9 Steps To Emotionally Detach From Someone, From Therapists
There are many reasons practicing emotional detachment can be helpful. You may be breaking up with someone you love and need to find a way to emotionally disconnect despite feelings still being there or still talking to them regularly. You might be dealing with toxic co-workers at work, and the frustration may be spilling over to your personal life. Or perhaps you're dreading visiting your partner's extended family for the holidays because you don't share compatible political ideologies.
Removing someone from your life fully isn't always possible. Sometimes, there are certain relationships where they still have to be a part of your life—at least for the time being until you can change the situation. In such cases, putting parameters around the connection to protect your energy becomes much needed. Learning how to emotionally detach while maintaining clear boundaries is the key to finding peace.
What it means to detach from someone.
To detach from someone means becoming less attached to their behavior and feelings, reevaluating your perception of your connection to them, and adjusting the level of emotional investment you have with them to a place where it feels manageable.
"Emotionally detaching from someone involves taking a step back from your relationship," licensed psychologist Lauren Napolitano, Psy.D., tells mbg. "Perhaps this person (a friend or family member) was once a treasured member of your inner circle, but you've learned that the relationship is no longer healthy for you. By beginning to see this person differently, it allows you to detach—that is, to put less weight on that person's behavior toward you."
According to licensed clinical social worker Noelle McWard, LCSW, being detached means choosing not to engage with that person's behavior and no longer allowing yourself to be emotionally pulled into reacting to it.
"Detachment is a re-centering of your attention and energy on yourself, not the other person," she tells mbg. "When you place your energy and focus back on yourself rather than on trying to control the other person's behaviors and attitudes, you are in a better position to make better decisions about how it is best for you to engage in the relationship."
She notes learning to detach takes conscious intention and practice, which is possible, although it's a difficult skill to master because humans are wired for attachment. That said, she adds, "There is a saying to 'detach with love.' This means that I can love you from afar or in close proximity, but [I] won't engage with the parts that are hurtful to me."
When to choose detachment.
Before choosing emotional detachment, understanding emotional attachment—and how it differs from emotional detachment—may be useful.
McWard defines emotional attachment as the goal for all human relationships. It's a feeling of closeness and connection in relationship with others. When you're in a happy and secure attachment, you feel safe in the relationship.
On the other hand, she says unhealthy attachment can manifest in the form of anxious attachment (feelings of insecurity triggered by the other person's needs and wants, marked by intense fears of abandonment or betrayal) or avoidant attachment (feelings of overwhelm by the other person's needs and wants, marked with a desire to withdraw from the connection).
As a counter, detachment is about working with the relationship and accepting it for what it is instead of working on the relationship and hoping for change.
You can sense it's time to detach from someone when, instead of feeling emotionally regulated around them, you now feel anxious, emotionally drained, and exhausted—all signs you need to take care of your mental health. After you've expressed that their behavior or attitudes have negatively affected you and there's been little to no change, then your only option is to focus on taking care of your well-being within the context of that relationship. This happens by choosing to consciously detach from the person.
Signs it's time to detach.
Below, McWard shares some key indicators that means it's time to detach:
- You're noticing that a disproportionate amount of your mental and emotional energy is being depleted when you focus on what they are doing, saying, thinking, or feeling.
- You feel overwhelmingly drained or emotionally reactive to their behavior.
- You have repeatedly addressed an issue or concern, and you feel like you are being ignored, dismissed, or made promises that are routinely not kept.
- Certain issues in the relationship feel stuck, like there's no resolution or path forward.
- You feel like you're constantly assuming responsibility for their behaviors, which makes the relationship feel frustrating and tiresome.
- The connection has taken on an obsessive quality, and it feels overwhelmingly more negative than positive.
- You feel less happy around them and more worried, sapped, and anxious.
- You realize that it's highly unlikely they will change specific behaviors that make you upset or fundamentally clash with who you are as a person.
- You're starting to assume the worst in their behavior and how they will interact with you.
- Being around them has become toxic or unhealthy in a way that brings out your worst self.
How to detach from someone.
While you're untangling the parts of yourself that could be affected from the relationship, know that detachment doesn't have to be done in anger, resentment, hostility, or even involve the other person—especially if past communications haven't addressed your concerns.
Napolitano notes emotional detachment has similar, nuanced roots to the so-called quiet quitting phenomenon. "In quiet quitting, you are not alerting your boss that you are doing less work, but you [are stepping] back from the stress and pace of the job. It is very powerful to change your approach to a job or a relationship without making a pronouncement about your decision," she says. This allows you to intentionally pull away while protecting your space versus needing to leave the situation or banish them from your life forever.
Ahead, here are some tips to keep in mind as you begin to detach from someone in your life:
Explore your options thoughtfully.
Before reaching the point of emotional detachment, communication is an essential step to determine your course of action. Talk to the person in question, your friends, or a therapist about how the relationship is affecting you.
"Getting feedback from others will help you to ensure that you are making the best decision for your well-being as opposed to impulsively cutting someone out of your life," Napolitano says.
Redefine your relationship to what works for you.
If you do decide it's time to detach, work on negotiating your emotional and physical availability to a place where you can still share space with them without compromising your boundaries.
Emotional detachment will look like being less accessible. "[It'll look like] not getting together as frequently, not responding to outreach as quickly, not taking the 'bait' if you feel triggered by this person's behavior. It's a slow process of moving someone from your inner circle to more of an acquaintance," Napolitano says.
Remove them from an emotional pedestal.
If you're looking to detach from someone you love like an ex-spouse, favorite sibling, or best friend, it'll be a painful process—but remember that distancing can still be done with affection.
Napolitano recommends holding them and your past beloved memories with tenderness while also understanding they may now have a different set of behaviors and values that no longer match up with your own. Bringing objectivity to the way you view them allows them to still be in your life, although their presence doesn't have to loom large in your life.
Put up a barrier so you can keep living your life.
Emotional detachment can also look like "putting someone or something in a space or container in which you don't feel the need to react to what they are doing or who they are," McWard says. "It is the ability to maintain that you can still be OK and do the things that you need to do in your life, your job, etc., in spite of what the other person is doing."
The emotional barrier acts as a buffer to add room to the relationship so it can expand to a place where you can actually interact with the parts of them that do not cause you anxiety or judgment.
Feel your emotions.
Let yourself grieve that it couldn't work out, and reframe the connection so you can still talk to them without feeling knocked off balance. That could look like texting them about your problems less, not hanging out as much, and restricting how often you see them on social media.
Limit the relationship to what you have in common.
Maybe you're looking to emotionally disconnect from a toxic co-worker who wants to get you involved with workplace drama. With individuals whom you are forced to interact with on a regular basis, McWard suggests focusing only on the aspects of the relationship that pertain to those common interests or responsibilities.
For other matters, "emotionally create a buffer between yourself and the other person around anything else. Your focus stays firmly rooted only on doing your job and doing it well, and you let go of giving attention or energy to the other person and what they are or are not doing," she says.
Focus on what you can control.
"This will be different for each person in each situation. It may mean that you recognize that the choices that someone else makes or their actions are not your responsibility or do not require your approval," McWard says. "This may mean that you no longer engage in certain aspects of the relationship because doing so is hurtful or harmful to you in some way."
She notes this could look like having boundaries around topics you will or will not discuss, withdrawing the need from wanting a particular outcome from them, or reducing how open and vulnerable you choose to be with them. It may also look like limiting contact within the relationship. "But in all possible iterations of this, the focus is on you and taking care of yourself, not on changing anything about the other person," she says.
Reset your expectations realistically.
When you're looking for something in the relationship that you have historically not received from them, McWard says emotional detachment can look like no longer hoping, expecting, or desiring that response or engagement. "I describe this as no longer going to the hardware store hoping to buy bread and milk," she says.
Love them from afar.
"If you have a family member whose behavior is toxic (perhaps they're abusing alcohol, maybe they have radically different politics than you do, etc.), you may have found yourself arguing with this person over the years. Perhaps you've even pleaded with them to change their behavior," Napolitano says. "Emotional detachment involves realizing that this person is unlikely to change quickly and that it's better to love this person from afar than to get sucked into a pattern of fighting with this person."
If you see them every day, they don't have to know you are detaching since it can be conveyed with a subtle, nonverbal shift in attitude.
McWard adds that you can still hold the other person in your mind and heart with good thoughts and wishes while maintaining distance. "It is a way that you can hold care for them without having to be directly involved with them."
How do you detach from someone you talk to every day?
Avoid hot-button topics or conversations that may bring you conflict or re-instigate feelings you're trying to release. You can still appreciate them for who they are while understanding there are things that you can't change about how they think or how they feel about you. Keep conversations light and cordial.
How do you detach from someone you like?
Minimize contact in their life so they are no longer the first person you go to or the first person you think about. This can look like removing them from social media, reaching out to them less, not depending on them for your romantic emotions, and reducing communications to platonic interactions only.
How do you detach from someone without them knowing?
You can keep the relationship the same, for the most part. The only thing changing is you are actively divesting from the parts of the relationship that bring you anguish or negativity. In some instances, it may even make the relationship better to see each other realistically and no longer hold each other to unrealistic standards.
In our relationships, we want to be honest and embody our best selves. With emotional detachment, you don't always have to strive to embody that version of yourself with all the people in your life, and that's perfectly OK. Not all relationships require you to take the higher action. After all, it takes two people to effect change.
Sometimes, it's healthier to focus on yourself and what you can control as a form of self-care. Learning emotional detachment is learning how to be discerning enough to understand which people are able to put in the work to nurture a growth-oriented relationship and which people aren't able to do that. If this connection is starting to negatively impact you, it's worth putting in some emotional distance so they can still be a part of your life.
Julie Nguyen is a writer, certified relationship coach, Enneagram educator, and former matchmaker based in Brooklyn, New York. She has a degree in Communication and Public Relations from Purdue University. She previously worked as a matchmaker at LastFirst Matchmaking and the Modern Love Club, and she is currently training with the Family Constellations and Somatic Healing Institute in trauma-informed facilitation.