Both perspectives hold some truth, as emotional detachment can be useful in some relationships and scenarios but not in others. The key is to understand when detachment is a beneficial response and the best ways to apply it in different contexts.
What is emotional detachment in relationships?
“Emotional detachment is when someone disconnects or does not engage with other people’s emotions,” says Scott Lyons, PhD, psychologist and author of Addicted to Drama. “This can be done purposefully, but also can be unintentional depending on the person and their circumstances.”
Experts In This Article
- Debbie Missud, LMHC, psychotherapist and licensed mental health counselor
- Patrice Le Goy, Phd, LMFT, Phd, LMFT, MBA, international psychologist and adjunct professor at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology
- Scott Lyons, PhD, holistic psychologist, educator, and author of Addicted to Drama: Healing Dependency on Crisis and Chaos in Yourself and Others
You may naturally resort to different degrees of detachment, depending on the situation. “Emotional detachment tends to function as a protective mechanism against emotionally stressful or traumatic situations,” says psychotherapist Debbie Missud, LMHC. “It can take many forms, such as withdrawing and boundary-setting, or, more harmfully, as denial and dissociation.” (Dissociation refers to feeling detached from reality or yourself.)
Depending on the circumstance, you may also use emotional detachment to protect yourself from an unsupportive relationship when you can’t wholly remove the person from your life. “For example, you can’t control who is a member of your family,” says Missud. “In cases where you cannot control the existence of the relationship, detachment may entail setting boundaries, practicing mindfulness, and implementing distress tolerance skills such as diaphragmatic breathing should the person activate unpleasant emotions.”
Or, you may take emotional detachment a step further and end the relationship altogether. “In situations where the existence of the relationship is in your control, such as in a romantic relationship or a friendship, emotional detachment can again take the form of boundaries, but it can also take the form of withdrawing and ultimately terminating the relationship,” says Missud.
When is emotionally detaching from someone beneficial?
When a relationship or situation isn’t serving you, emotional detachment can be beneficial, says Missud. “When used intentionally and controllably, detachment can help with identifying and communicating our boundaries, as well as tolerating distress in situations that are out of our control,” she says. “It also allows us to check our emotions when our brain is telling us one thing but our heart is saying another, and we know that listening to our brain is what’s best for us, such as leaving a toxic relationship.” To give another example, you may benefit from emotional detachment if you have to deliver difficult news as part of your job, says psychologist and therapist Patrice Le Goy, PhD, LMFT.
By a different token, if you’ve recognized signs of abuse, like manipulative or violent behavior, in your relationship with a partner or friend, you’d benefit from emotionally detaching and ending the relationship outright.
On the flip side, in healthy relationships, emotional detachment can sometimes be counterproductive. “If you are engaging with a friend or partner, being emotionally detached will limit your ability to make genuine connections beyond a surface relationship,” points out Dr. Le Goy.
How to detach from someone
The best way to use emotional detachment will depend on the other person’s role in your life. Here’s a breakdown of four different instances where emotional detachment may be useful.
From an acquaintance
In some cases, it’s beneficial to detach from an acquaintance, whether that’s a coworker, roommate, or another figure in your life who’s not part of your inner circle.
“If a large portion of your mental or emotional energy is being depleted by them, you’re overwhelmed by this person, it’s become toxic or unhealthy for you personally, then it would be beneficial to emotionally disconnect or lessen the amount of mental and emotional real estate they are given,” says Dr. Lyons. “If you’re looking to emotionally detach, it’s important to set boundaries. Redefine the relationship to what makes the most sense for you.”
For example, if you feel drained by a friend of a friend who is addicted to drama, you may brainstorm ways to keep your interactions with them short, avoiding getting hemmed in to longer discussions, says Dr. Lyons
From a loved one
Detaching from someone who’s close to you, whether it’s a family member or friend, can feel more difficult, but sometimes it’s warranted.
“Emotional detachment may be necessary in cases of unhealthy relationships,” says Missud. “Emotional detachment can be particularly beneficial in these situations as it allows us to behave in ways we know are best for us, despite having emotions tied to another person. It often means no longer letting the emotions that fuel our attachment to the person take the lead—this is not the same as pretending the emotions don’t exist.”
For these situations, Missud provides the following steps:
- Identify the problem. Ask yourself why you feel like you need to detach from this person
- Identify what’s in your control. Think about potential tools you can implement to make any required interactions more tolerable. If you have control over the existence of the relationship (which is more likely with friends than family), identify your limits, i.e., at what point you need to pull back from the person.
- Use Opposite Action. A concept in dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), a type of cognitive-behavioral therapy that combines strategies for acceptance and change to help individuals manage and regulate intense emotions and develop coping skills, Opposite Action for love entails avoiding the person, reminding yourself why you are detaching, and refraining from expressing love. This can mean blocking them on social media, deleting their number, distracting yourself from thoughts about them, and even being rather “cold” toward them when you’re face-to-face.
- Find a healthy outlet for your emotions. The practice of emotional detachment can be painful, and practices like journaling, exercising, or speaking with a friend or therapist can be helpful.
From someone you’re newly dating
Navigating the early stages of dating, and knowing exactly when you should “let someone in” can get confusing.
“I believe that having boundaries in dating is important and that it is generally wise to get to know someone before becoming too attached to them,” says Dr. Le Goy. “At the same time, if you decide that you will be completely emotionally detached and not show any vulnerability or openness to a potential partner, that will make it difficult to make real connections later on.”
Consider taking stock of your previous experiences with dating, and whether you’ve been emotionally detached in the past, suggests Dr. Le Goy. Decide whether it was warranted or whether you went overboard in protecting your emotions.
If you determine that you could benefit from more emotional detachment early on, proceed to set boundaries regarding how early on you open up. Conversely, “if you decide that your emotional detachment is unhealthy for you, you can take steps to become more open,” says Dr. Le Goy. “One good first step is to acknowledge to the other person that you realize you have been emotionally detached and that you want to work on opening up to them.”
From an ex-partner
Sometimes it can be healthy to get back together with an ex. In other instances, it’s best to detach from the person and move forward, difficult as that may feel. “If a relationship ended badly, it can be beneficial to detach emotionally from an ex-partner,” says Dr. Lyons.
That doesn’t mean you should ignore any unpleasant emotions that arise from the split. “You’ll of course still want to set boundaries but in this instance, it’s important to make sure you’re not suppressing any emotions,” says Dr. Lyons. “It’s okay to feel the emotions from the breakup while still detaching from the person.”
Try to limit your interactions with the person and imagine cutting any emotional cords with them, releasing yourself from the sticky bond, says Dr. Lyons.
When a relationship isn’t serving you, emotional detachment may be warranted. Whether you’re reevaluating a connection with an acquaintance, friend, family member, or love interest, your best move is to set appropriate boundaries without trying to bury any negative emotions that may arise.
Our editors independently select these products. Making a purchase through our links may earn Well+Good a commission.