Saturday, July 30, 2011

Emotional Detachment vs. Relational Cutoff

I was reading through a list of acronyms Alcoholics Anonymous uses to remember concepts and was most struck by one in particular.

DETACH – Don’t Even Think About Changing Him/Her.

Sometimes during counseling, a client will ask for clarification on what “loving detachment” looks like (a solution CODA suggests). Explanation is needed because it is often inaccurately interpreted as “emotional cutoff”. Emotional cutoff is an extreme measure not to be used except in the most toxic of circumstances.

Loving detachment can be most easily described as the emotional distance required to keep from being negatively triggered by another person. When I have found that degree of separation, I can remain nonreactive to their behavior and as a result not build up resentments towards them. I am protecting both of us – me, from their maladaptive actions or manipulations, and them from my angry or inappropriate responses. When I find that “right distance” I can love them despite their harmful behaviors.

Emotional cutoff, as opposed to distancing, is a total shutout of connection with the person. Dr. John Gottman calls this “stonewalling” – not allowing anything said by a person to have any effect on me whatsoever. (All your words are thrown against a stone wall – an impenetrable barrier.)

I could describe loving detachment as an effective filter, letting through only the useful content to maintain a healthy relationship, whereas emotional cutoff filters out all incoming information of a feeling nature.

Jesus called for us to love our enemies, not to hate them. (Matthew 5:44) When we are locked in an emotional struggle with a person, even someone we care for deeply, they can feel like an enemy. It makes it very hard for us to love them. But we are still required to do so.    

I know that I am at the right distance when I no longer feel the need to try to control them. At that distance I can accept them (not their behavior) and I give up my false belief that I have the power to change them. At that place, I have freedom in a new way. I am no longer slave to the relationship, and I will not sit down to breakfast with a bowl of resentment and regret.

So when that urge comes to try to change someone, you are too close. DETACH!

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