How Detachment Works with Difficult People


You’re tired of living with an addict but can’t leave.

You can’t let go of your loved one’s bad choices.

Your sister is hanging onto an abusive guy, and you can’t stand it.

These are all situations where detachment is a lifesaver. When you start detaching, relationships improve because you’re not trying to change someone else. Your sanity returns since you’re no longer trying to solve their problems. Instead, the focus shifts from care-taking to self-care.

What is Detachment?

Detachment is letting another person experience their consequences instead of taking responsibility for their actions. This concept provides relief when you are trying to change or stop someone else’s behavior.

Detaching helps when your loved one has:

•Active addiction

•Destructive or abusive behavior

•Annoying habits and embarrassing behavior

•Situations you want to control but can’t

Detachment doesn’t mean you stop caring. It means letting go of other people’s problems. Stop participating in the chaos. Whether it’s making excuses for them, taking on their responsibilities or neglecting your own commitments to help, leave their problems alone.

Isn’t it more loving to help rather than watch them suffer? Not necessarily. Doing for others what they can do for themselves robs them of the dignity of choice.

Attempts to Control

By taking responsibility for someone else’s behavior,  you prevent them from experiencing their own pain and hitting bottom. Sadly, when there is addiction or mental illness detaching can restore sanity in your home. You can offer help but you are powerless if they refuse to accept it.

There is often an overwhelming fear that if you detach, the person will die. This intense powerlessness is the hardest part. There’s an Al-Anon saying,

“You didn’t cause it, you can’t control it and you can’t cure it.” This applies to mental illness, addiction, and difficult personality traits.

You’re not responsible for your loved one’s behavior. It takes a lot of restraint to let them have their consequences. With the right support, it gets easier.

Examples of detachment:

•Not making excuses for them

•Letting them handle their own problems

•Not riding in a car with them when drinking

•Removing yourself and children before they become violent


What makes detaching so difficult?

•Assuming something bad will happen

•Thinking you know how to fix it

•Feeling overly responsible for the outcome

•Not trusting that things will change

•Not having the support or tools to practice it

The Pain of Letting Go

When you try to assert control, the situation gets worse. The stress of trying to fix what isn’t yours is exhausting. Anxiety, depression, people pleasing, poor self-care and difficulty setting boundaries are all signs of codependency that stem from issues of control. Learning how to let go and redirect the focus back to you helps.

How to Start Healing

If you are tired of being sick and tired there is a wonderful resource in Al-Anon. It’s a free support group that helps families struggling with addiction. Anyone struggling with relationship problems can learn helpful tools there. They also have groups for children effected by addiction.

Tips on detaching:

•Silence helps. Ask yourself, how important is it?

•Recognize that helping doesn’t work.

•Do something for YOURSELF instead.

•Refrain from giving advice or preventing their pain.

•Leave the room if you have to. It will save your sanity in the long run.

•Keep children safe by minimizing exposure to abusive behavior.

Detaching with love implies stepping out of the way. It takes an effort to let go of the anger that’s underneath the desire to control. Learn to delineate between the person and the behavior. An addict has a disease much like mental illness. They cannot control their behavior but they are responsible for their choices. It’s a delicate balance between offering help and accepting their power of choice without judgment.

“Live and Let Live”, a popular 12 step saying, reminds us that despite having good intentions, sometimes letting go is the kindest solution you can offer.

About Michelle Farris LMFT

Michelle Farris is a licensed psychotherapist in San Jose, California. She specializes in healing anger, relationships and codependency. She offers individual and couples counseling and online courses. Go to her website for more information.