The Pleasures of Detachment in Relationships
Have you ever had one of those days when you come home in a good mood, but your partner is so stressed that suddenly you’re tense too? Or your girlfriend wakes up angry and withdrawn, and your attitude—even your whole day—is shot. At moments like that in relationships, our close connection to our partner is no longer sweet, it’s just plain exhausting. The truth is, the romantic notion of being completely tuned in to someone else is just that: a fairy-tale construct. A better balance can be found in what AlAnon calls “detaching with love.” Somewhere between intimacy and independence, it’s a more realistic, more functional way to relate to your loved one.
When we’re younger we might fantasize about having a partner who completes us and makes us feel completely known. Hopefully, as we mature, we gain a sense that we’re already complete on our own. At that point, we start looking for a partner/playmate to enjoy life alongside, and provide us support. This results in a less entangled way of loving that is still close, still warm, but with better emotional boundaries so it’s no longer draining.
Detachment means building a space between two people, so your emotions aren’t as affected or swamped by your spouse. By doing this, you can be more compassionate. Getting some distance from the harder emotions and seeing them almost from afar lets you love your partner without having to heal them or be responsible for their feelings.
What does detaching look like? Some key factors include:
1. Not allowing their moods to affect yours. It’s hard to hold onto your equilibrium when you’re trapped in a car with a stressed, sad or angry partner. But being able to distinguish their reactions from your own, is both protective of yours (I’m a separate person and I don’t have to get dragged down right now) and respectful of theirs (You’re allowed to be in a lousy mood).
2. Not trying to solve your partner’s problems. Allowing your partner to have their own struggles and find their own solutions is actually more considerate and shows more faith in them. If you can’t trust them to figure their own stuff out, you’re veering dangerously close to treating them like a child.
3. Finding your individual voice. Pursuing your own interests, friendships, tastes or values even if your partner disagrees is a crucial step to not losing yourself in a relationship. It’s lovely to have interest in each other’s hobbies, but having your own passions and being allowed to continue to pursue them separate from your partner means you each have more to bring home and discuss with each other. It keeps you more interesting and more fulfilled.
4. Being able to tolerate your partner’s pain. It is an impossible task to try to shield your partner from any discomfort or even suffering. It’s not your job and they will probably resent you for trying and/or failing. You can comfort and have compassion without leaping in, sacrificing yourself or turning yourself inside out to caretake them.
5. Letting your partner be mad at you, without giving in or fearing they will leave. In a healthy relationship, conflict is tolerated and worked through, not avoided at all costs. Trying to deny any conflict means one of you is giving in and will eventually feel erased or resentful.
All those romantic notions of two becoming one can lead to losing yourself. While dependence or codependence can sap you, and independence can lead to a bit too much distance and coolness, detaching with love (also referred to as interdependence) is a great way of staying connected while not losing yourself.
The benefits of remaining more detached are multifold. Some examples are:
1. Building your own sense of self. By not turning to your partner for self-esteem, you build your own self-definition and have less resentment for the inevitable time when your partner can’t be/do/reflect everything you need.
2. Allowing your loved one their own moods without making it about you. If you’re not judgmental or furious when your partner is having a bad day, you give them space to be real. By not getting reactive to them, you give them permission to have a full range of feelings, negative and positive.
3. Creating more relationships and activities outside the relationship that nurture you. By finding other ways to fulfill your needs, you don’t make unrealistic demands on your partner and can feel less disappointed in them.
4. Reconnecting with parts of yourself you might usually bury in relationships. By having a little emotional distance from your partner, you are able to define yourself not through their eyes but all by yourself. This makes room for all of your parts, even the ones your partner doesn’t like or connect with.
5. Making a plan for your future that fully accounts for your own needs. Although that plan will have to be shaped in accordance with your partner’s needs and desires, you’ll at least start with a clear idea of what you want. Then, compromise can be a choice rather than a defeat. If you are so wrapped up in a communal sense of “our” plan for “our” future, you can lose sight of what “You” want.
Once you’ve made a commitment to yourself to have more emotional space from your partner, it can be confusing to know how to achieve it. Here are some concrete steps you can take to increase your loving detachment. Some of them take time to develop and can most easily be learned and practiced with the help of a therapist:
1. Spend more time with friends. It’s easy to make one person your everything and use every bit of energy on them. Making time to spend with others in your life helps you remember strengths and personality traits that you may have put aside in your main relationship. It’s common to have friends who bring out your sense of humor, others who push you intellectually. Truly, the more, the merrier.
2. Pursue your favorite pastimes. When you can spend time on anything that interests you—gardening, biking, reading—you become a more interesting person. This in turns helps you feel that you have a full, fulfilling life outside your relationship, and brings new content inside it. By exploring passions that you may not have time or space for if you’re constantly with your partner, you aren’t making the unrealistic demand of your partner that they should be everything you want in one package.
3. Invest in yourself. Spend money, time or resources on yourself. This could be taking a class, starting a new hobby, getting a massage or redoing your apartment. Anything that takes the focus off the relationship and onto self-care or self-improvement is a way to prove to yourself that you value yourself.
4. Imagine a boundary between you and the ones you love. When your partner is upset, notice how affected your are by that and try to soothe your own reactions. Doing breathing techniques to relax, or visualizing a screen between you (picture an actual screen door or force field separating you), allows you the space to sit back and observe rather than jump into the fray.
5. Be mindful. There are scores of articles, websites and apps devoted to the practice of mindfulness. In general it means observing your own emotions instead of feeling ruled by them. In those moments when your partner is having a problem, mindfulness allows you to accept that this makes you feel lousy, take a deep breath, and allow to it be there without fixing it (remember: just because you feel something doesn’t mean it has to be acted on). This helps the feeling to pass more quickly and feel less upsetting.
Don’t worry that these techniques will cause too much emotional distance. Having a life outside your marriage actually makes your life inside your marriage even more abundant. If connection is the yin of relationships, detachment is the yang—equally valuable though a bit less easy to understand. It means being close to and aware of your partner while also being a fully independent person, who doesn’t rely on them to feel okay and who doesn’t confuse your emotions with theirs. It means being okay with physically being alone and having time apart, and also being okay with occasional emotional separation. It’s that lovely concept of balance, in which all parts of you, your loved one, and your shared relationship are accepted without having to edit them or deny certain factors. As it turns out, the most mature and the most romantic relationships are also the most real.