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Codependents’ Guide to Detaching with Love

Detaching with love helps codependents and enablers. When we detach with love, we stop worrying and interfering and let others take responsibility for themselves.

Detaching with Love

What is detaching with love?

Detaching (or detaching with love) is a core component of codependency recovery.

If you’re often worried about a loved one, disappointed or upset by their choices, or feel like your life revolves around whether they’re “doing well” or not, then detaching with love can help you.

According to the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, “detachment with love means caring enough about others to allow them to learn from their mistakes.”

Codependency expert Melody Beattie says that when we detach, “we relinquish our tight hold and our need to control in our relationships. We take responsibility for ourselves; we allow others to do the same.”

And Deepak Chopra’s Law of Detachment includes this commitment:  “I will allow myself and those around me the freedom to be as they are. I will not rigidly impose my idea of how things should be. I will not force solutions on problems, thereby creating new problems.”

law of detachment

To me, detaching with love means stepping back from obsessively worrying about others, telling others what to do, and rescuing them from the consequences of their choices. When we detach, we let others be responsible for their own choices and we don’t interfere or try to protect them from any negative consequences that may result.

Detaching gives us the emotional space we need, so we’re not as reactive and anxious. It helps us be less controlling and accept things as they are — rather than trying to force them to be what we want.

Detaching doesn’t mean abandoning or that we stop caring. In fact, we have to detach because we care so much, and need to be needed, that it hurts us to stay so closely entwined in someone else’s life and problems.

Detaching is good for you

You need to detach when you are so wrapped up in other people’s pain and problems that it’s negatively impacting your physical or emotional health – you’re not sleeping or eating normally, you have headaches or stomachaches, you’re tense, distracted, irritable, depressed, preoccupied, worried, and so forth.

You need to detach when you seem to care more about another person’s wellbeing than they do. It’s nearly impossible to change someone who doesn’t want to change. And trying over and over again is incredibly frustrating and sad. It’s heartbreaking to watch a loved one self-destruct, but it’s heartbreaking in a different way to keep nagging, giving ultimatums, arguing, crying, and rescuing – and still have nothing change.

When you accept that you can’t save your loved one, the best thing to do is take care of yourself and that’s what detaching does; it allows you to take a step back, regain your emotional equilibrium so you can be the best, healthiest version of yourself.

Detaching reminds us that we can only control ourselves. And when we focus on what we can control, we will begin to see positive results and our hope will be restored. We will once again feel empowered to change the things we can.

what is detaching with love

Detaching is good for others

You may be thinking Isn’t detaching mean or selfish? No, detaching is not mean or selfish. We don’t detach to punish others or because we’re angry at them. Detachment is about self-preservation — and in many ways, it’s a way to love others as well (although they probably won’t see it that way).

Detaching helps others learn and mature.

If you are constantly hovering, worrying, telling them what to do, or rescuing them, they never have the opportunity to learn how to make decisions and solve their problems and they never learn from their mistakes. When you do these things, you’re creating dependency, which isn’t helpful or kind.

Detaching respects others’ right to self-determination.

These types of controlling behaviors (even if done with good intentions) are done from a place of superiority. They have an attitude that says I know better than you do. I know what you should do and you’re a fool if you don’t do what I say. Clearly, looking down on someone isn’t the basis of a healthy relationship. Instead, it erodes trust and open communication.

Controlling and rescuing contribute to feelings of anger; no adult wants to be treated like a child. Yes, at times, they may enjoy the benefits of you cleaning up their messes and giving them money, but I assure you that being treated as a child diminishes their self-esteem which just encourages them to stay in a dependent, immature state.

Loving someone often means letting go – not trying to control them or keep them in a dependent position. Of course, it’s hard to release control and let a loved one make unhealthy choices or do things you don’t agree with, but in most cases, adults have the right to make bad decisions.

Do you need to explain why you’re detaching?

An explanation is not necessarily required. Often, an explanation is actually counterproductive because it leads to arguments, power struggles, and attempts to manipulate you into changing your mind. The most important thing is that you know why you’re detaching.

How to detach with love

We’ve talked a lot about what detachment means and why it’s helpful, but you’re probably wondering how to actually do it. Detaching is an action that you take that helps you “stay in your own lane” or stay focused on what you can control and what’s your responsibility – and not interfere in other people’s choices. Here are some examples:

  • Not giving unsolicited advice

  • Setting boundaries

  • Allowing others to experience the natural consequences of their actions

  • Recognizing that your feelings and needs are valid

  • Expressing your own opinions and feelings

  • Taking a time-out from an unproductive or hurtful argument

  • Not accepting responsibility for fixing or solving other people’s problems

  • Not making excuses for someone else’s behavior

  • Staying focused on what you can control rather than worrying/thinking about what others are doing

  • Not catastrophizing or anticipating the worst possible outcome

  • Not enabling or doing things others can reasonably do for themselves

Additional tips for detaching with love

Detaching is hard and it’s contrary to what codependents naturally want to do. So, I want to leave you with a few additional tips or reminders.

  • Get support. Detaching is much more manageable when you have peer support (such as Al-Anon or Codependents Anonymous or another group) or professional support (such as a therapist).

  • Detaching isn’t cruel. Often, it’s what allows us to continue to have a relationship with someone. If you don’t detach, your relationship will suffer because of your controlling and interfering; you will end up resentful, guilt-ridden, and frustrated. And your emotional health and sense of self will certainly suffer.

  • Taking care of yourself isn’t selfish. Being the healthiest, happiest version of yourself is best for everyone!

Learn more

©2020 Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved. Originally published on PsychCentral.com
Photos courtesy of Canva.com

Examples of detaching with love

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Navigating the Codependency Maze provides concrete exercises to help you manage anxiety, detach with love, break through denial, practice healthy communication, and end codependent thinking. It was written by Sharon Martin, a psychotherapist with over 20 years of experience helping people overcome codependency, people-pleasing, and perfectionism and find their way back to themselves. For more info and to view sample pages, click HERE.

Sharon Martin, DSW, LCSW is a psychotherapist and author specializing in codependency recovery. For the past 25 years, she’s been helping people-pleasers, perfectionists, and adult children overcome self-doubt and shame, embrace their imperfections, and set boundaries. Dr. Martin writes the popular blog Conquering Codependency for Psychology Today and is the author of The CBT Workbook for Perfectionism and The Better Boundaries Workbook.

12 thoughts on “Codependents’ Guide to Detaching with Love”

  1. Hi Sharon .
    Thank you for the volumes of your work you share in these pages . I have been searching for answers in may places and now that I have come across your free information I can now see my codependent behaviour and how I have used control out of fear of rejection . I have been a people pleaser and lacked boundaries. I love that I have answers for my on going mental. Health from your work here . Yes I have a therapist and I am making progress but your pages are an illuminating way that helps me so much . With love and gratitude for you . Kenn

  2. Hi Sharon.
    Thank you for your wisdom and for giving so much of your work freely in this shared space .
    I know I was living in a codependent relationship up until I walked away .
    This was in retrospect my moment of clarity that I was exhausted trying to change and control the relationship.
    I felt totally responsible for everything and felt my partner was taking non at all .
    Today’s article describes how my decision to walk out was correct for me to heal and grow . Your article has supported me and aided my clarity of who I was being .
    I still love my partner and after two years of silence from her we are now able to talk .
    Thanks once more for sharing your work into codependency.

  3. Thank you, as I read these two articles, I am seeing my entire life in front of me. Your, words are so true, again thank you. I have been longing for away or guidance to be free, mentally and physical I am so tired. Will continue to view your advice in my journey.

  4. I feel as though I just read something written about me, specifically. Thank you for putting this into words, and helping me realize what I need to do moving forward. This was so helpful!

  5. Thanks, Sharon! This was right on time. It’s difficult but I have to step back. This isn’t my thing to carry. Peace.

  6. I really appreciate this article and your various graphics with advice about “detaching.” As my dad was dying 7 years ago, he asked me to look after and help my 52-year-old younger sister with untreated bipolar disorder and her then-10-year-old daughter. I tried, really tried—such as buying them a rent-free house (“shelter”) for them. My sister was divorced; no employment or income in 20+ years; in denial about her illness. But now realize I became a co-dependent, per your definition in this article.

    Not being able to really fix or help their situation after the years of help and $$ was so frustrating. I’d jumped in thinking, “Oh, if I do this, it’ll solve all that.” Wrong. I was also expecting thanks, I now realize, and got constant recriminations instead. I didn’t understand what I was in the middle of.

    After 6 years and reading your blog and others, I had the blinding realization, “What you’re doing is not helping. Just stop! And see what happens.” It’s been so hard to detach, but my sister stopped texting me at the same time, resentful about my help and my conditions for that help. I later learned that she finally (with great bitterness) applied for some state financial support instead of looking to me for that. A positive! The psychic weight off my mind & emotions this past year of “little communication” has been a huge relief, and reminiscent of what I was used to during my more “carefree” years before my father (their caretaker) passed away.

    Then last month, I “fell off the wagon,” and texted my sister to ask what she and my niece (now senior year of high school) were planning to do about college and financial aid applications. Answers were not good (“we’ve both been sick; we’re confused; the school has been no help”).

    Finding the line between sisterly interest and being dragged into tumultuous situations I’m not equipped to remedy remains an issue for me, I now realize. The feeling of “I should be doing more, shouldn’t I” is strong, but I hear your advice that these are their lives; they know I’m here if they really need me; I shouldn’t try to solve their issues without their invitation. Thank you for supporting the supporters.

    I wrote back a simple note to my sister: “I’m here if you need someone to talk to,” and left it at that. More to come, I’m sure…

    1. Thank you, Laura, for sharing your struggles. You aren’t alone as I know so many can relate! It’s such a tough situation. I love that you’re finding how to be supportive without losing yourself in your sister’s needs/problems.

  7. I appreciate your work and that of others regarding attachment. I feel I have detached but have found that the poor choices of others cost me greatly. Perhaps you could could refer to some next steps for those who are detached but suffer the consequences of the poor choices of others.

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