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Detaching With Love

I find myself leaning upon this well-worn expression lately and feel as though, for my sake and yours, I should examine and expound upon it.

As I know it, this expression comes from Al-anon (mutual support groups for loved ones affected by alcoholism). Anyone who has attended an Al-anon meeting (or other related support group such as Nar-anon or Families Anonymous) can sense the devastation of addictive behaviors. There is often a feeling of tension, rigidity anxiety and fear in the air. To be fair these sensations tend to dissipate as the power of the group and the process slowly takes over.

Have you ever watched bull riders, how they hang on for dear life as the bucking bronco jostles them around? Even when they fall down the bronco drags them, limp and helpless along the floor until someone can intervene. This is the best way to describe being very close to a person with an addiction. Imagine living that way, emotionally, for years or decade.  Believe me it takes its toll.

Detachment was suggested in Al-anon as a way to keep people off of the bucking bronco, or to get them off as quickly and safely as possible when they did get on. One of the concepts that loved ones most struggle with is the idea of powerlessness. I can’t tell you how many times I have been contacted by a loved one who truly feels that if he/she just (fill in the blank here), they would get their life back on track.

Examples to fill in the blank:

-found the right therapist

-dealt with their depression

-got on the right medications

-found the right 12-step meeting

-had a spouse who was more/less…

-got a better job

-had more structure in their lives

-could find a passion.

This belief is founded on two faulty assumptions:

1-human behavior is simple, one dimensional and predictable

2-one human being can control another human being

Please note that all of the above issues are quite important and valid for a healthy life, however, we often fall into the habit of putting the cart before the horse. We believe that if we fix the external issue (see the list above) the person will have a better chance at staying sober, or the person wouldn’t have the need to use the substances in question.

Healthy coping skills and strong sobriety transcend external stresses. Life is full of bumps, missteps disappointments and sometimes tragedies. Knowing how to cope and stay sober is the foundation for dealing with life, if that does not happen first, then all else is lost. You can fix the job problem, for example, and this may buy some time, but if the addict is not actively working on recovery and healthy coping skills, he/she will turn to their coping skill of choice (their preferred substance) when the next difficulty arises.

It is easy to get sucked into the vortex of addiction and easier to look for solutions. My solution is to try not to get too sucked in. Often we, the loved ones, look for solutions for ourselves. If your drunken husbands behaviors makes you crazy, then getting him help or trying to get him to stop both “helps” him, but by extension, helps you.

Detaching with love, is avoiding the vortex, and staying off of the bulls back.

Erroneously, people believe detaching with love is not caring, it’s not helping, it’s disconnecting or abandoning. It is not. It is setting up healthy boundaries, it is developing patterns of self-care, it is developing an identify outside your role in relation to the addict. It is getting out of the way of your loved ones journey, however harrowing it might seem and it is being thoughtful and measured in expending your time, energy and money when it comes to the addict, and doing so as it relates to the solution, not the problem.

Addicts have extremely limited capacity to cope with life, (by virtue of their addiction), trying to get involved with saving or fixing them only adds to this as it disallows them to cope with their own problems.

How do you know when you need to detach?

Well here are some guidelines:

If you’re feeling overwhelmed with feelings, frantic, fearful guilty or rueful, you need to detach.

If you believe you can control outcomes (if he only does this, he can get himself together), you need to detach.

If you find yourself suggesting, commenting, questioning or in any other way ‘playing God,” you need to detach.

If your motives are shaky (fear, anxiety, dread, anger, frustration, deceit) you need to detach.

If you can take 2 minutes to stand back from a situation and aren’t certain if your intended intervention is for the solution or the problem, you need to detach.

Detaching with love is for you, the loved one. It is not intended as a tool for someone to get sober. Anyone who has lived long enough with an addict knows that the there is nothing you can do to get someone sober, that all of the work has to come from the addict.

Often times people will ask me very specific do and don’t questions;

“Should I pay for this?”

“Can I take his call?”

“What should I say if…”

Life isn’t usually black or white and therefore it’s difficult to give definite answers in these kinds of situations, and it’s absolutely 100% impossible to determine outcomes. The truth of the matter is, if you mess up, you’ll have another opportunity to try again, very soon, maybe in the next breath.

This topic is fraught with opinions, so I’m very interested in yours.



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