Anyone who’s ever attended a Twelve Step meeting knows that DETACHMENT looms large in the toolkit of suggestions for coping with an addicted loved one. “Detach with love,” we’re told, “if you want to preserve your sanity.”
Which is all well and good, you may think, but what about the addict? Don’t we have a duty to try to help? Doesn’t detachment seem a little bit – selfish? A little bit like – well, giving up?
It can definitely feel that way at first. Especially if we’ve come to believe that our loved ones can’t get clean without us. But here’s the problem: the longer we’re with them on the roller coaster of addiction, the less able we are to be helpful in any meaningful way. When we’re right there with them through those peaks and valleys, we’re not able to step back, regain our balance, and offer the kind of clear-sighted support that might make a difference.
Detachment is neither unloving nor unkind. It’s simply accepting the fact that we can’t live our loved ones’ lives for them. It’s coming to understand that detaching with love is one of the best things we can do for our addicted loved ones. Here are eight reasons why:
- Detachment lets fresh air into your relationship. If you’re involved with an addict, chances are your relationship has become unhealthy. In our efforts to rescue our loved ones from their self-destructive choices, we often resort to nagging, scolding, crying, threatening, shaming, or other damaging behaviors that create conflict and tension. All that stress gives addicts one more reason to use – one more excuse for turning to substances to cope.
- Detachment allows addicts to face consequences of their choices. Wouldn’t it be great if we could learn important life lessons simply by being warned about negative consequences? If that were the case, we’d all make fewer mistakes and have fewer regrets to look back on. Unfortunately, most of us have to learn through experience, which means facing the consequences of our choices. That includes addicts. To fully comprehend the negative effects that substances have on their lives, they have to suffer the consequences of their choices.
- Detachment saves addicts from the harmful effects of enabling. Enabling means doing for others what they could and should be doing for themselves. When we try to solve their problems and soften the pain that addiction is causing them, we’re preventing our addicted loved ones from taking a crucial step towards maturity: facing problems and learning from success and failure. When we enable, we keep our loved ones perpetually dependent and immature.
- Detachment empowers the addict to behave like an adult. Addicts tend to get stuck at the age they were when they started using. That’s because addiction limits their exposure to the kinds of experiences that promote emotional growth: preparing for a career, finding a job, forming meaningful relationships, developing a moral belief system, and becoming financially self-supporting. When we detach with love, our addicted loved ones have the opportunity to look inside themselves to develop the resources they need to build satisfying lives.
- Detachment allows addicts to experience the satisfaction that comes from personal accomplishment. Sometimes, when we solve problems and find solutions for our addicted loved ones, things turn out well. The problem is, it’s our accomplishment, not theirs. They don’t get to experience the satisfaction and build the self-esteem that come from knowing they did it on their own.
- Detachment deprives addicts of a convenient scapegoat when things go wrong. Sometimes, when we solve problems and find solutions for our addicted loved ones, things go wrong. When that happens, our addicted loved ones can point the finger of blame at us: “This is your fault. You set this up and now look what happened.” Even if it’s the addicts who turned a wonderful opportunity into a disastrous mess, our involvement makes us the target of their anger and disappointment. Instead of looking at their own role in the outcome and learning from the experience, they look at us.
- Detachment reduces the shame our addicted loved ones feel about themselves. Most addicts don’t like themselves very much. On some level, they know they’re messing up their lives, but they don’t know how to stop. Their sense of shame grows deeper every time they see us look at them with disapproval, every time they disappoint us. Shame is one of those damaging emotions that can keep addicts stuck. One way we can stop contributing to their shame is by detaching from our expectations of them and allowing them to find their own way.
- Detachment is an expression of love. Far from being a selfish act or an act of giving up, detachment can be a powerful expression of love. When we detach with love, we are expressing our belief in our addicted loved ones. We’re saying: “I believe you have the inner strength and intelligence to handle this yourself. I believe you’re going to find your way through this.” What could be more loving than that?
About the Author
Beverly Conyers is the mother of three grown children. She began writing about addiction when she discovered that her youngest daughter was addicted to heroin. She knows first-hand the anxiety and heartache that families endure, and she has gained deep insight into the process of recovery from addicts who share their experiences in her books. Above all, she knows that there is no such thing as a hopeless case. Everything can change even when we least expect it, and the miracle of recovery happens every day.