Emotional detachment is the process of limiting or avoiding situations or people that cause stress. It’s also the act of setting and keeping strong boundaries to protect our mental and emotional health.
When relationships become disproportionately stressful, we may choose to detach. This helps insulate us from intense emotions and future stress.
Voluntary detachment doesn’t mean we don’t love the other person. Sometimes, we need to take a step back to make a clearer assessment of the situation.
It also doesn’t mean we don’t feel or process our emotions. Quite the opposite. It means that we’re self-aware and willing to set limits around what we’ll tolerate.
How to Detach
The following tips are for handling the end of relatively healthy relationships. We’ll briefly touch on detaching from toxic relationships later.
Identify the “Why” and Stick to It
Before leaving a relationship, it’s useful to identify the reason(s) why detachment is necessary. This will help solidify the resolve to leave. If there are no concrete reasons, it could be easier to stay.
If we’re certain we want to leave but continue to stay, we’re just delaying the inevitable. In this scenario, everyone involved gets hurt more than necessary.
Even if nothing is identifiably wrong with the relationship, our feelings may have changed. In this case, our “why” would be that we aren’t emotionally invested in the relationship anymore.
Clearly communicating the reason to the other person is key. This gives closure and shows respect.
Sometimes, ripping the proverbial bandage off isn’t the best option. Detaching from someone can cause intense emotions. Doing it suddenly may be overwhelming.
We don’t have to get rid of all traces of them immediately. We may delete them from social media one week, and then pack up relationship memorabilia the next.
When we let go gently, we process our grief slowly. This helps keep our emotions relatively stable.
Find an Emotional Outlet
To be released, emotions first need to be processed. As long as the outlet is healthy (i.e., not alcohol, drugs, self-harm, overly risky behavior, etc.), the options are endless.
Perhaps we like to laugh, so we watch funny movies. Maybe we need to talk it out over coffee with friends. Perhaps we need to hit something, but in a controlled way (like martial arts or tennis).
Another beneficial tool is journaling. If we don’t feel comfortable discussing our emotions (or if we’ve worn out our friends discussing them at length), writing them down is helpful.
Meditation helps us observe our thoughts and emotions without dissecting each one. This helps us accept our emotions instead of judging them.
It teaches us how to be okay with uncomfortable feelings. Further, by observing emotions, we’re also able to notice when they dissipate. Through this, we learn that no emotional state is permanent; difficult emotions will pass.
When we detach from a relationship, we’ll undoubtedly feel many emotions about it. We may experience sadness, guilt, anger, or regret.
Regardless of the emotion, we should show ourselves kindness. We may be conditioned to berate ourselves for experiencing hard emotions. We might think we need to “suck it up” and get over it.
However, self-compassion means telling ourselves, “I’m going through a tough time, and that’s okay. I choose to be kind to myself right now”.
There’s no benefit in denying our true feelings or punishing ourselves for them.
How to Leave a Toxic Relationship
This section focuses on toxic relationships that aren’t abusive in nature. That is, relationships that aren’t emotionally, physically, or financially abusive.
Toxicity in relationships may be present from the beginning. People may possess toxic traits, which feed into an unhealthy dynamic. Other times, toxic relationships may form over time.
Annoyances, betrayals, and unmet needs may affect the quality of the relationship. If people don’t know how to (or don’t want to) handle these things, the relationship suffers.
Signs of a toxic relationship include:
- Lack of support in the relationship (emotionally, in the pursuit of goals, etc.)
- Financial mishandling (making large purchases without discussion, reckless spending)
- Feeling stressed out by the relationship
- Hoping the other person will change
- Unhealthy communication (constantly passive aggressive, sarcastic, critical, etc.)
This is true for leaving any type of relationship. However, those of us detaching from toxic partnerships may be dealing with additional stress and anxiety.
Having a support system in place (ideally before the breakup) can help us process the relationship experience.
If the situation is particularly difficult, a professional counselor may be useful.
Avoid Using Alcohol and Drugs to Cope
Aside from being an unsustainable coping mechanism, substances may prolong an unhealthy situation.
They provide temporary stress relief, which may falsely alter perceptions of the relationship for the better.
Also, by suppressing emotions with substances, we only delay processing them. When we do this, we may stay in a toxic relationship longer than necessary.
It can be tempting to try and remain friends with an ex. This may provide a sense of security, as it doesn’t require us to go “cold turkey”.
And while remaining friends with healthy past partners isn’t unheard of, cutting ties with a toxic ex will prevent excess distress.
If the relationship was toxic, chances are talking directly after a breakup isn’t going to be any better.
To successfully detach, we should remove ourselves from the relationship as much as possible, at least in the beginning.
Leaving a relationship is rarely easy. But when we know our limits, we can take steps to protect our well-being.
Choosing to detach emotionally allows us to end a relationship mindfully, without unnecessary hardship.