The Metaphysics of Detaching
(a Full Text Excerpt from the book)
I had a question on one of the lists about "how much detachment"
sitting in my inbox; just to show even famous philosophers don't always know
what to say. For me though, a little soak time usually cures that, AND as a
special added bonus, I am ACTUALLY going to throw some genuine philosophy at
you... Can you believe it? More important, are you READY???!
Now before I get waxing too much here, I want say what I mean by detaching.
This word seems to go in a lot of different directions in different people's
minds. What I mean by detaching
is distancing yourself emotionally from the actions, words, and
feelings of another person. Now, as I have come to understand this from the
Al-anon literature, detaching is not a tactic you use in a given interaction. It
is a fundamental change in emotional attitude toward another person. It is
something that takes time and commitment, and hopefully stays with us through
difficult interactions or situations. In the Al-anon literature, detaching helps
people to take better care of themselves while still living with a troubled
Detaching is a conscious choice to give less emphasis to the emotional impact
another person has on us. Some people read detaching and thing of
"checking out" or "dissociating" during a rage. That's NOT
what I mean by detaching. I mean granting less accessibility of your emotional
state, long term, to the control or effects of another. Keep in mind, with BPs,
they are often trying to make us feel
badly. They manipulate our feelings to moderate their own pain. Other times,
they are out of control, unable to consider our well being, and flail at us in
very hurtful ways. Detaching is accepting as an ongoing premise that
"I won't care as much about this as I did before."
The Ultimate Obligation: Now the
question here was "how much detaching?" It all comes
down, in my mind, to what your ultimate obligation is. And I believe your
ultimate obligation is to care for your own spirit.
Let me put this in religious words first, because this is probably a little
more understandable. If we honestly assess our miniscule power in this world,
and the vast scope of the world around us, we must conclude that there is a
greater purpose in this world. Could God really love you so little that he would
intend for you to slowly destroy yourself in a deprived and hurtful
relationship? And if he did intend it, why did he give you the will and power to
choose? Surely he intended for you
to, above all, love yourself?
And now the real philosophy: this all came together in kind of a blur - but
yes, somewhere in my deep, dark memory, long before ASW messed with my head, is
this repository of knowledge of, dare I say?, ethics. And there lived long ago a
real famous 18th century philosopher named Kant. I think the name came about
because students simply kant understand what the man was saying, but I digress.
Kant's basic belief is that humans are unique in the world because we have been
given a free will. And because we have free will, we have the power to choose
to act in a moral or immoral way. And, through arguments that not
even he can express simply, he
concludes that the imperative for all moral beings is to act in harmony with
what is right. Thus, the basis of a moral action must be valid as a moral
principle for all moral beings. Another way to say this is, if the reason you
choose your action is valid for all moral beings, then your action is a moral.
It the reason is not valid for all moral beings, than your action is not moral.
What does this mean for us nons? It means that, if a choice to stay in a
demeaning and deprived relationship is morally right for one of us, that
directly means that it is right for everyone. Let me say that differently. If
you, as a non, choose to stay in a hurtful relationship, and at the same time
you would not, as a rule, say that
others in similar situations must also stay in their relationships, then your
choice is not a moral choice. If you choose to care for yourself, by changing or
leaving the relationship, and you can say, as a RULE, that everyone should
similarly care for themselves, then this is a moral choice. Now I'm sure you can
tell from the way I posed that, that I think caring for yourself is a moral
So, go back now to the religious words: if God really loved you, would he
intend for you to slowly destroy yourself in a deprived and hurtful
relationship? Do you see how these tie together?
Well, that was certainly a lot words. And as owl once said, "It takes
quite a lot of words to say a thing like that." (Those of you with young
children might catch that.) Now let's look at what this means in the context of
whether to protect yourself or the relationship.
Two Issues: Self and Relationship
I was asked <<Where is the line between detaching enough to care for
yourself, and detaching so much that you put the relationship in
This is the wrong way to think about it. There are really 2 continua. The
first is the degree to which you choose to protect yourself. The second, which
is separate, is how far you extend yourself to "foster" the
relationship. They may interact, or they may not. But I think you need to think
of those as separate.
Many people in long term relationships with troubled SOs have the priority
very high on fostering the relationship, and very low on protecting
themselves. And a lot people in such situations end up in distress, so there is
almost certainly something wrong with those priorities.
Now after all that babbling up to, you know that I'm going to say that you
need to place a high priority on caring for yourself. And if you don't go for
the metaphysic of morals, I'll give you some more practical thoughts to support
that caring for yourself is your most sacred obligation in this world, even more
important that caring for your children, and distinctly more important than
caring for your marriage.
Paramount: Caring for Yourself
Why? Because without a healthy and functioning you, you cannot fulfill your
other obligations. You could look at the page on What
about Me?, and just to show that I sometimes actually practice what I
preach, you can read about this a little about how not caring for your spiritual
needs causes depression on Depression
and Unconscious, and for real fun, have a look at how my unconscious
clobbered me for not taking enough care of myself, and fixed some of my values
at the same time: On Changing
Now hopefully, if you read all that, you are convinced he relationship has
to come second. Now you're probably gasping.. but think
about it. If your relationship was healthy, and was with a healthy spouse, would
this be a problem in ANY way? Not a chance. The fact that your own well being is
in direct conflict with fostering the relationship is a big, BIG signal that
something is really wrong.
Deciding what YOU Need
So, the way I'd like you to look at this is about you. What do you need to be
healthy? I'll bet if you seriously reflect on this, you'll be close to
tears, which is a subconscious signal that what you're thinking of is something
that would be healing for you. You can look at Tears
and Healing for a lot more on this. And then you need to decide whether you are getting that, or whether there is
any likelihood that you'll get it in the reasonable future, if you stay in the
If the answer is no, then you need to take steps to make it possible to
get what you need. I really don't think there is any real choice. First of all,
Kant said so, and besides, if you gut it out, you will continue to starve
yourself spiritually. And bad things happen when you do this, including
depression and, god forbid, falling in love with someone else (go back up to
that page On Changing
Values for my sad story on this). You should also plug in
the thoughts about real love and loving relationships on Love
Now, if you are getting what you need, or there is good chance you will, you
can focus your energy on the relationship. But what if you are not?
Protecting Yourself by Detaching
If the relationship is really harming you, and you cannot reasonably foresee
a change that will remedy that, you have to start protecting yourself. Detaching
is a way of distancing yourself emotionally from the actions, words, and
feelings of another person. Al-anon is great at teaching this. Basically, you
start to redefine what makes you ok - to be focused on you. It is like emotionally
circling the wagons. You push your spouse's actions and pain outside of your
circle. You focus on you and what you need and what you need to feel. A simple
example is staying awake worrying when your spouse stays out late. You stop
that. You go to bed and go to sleep. You focus on you and what you need. You
leave your spouse's problems with your spouse. You decide to be OK no matter what
is happening out there.
Now, you know this is going to cause big problems with a BP or an NEC or an AS
spouse - because it is equivalent to abandoning them. And their behavior is
likely to change. When I wrote to one list member who's spouse was consistently
escalating the emotional violence, I was pretty pessimistic. I think his
situation might very well be unstable (speaking as an engineering-type guy). The
more he detaches, the more forceful her violence will be, prompting him to
detach more, prompting more violence. In chemical plants these unstable type situations end
up in devastating explosions (so they hire smart guys like me to make sure they
don't happen.) But we're not talking about molecules here; we're talking about a
disordered spouse that is in great emotional pain. It is a sad reality of most
of these relationships.
If your spouse is less sick, functioning better, has good psych support, or
other helpful factors are present, then you may find that the relationship
improves. Your own care for yourself may provoke a realization that the bar has
been raised for membership in the relationship, and your spouse may get more
serious about changing. But the reality is that the relationship is not under
your control. Only you are under your control, and the best thing you can do is
to take care of you.
Detaching Disconnects the Relationship
Unfortunately, I find the Al-anon literature is a little optimistic. Because
I really do not believe you can maintain an intimate relationship with someone
that you are detaching from. The problem is that intimacy requires trust so that
vulnerabilities can be shared. Well, let's face it, this isn't happening to
begin with in relationships of those who are asking these questions. But if you add
detaching, you for sure lose the trust and sharing of vulnerabilities, and this
by itself makes the relationship not an intimate one. And so detaching has to
go one of two ways: it either serves a catalyst - raising the bar, as I said
earlier - to get a spouse to seek change, or it will be the first step in ending
the relationship and making room in your life for a relationship that can
Now, I tried to consider whether that are SOME situations in which it might
be practically necessary to preserve the relationship even though it is really
hurting the non. And frankly, I cannot think of any real reason to continue to
harm yourself for a relationship that is doing
that harming. Some things take
time, like finding a job, etc. That is part of the process. But I honestly can
think of no practical reasons that justify just staying and allowing more and
more deprivation and harm to yourself without taking steps to protect and
Well, it all comes down to a few sentences, even after all that blah blah
blah. Your obligation is to care for yourself. When you do this, a partially
well partner may well respond by rising to the challenge and finding ways to
heal; or it will be the first step toward ending the relationship. There you go:
your future in 2 sentences.
So, you're not ready to accept all this? Or you don't like Kant??!!! Well, I
never! No, really, this is OK. Nobody elected me president. I think. Did you?
You're not supposed to just agree with all this. It's not that easy. It takes
time and effort to come to terms with all this. Keep reading, keep thinking,
keep exploring deep down for what is really right. You might find you do like
green eggs and Kant.
Do you know what you
need to step away from the chaos and sort things out?