Loving Detachment: How to find balance between codependency and apathy

When I first started attending al-anon meetings years ago I heard people talking about the idea of loving detachment but didn’t have an understanding of exactly how you could accomplish such a feat. It actually doesn’t sound logical at all. I thought “you love someone but you’re going to detach from them? No that just sounds like abandonment, not love.” I now understand that it’s a pretty typical thing for codependents to struggle with the difference between abandonment and detachment or love and loyalty. I was lucky enough to have a lot of really great guides who not only had been through the process of figuring out how to do this in their own lives but who also had an understanding that exactly how someone chooses to implement the idea in their own lives was really dependent on their specific situation. I’ve gathered some of the most impactful lessons and ideas I’ve learned during my time in recovery. Hopefully you find them as helpful as I did while I was figuring out how to find my peace.

Compassion without responsibility

You can have compassion for a person’s situation or the consequences of their situations without actually taking on their responsibilities. Many times I found myself taking on the responsibilities of the addicts in my life. I’m not just talking about the practical/physical things like money, housing, food, etc., even those in recovery themselves will have many emotional responsibilities. They’re going to have to wade through all the piled up emotional debt owed to both themselves and other people. Tackling how to understand their own triggers, making amends to those they have hurt and building emotional stability thru an emotional hygiene routine.

The Dalai Lama is the author of one of my favorite quotes which fits right with this. 

I had to learn where my responsibilities were and where I could play a supporting role without actually failing in my own responsibilities. For my partner and I it was realizing their recovery was their own and my recovery was my own. Let’s just say I had a bad habit of trying to direct their recovery efforts because of the trauma which their addiction caused our family. If I was skipping my therapy sessions, exercise, meditation or group meetings because I was helping to ensure they got all of theirs then I wasn’t being compassionate to myself, I was overstepping my bounds with them and failing in my own recovery process. Interestingly enough when I learned to focus on my own recovery I became more confident that I could handle a relapse if it happened, they were more empowered because they were doing it on their own. 

The only time I brought up his lack of addressing a certain emotional or practical issue thru recovery was when it had a direct effect on me. In those scenarios I eventually learned not to blame them for where they were at but instead took these specific steps:

  1. State the issue without coercion or guilt. Tone and language are going to be really important with this one. Example: “Part of moving back into the house was an understanding that you continue recovery. Having to worry about where you are and with whom, doing what and when is exhausting and I’m sure makes you feel like a child.”
  2. Ask for a solution that doesn’t stop you from getting what you need or force them to address an issue before they’re ready in their recovery process to do so. Example: “Can we just do a check about recovery regularly. It doesn’t have to be specific and the focus should be on letting me know when you might need a little extra emotional support without burdening me with every bit of information and details of what you’re processing.”
  3. Make sure they understand that it’s not your responsibility to change the boundaries you have set around such issues. “I still need the check ins in order to not feel a sense of anxiety over you moving back into the house. We can adjust the expectations of what that looks like, but we can’t simply say, your recovery is not at all my concern because it does affect me.” 

This helped me understand that they were continually working on it, it relieved me of the stress and anxiety association with constantly worrying about their actions. It freed me up to focus on the thing I had the most control over and the thing that was actually my responsibility and that was MY recovery, not theirs. I got to show them compassion for their recovery journey but released me from the feelings of obligation I felt to help them stay on track.

Don’t ask for or give more than you should.

I like to say “find your own happy and let them find theirs”. I've heard others say “you do you, and I’ll do me”. Part of learning loving detachment is realizing that you may have a need that others cannot fulfill and that they might want something that you can’t give them either. I struggled with understanding just how destructive an idea it was to have expectations of others they don’t want to or maybe even can’t really meet. You end up frustrated and angry and they end up feeling like a failure and annoyed because they just can’t ever seem to make you happy. The truth is nobody makes someone else happy. You make yourself happy and they should make themselves happy. 

Make sure you understand where you end and others begin

It’s tempting to think that friends and family are a reflection of who we are. Even with your children though you don’t have 100% control over all of the influences in their life, from their sibling(s), to their other parent, aunts, uncles, grandparents, neighborhood kids, etc. You have a lot less influence than you realize and research suggests that around the age of 14 you no longer even become the most influential person in their lives, it’s now their peer group. I’ve found that spending time alone helps remind me that I am also my own person, with my own thoughts, ideas, experiences and filter on life. This has really helped me to understand that I don’t always have to take responsibility for the actions of those closest to me. For addicts this becomes a really important skill as others around you may relapse or stop recovery entirely. A decent sense of self can keep you sober yourself.

Allow some space

I’ve found that giving physical, mental or emotional space allows me to come back to a situation that doesn’t feel loving, i.e. your foaming at the mouth, red faced, fists clenched. My partner and I started a system of quite literally pressing the pause button, okay we don’t have remote controls, but we do put our hand up and say pause. I used to hate it when he did a typical addict thing and stonewalled me, not wanting to talk because he knew he was wrong. So later, after he was sober, I continued to chase after him talking even when he wasn’t hearing a word I said. I was simply fearful that he’d never return and he was simply triggered and needed a few minutes to calm down. We have two rules:

  1. Pause before you explode, mandatory, no screaming at each other ever.
  2. You have to come back to the conversation in 30 min, even if it’s just to say, I’m trying and I need more time. You can’t pause for more than 24hrs, we allow a full day so that people can get rest if that is the reason they’re feeling unreasonable, cranky or unable to process. They say you shouldn’t go to bed angry. I say you can’t resolve an issue if you’re too tired to think straight.

Keep trying until you find the sweet spot

The place where this brings you peace is going to be a process. It's not going to be the same with every person in your life and it's going to be continuing to shift based on your needs and the needs of the addict(s) in your life. Don't give up until your relationships feel the way need to feel for you and most importantly don't sacrifice yourself for the sake of any relationship. 

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published