejection?
  9. Do you become anxious doing things alone?

When we’re over-involved, we’re myopic. Others become extensions of us. We try to control their opinions, feelings, and actions to get what we need and feel okay. We try to manage them to avoid witnessing their suffering. We try to impress and please them. We try to persuade them to agree with us or do what we want. Then, we react with hurt or anger when they want won’t. If you relate, learn why detaching is helpful. 

Benefits of Detaching

Letting go reaps us profound benefits, not only in the relationship, but in personal growth, inner peace, and all areas of our life.

  • We learn to love.
  • We gain peace, freedom, and power.
  • We gain time for ourselves.
  • We become more resilient to loss.
  • We learn independence and self-responsibility.
  • We encourage that in others.

We’re responsible for our thoughts, feelings, actions, and the consequences of those actions. Other people are responsible for theirs. Cheering someone up occasionally or giving him or her more attention is not codependent. A benefit of a good marriage is that spouses nurture one another when one is troubled, but it’s supportive, not codependent caretaking, and it’s reciprocal. 

In contrast, when we consistently try to change others’ moods or solve their problems, we’re becoming their caretaker based upon the erroneous belief that we can control what’s causing their pain. We’re assuming responsibilities that are theirs, not ours. Sometimes codependent couples unconsciously agree that one spouse has the obligation to make the other happy. That is an impossible task and leads to mutual unhappiness, anger, and resentment. The cheerleader is always failing and frustrated, and the recipient feels shame and resentment. Whatever we try won’t be quite right or enough.

How to Detach?

Detaching starts with understanding, but it takes time for the heart to really accept that ultimately we’re powerless over others and that our efforts to change someone are unhelpful and possibly detrimental to us, the other person, and the relationship. Take these steps to practice detaching:

  1. Ask yourself if you’re in reality or denial.
  2. Examine whether your expectations of the other person reasonable.
  3. Honestly examine your motivations. Are they self-serving?
  4. Practice allowing and accepting reality in all aspects of your life. 
  5. Allow your feelings.
  6. Practice meditation to be more attached and less reactive.
  7. Practice compassion for the other person.
  8. Be authentic. Make “I” statements about your genuine feelings rather than offer advice.
  9. Practice the tools for detaching in the “14 Tips for Letting Go” on my website.
  10. Attend Al-Anon or CoDA meetings. 

If you answered “yes” to several of the above questions, consider learning more about detaching and get support. Detaching can be very difficult to do on your own.

©Darlene Lancer 2020

Adapted from Codependency for Dummies, 2nd Ed. (2015) by John Wiley & Sons

The What, Why, When and How of Detaching from Loved Ones 

Darlene Lancer, JD, MFT

Darlene Lancer is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and expert on relationships and codependency. She’s the author of Conquering Shame and Codependency: 8 Steps to Freeing the True You and Codependency for Dummies and six ebooks, including: 10 Steps to Self-Esteem, How To Speak Your Mind - Become Assertive and Set Limits, Dealing with a Narcissist: 8 Steps to Raise Self-Esteem and Set Boundaries with Difficult People, and Freedom from Guilt and Blame - Finding Self-Forgiveness, available on her website and Amazon. Ms. Lancer has counseled individuals and couples for 28 years and coaches internationally. She’s a sought-after speaker in media and at professional conferences. Her articles appear in professional journals and Internet mental health websites, including on her own, where you can get a free copy of “14 Tips for Letting Go.” Find her on, Soundcloud, Twitter @darlenelancer, and at

APA Reference
Lancer, D. (2020). The What, Why, When and How of Detaching from Loved Ones . Psych Central. Retrieved on October 23, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 27 Feb 2020 (Originally: 28 Feb 2020)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 27 Feb 2020
Published on Psych All rights reserved.