Emotional detachment doesn’t happen suddenly. It is a process of deterioration over time without effective interventions to change its course. Letting go of someone you love, closing the door to your heart, is a very common reason for what brings people to seek the help of a therapist.
Emotional detachment looks like avoidance, social isolation, procrastination, passive aggression, infidelity, “forgetting important dates or events,” abstaining from sex, physical and verbal affection, not responding or deliberately waiting to respond to texts or emails, blocking the person, taking your partner for granted, criticizing them, picking fights, and lashing out with threats and degrading name-calling. Marriage researcher John Gottman characterizes these behaviors as “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Contempt, Criticism, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling.” He runs a Love Lab where he observes couples discussing a conflict and can determine with nearly perfect accuracy within the first 5 minutes, which will get divorced.
The pain and suffering of emotional detachment is harrowing and can actually show up as intense physical pain (my heart is broken), which can manifest as somatic symptoms such as headaches, stomach issues, sleep problems, binge eating, numbing yourself with alcohol, mood swings, depression, impulsivity (i.e., sexual promiscuity), excessive spending, physical violence, verbal and legal threats, changing the locks, stealing money, recklessly showing up at the person’s workplace, raging outbursts, destruction of property, lying, slander, sabotage, and poor self-hygiene. Breaking up can get very nasty, humiliating, and scarring. These symptoms mimic the symptoms of bipolar depression, mania, generalized anxiety disorder, and addiction.
The reality is that emotional detachment is necessary and unavoidable when couples decide to split up. Ideally, there is a “checking out period,” followed by a clear, direct, and honest conversation about the future of the relationship: “I don’t think this is working. I am not willing to try couples therapy. I don’t love you anymore. I am in love with someone else. I want a divorce. This is my final decision. The stress of this relationship is interfering with my ability to be happy, hopeful, and successful. We do not share the same vision for the future. We don’t want the same things. Our values are incompatible. You bring out the worst in me. I don’t like who I am with you. I do not enjoy your company anymore. I am not attracted to you anymore. I feel bad when I am around you. I dread seeing you. Your energy is toxic. I have tried to tell you how I am feeling, but things haven’t changed at all or fast enough. I hate you, and I am done.” Then the rejected partner is faced with a crossroads: beg, plead, cling, manipulate, coerce- anything that demonstrates a complete denial of the ending.
Emotional detachment is a process of grief. There are traditionally 5 stages of grief, according to researcher Elisabeth Kubler-Ross: denial (“this cannot be happening, it’s just a nightmare I will wake up from, this isn’t reality, no no no!), bargaining (“please, I will do anything to get you back, I’ll quit my job, I will sell all my assets, I will change my appearance, I will do sexual things that I didn’t want to before, I will go to therapy, I will move, I cannot live without you, I need you, you are my lifeline, if you leave then I will kill myself”), anger (“this is not the real you, I know the real you, I have forgiven you so many times, you owe me, you are a bad person and will never be happy without me, nobody will love you as much as I do, you are stupid and unattractive, you are worthless, you are a loser, you never satisfied me sexually”), depression (“My life is over, I have nothing left to live for, my hopes and dreams are shattered, I will never love again, I am unlovable, this is all my fault, I will never be happy, nothing works out for me, I may as well die,”) and acceptance (“this relationship wasn’t working, we were both unhappy, fighting all the time, treating each other badly, this was not a healthy relationship and we deserve to find happiness, the damage cannot be healed, the loss cannot be recovered, the trust is broken and unfixable, this relationship is over and it is better this way.”) the most current stage of grief is now believed to be Meaning: I stayed because I wanted to see myself as compassionate and forgiving, I couldn’t bring myself to leave a person in that state, I am not a quitter, I do not want to give up hope for happiness, I am capable of loving deeply. I am worthy and lovable. I have a lot to offer, I have learned a lot about what I need and don’t need in a relationship, I have insight into who I am as a person and what is really important to me that I may have overlooked before.”
The feeling of loss is real; it may happen every day, at unexpected times, like a wave that engulfs you. Usually there is a specific trigger, like a picture, event on the calendar, social media pictures, planned trips, receipts, cards, stuff around the house, joint purchases, and gifts for special occasions. I want to tell you that from my clinical experience, emotional detachment is the hardest thing anyone can ever go through, whether or not the person lost is still alive or passed. The reason for this lies in the intense process of emotional attachment. When you become emotionally attached to someone, your walls come down, you make a conscious choice to trust, a desire to learn and grow each day, making room in your life and in your heart, introducing them to your family and friends, acknowledging them as your partner, committing to being exclusive. It feels like this bond gives you a roadmap for your future, where you will live, whether you will have kids, realizing your identity and purpose. Your happiness depends on the quality of the relationship on any given day, even when some days are better than others. You appreciate each other and want to support their aspirations. You want to share the rest of your life with them; you want to make a family with them, to undo what you had to go through as a child or to continue the family traditions that made your childhood blissful.
This kind of love is not always healthy if one bad day or week disrupts your daily functioning and causes depressive symptoms like sleep problems, extreme mood swings, emotional instability, the loss of control, and trouble focusing. Emotional detachment is experienced as physical pain. That’s why some people use alcohol or self-harm to try to replace the emotional pain with physical pain. But that is ineffective because it is just a detour. Ultimately, emotional detachment is an opportunity to reconnect with yourself. That is the most important relationship in your life because you take yourself wherever you go; you are who you are. You may want to change some things about yourself, but you are you.
The only way out is through. It is best to work with a therapist to discuss how you feel on a daily and weekly basis, monitor your moods, triggers, and impulses, create goals for how to take better care of yourself, to resume activities that used to make you happy, and perhaps to take an antidepressant temporarily to help cushion your inevitable falls. Medication is a supplement to therapy, and it is necessary when you are still stuck in depression, denial, impulsivity, substance abuse, missing too many days of work, for a specified amount of time that is determined on an individual basis with the therapist and recruited psychiatrist. If you have not progressed, if you have not recovered on some level, if you have relapsed and continue to reach out to the person in an effort to reconcile, then it is probably time to start looking for a psychiatrist. Start with therapy and then listen to the therapist’s course of treatment. Relationship Therapists are specifically trained to help people suffering from relationship issues. Look for someone with the appropriate credentials: LMFT, Licensed Marriage/Couple and Family Therapist.
Every day is a new day, an opportunity for a fresh start, a chance to learn and grow. Resilience can be mastered with daily practice, healthy behaviors, and a reliable support system.