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How to Detach Emotionally from Someone

Jonathan Riley

“Even when I detach, I care. You can be separate from a thing and still care about it.” – David Levithan

According to Co-dependents Anonymous (CoDA), detachment is a conscious act of self-care. We choose to disengage emotionally from people and/or leave situations that could harm us. Detaching allows us to emotionally and/or physically separate ourselves from people, events, and places in order to gain a healthy, objective point of view. If we don’t like the behaviour of others, we can detach, recognising that we are separate from them with our own distinct identity and set of boundaries. We endeavour to detach with love and respect for ourselves and others, especially when detaching from family or friends. Even though we care, we remember that we are not responsible for other people’s behaviours, nor are they responsible for our well-being.

Martin (2018) argues that co-dependents 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. Over time, living with active addiction creates anxiety, depression, and chronic stress for those closest to an addict. Many family members suffer in silence, while the addict doesn’t see a problem. Because of their caring nature, co-dependents can become obsessed with other people’s problems. They have good intentions and a real desire to help, but this fixation on problems they can’t actually solve isn’t helpful to anyone. It is a distraction from taking care of themselves and solving their own problems. It also prevents a loved one from taking full responsibility for their life and learning to solve their own problems.

When you are affected by someone else’s problem, it is important to remember that even though you cannot prevent what’s happening to them, you can regain your sanity by practicing detachment. Of course, detachment doesn’t mean that you stop caring. The popular phrase is “to detach with love” which promotes loving the person, even when you don’t approve of the behaviour (Al-Anon Family Groups, n.d.). Detaching means that you lovingly let go of solving the problems associated with the addiction. Family and friends of addicts often fear that the addict will end up incarcerated or dead. This fear is not unfounded; sadly, many addicts continue using despite the consequences to their health and well-being. Therefore, that fear leads you back to rescuing them. However, rescuing addicts trigger a cycle of control that depletes family and friends to the point of emotional and physical exhaustion.

In Al-Anon, a 12-step program for friends and families of alcoholics, there is an important saying to help remind us of those necessary boundaries in relationships with addicts: “You didn’t cause it, you can’t control it, and you can’t cure it.” This phrase is helpful to consider in its parts:

You Didn’t Cause It

Regardless of why the addiction started, you are not responsible for the behaviour of a loved one experiencing addiction. You are only responsible for your own behaviours and your own actions.

You Can’t Control It

Rational decision-making is significantly impaired once a brain becomes dependent on a substance. This explains why an addict’s behaviour is no longer rational: they cannot see its impact on their own behaviour.

You Can’t Cure It

An addict’s brain gets hijacked by the dependency, which impacts their ability to think and make sound decisions. In addition, these physiological changes make it impossible for the addict to see what’s happening to them.

Practicing good self-care becomes essential for restoring the emotional and physical health of the entire family and yourself. Dealing with active addiction creates a pattern of self-neglect that needs healing. Redirecting the focus back on what you need makes detachment possible because your energy is no longer spent solely on the addict. We can learn one day a time to make wise choices rather than react out of anxiety, fear, and anger. Detachment isn’t just for people dealing with someone with active addiction, it can be used for any person, event, and situations that could potentially cause harm to us.


Co-Dependents Anonymous. (n.d.). Co-Dependents Anonymous. Carnegie.

Al-Anon Family Groups. (n.d.). Families facing alcoholism: there is hope. Melbourne.

Farris, M. Detachment: A Strategy for Friends and Family of Adult Addicts. Retrieved from

Martin, S. Codependency and the Art of Detaching From Dysfunctional

Family Members. Retrieved from