By Patrice Alexander, MS, LPC

At face value, the word detachment has a negative connotation and conveys a sense of loss. It is hard to imagine being “detached” or “separated” from someone we love. It is human nature when we see a loved one hurting to want to offer help to comfort and ease his or her pain. This is especially true for family members whose loved one struggles with the disease of addiction.

Addiction is a family disease that traps every member of the family. As the disease progresses, it starts to govern the thoughts, feelings and behaviors of every family member. The natural human responses of showing love through generosity, support and compassion become unhealthy responses in addiction. I have witnessed the disease of addiction turn the most loving bond between family members into a very dysfunctional and unhealthy relationship. Detachment is not easy; however, in order for the family to learn healthier ways to show their love and support without enabling the disease to continue to wreak havoc in their relationship, it is necessary. Through detachment, family members discover how to trust and open their hearts in safer ways. Detachment helps each member move toward personal growth, which can prepare him or her for healthy relationships.

I encourage family members to consider detachment as a decision to avoid participating in negative emotional connections, rather than a decision to abandon their loved one. In this sense, it can allow them to maintain boundaries, protect their values, preserve their integrity and steer clear of the undesired impact. As such, it becomes a deliberate mental attitude which can help them avert engaging in the emotions of others.

Detachment is choosing to allow other people to live their lives without giving them advice, even when there is a great degree of difficulty and possible danger involved. Most of us are not taught how to detach; it feels counterintuitive. Detachment is embracing our individuality and taking responsibility for our own lives instead of waiting for someone else to do something different so that our lives can be okay.

Admitting and accepting that we are powerless over other people and their decisions allows us to practice detachment. The Al-Anon book, Courage to Change, states, “Detachment with love means that I stop depending upon what others do, say or feel to determine my own well-being or to make my decisions.” Without detachment, it is much harder—if not impossible—to create an atmosphere for healing so that the gift of recovery can be discovered and passed on/shared with others.