With over 24.5 million people in the United States addicted to a substance, and an estimated 1 in 10 suffering from a substance use disorder at some point in their lives, one in four Americans knows an addict. While many people only suffer from addiction for brief periods, they go on to affect their friends, family, and loved ones while they are addicted. While it is natural that you want to be there for the people you love, it’s also important to step back and take care of yourself and your own health and mental wellbeing at the same time.
Addicts are often demanding, manipulative, and may ask more of you than you can give. Continuing to invest your time and emotional energy into them can hurt you. At the same time, you don’t likely want to completely step away to leave your loved one to their own devices, especially if they are relying on you for food, shelter, or support. Providing continued support to an addict is also one of the most reliable ways to eventually move them into rehabilitation and recovery, although this process can take a long time.
What is Detaching with Love?
Detaching with love is the process of stepping back and away from harmful, codependent, and one-sided relationships. You choose to invest less emotional energy in your loved one until they are in a mental state where they are capable of reciprocating the attention you give them. However, it doesn’t mean giving up on them, cutting them out of your life, or refusing them care. It does mean stepping out of your role where you likely enable their substance abuse, which can be difficult for both you and them.
There are many reasons to detach with love including:
Stepping Away from Enabling – No matter what your intentions, continuing to invest a great deal of time, energy, and effort into your loved one is likely enabling them. If you weren’t paying for them, giving them a place to stay, lying for them, or otherwise helping them, would they be able to continue substance abuse at the same level? Stepping back removes you from this role of unintentionally enabling continued abuse.
Avoiding Codependency – Codependency in relationships with addicted loves ones almost always becomes a relationship where you are excessively emotionally reliant on being able to care for your loved one. Here, codependency is extremely harmful for everyone involved, because it enables the addict, while putting the codependent person in a situation where they are creating their own addiction to being needed as a caretaker. Stepping out of a codependent role is difficult and may require therapy for both involved parties but working to detach with love is a good start.
Getting Space – While most people want to do things for the people they love, you have to take care of yourself as well. Detaching with love gives you the space to be happy, to focus on your own emotional and mental health, and live your own life without focusing 100% on them. Addicts are often demanding, but you cannot put your own life on hold to help your loved one.
How to Detach with Love
Detaching with love is about stepping back and giving yourself space without ending a relationship or being harsh. It’s about gently but firmly setting boundaries and sticking to them. It’s also important to know you’re not the first one to learn about detaching from an addict – remember many families deal with this issue now. So many others have walked this road before you and can offer great advice and support. You can find great help in groups like Al-Anon, which is a support group for families.
Don’t Accept Responsibility – While it’s very easy to assume responsibility for anything from a missed dinner to bailing your loved one out of jail because you can solve those problems, you shouldn’t. If you’re spending all of your energy taking charge of their problems and fixing them, you are not spending it on yourself. You should not be actively working to keep your loved one out of trouble and should not go out of your way to offer help or support unless they want it in a non-monetary fashion. For example, you may be actively working to ensure that your loved one has a place to sleep and food, you may be lying to their boss or school, you may be bailing them out of jail or picking them up when high, or you may even be paying their rent. If you are, step back, stop assuming responsibility, and find a more detached way to approach care. How does that work? Make it known that your loved one can sleep in your home but don’t go out of your way to pay their rent or get them a place to stay.
Don’t Blame Others or Yourself – Addiction is a complex and nuanced disorder that plays into genetics, behavior, environment, and coping mechanisms. It’s easy to either blame yourself or to blame others. For example, the family of addicts often find themselves in positions where an addict will say something like “I wouldn’t drink if you didn’t nag”. You may find yourself saying things like “I shouldn’t have argued”, blaming someone at their work, or otherwise finding reasons for addiction and faults. While there are reasons, the primary cause of addiction is still repeated exposure, which is a choice. Your loved one can and will seek out help when they are ready, but until then, they are the only person making that choice. While there are many factors involved in addiction, it is the person using the substances responsible for their choices, and not you or anyone else in their life.
Saying No – Saying no is often one of the most difficult parts of stepping back and detaching with love. It’s difficult because it means that you will sometimes have to watch your loved one be hurt. You may watch them lose their job or their career or even their home. You may also have to put up with them being angry at you, blaming you, and attempting to shame or manipulate you into changing your mind. Unfortunately, once you say no, you need to stick to it. If you decide “No, I will not wait up to have dinner with you until you get home at 2 AM” then you should stick to that and leave food out that they can choose to heat up for themselves. Addicts are often selfish and manipulative, and you should not be giving without reciprocation. Most addicts suffer from a considerable amount of self-delusion, and they will manipulate you and feel as though they are right, but saying no is important for your mental health and theirs.
Prioritizing Yourself – Stepping back is mostly for your benefit. While it will give the person in your life the space to have to cope with their addiction on their own, without someone holding them up, it also works to protect you from the damage caused by someone with a severe disorder. Putting yourself first means that you cannot leave work to pick up your loved one unless there’s an emergency. It means saying no even when there are temper tantrums. It means making space for yourself, so you can do the things you like or love. And in some cases, it may mean moving out or asking your loved one to move out. Here, it’s important to keep in mind that your own physical and mental health are just as important as that of your loved one. If they are actively preventing you from being happy or successful, they are harming you.
Detaching with love can be difficult, but it’s an important process if you want to make room for yourself, avoid enabling, and still be there for your loved one. While, ideally, you’d simply be able to move your loved one into drug rehab and addiction treatment, that isn’t always possible, and detaching with love gives you the opportunity to remain a supportive and caring part of your loved one’s life, without letting them destroy yours. You can remain part of your loved one’s life, giving them the social care and love they need to find the motivation to recover, while taking space so that you can be happy.
Good luck with your loved one – and be strong.