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Attachment vs. Detachment: Finding the Golden Mean (Part 1)

How much detachment from others is too much detachment?

Dysfunctionally Detached

If in the past we've felt taken advantage of, rejected, or betrayed, we may erect stiff (even impenetrable) boundaries to protect ourselves. As a result of our adverse experiences--which frequently take place early in life when we're most sensitive to them--we may harbor anxiety or cynical beliefs about getting too close to others. And we may have decided that it's also not prudent to allow others to get very close to us.

lone wolf In such cases, we'll tend to relate to others on a generally impersonal level, and share our deepest, most private feelings not at all. Such a life stratagem, though extreme, does at least minimize threats of further disillusionment or deception. By restraining ourselves from getting emotionally invested in a relationship, we render ourselves relatively invulnerable to others' disapproval--or even abandonment. Whether or not we're consciously aware of our self-protective proclivities, we yet maintain a certain distance from others, constantly safeguarding ourselves from disappointment. And cultivating emotional self-reliance to avoid such hurt, we may actually come to view our very strength in relationships as synonymous with our detachment.

But protecting our ego in this way has its own hazards. For it can lead us to forfeit the opportunity to participate in just those experiences most closely linked to the achievement of optimal health and well-being. Regardless of the potential dangers of letting down our guard and sharing ourselves deeply with another, to truly flourish in our lives we need to open ourselves up to the joys--as well as the perils--of intimate relationships. True, trusting others not to exploit what we share with them may at times be a leap of faith. But without taking such risks, our existence can easily end up feeling sterile and unsatisfying.

We are, by our very nature, social beings. Doubtless, personal dependencies can threaten tenuous feelings of inner safety, but what's commonly understood as "happiness"--clearly, the state of mind and feeling we all aspire to--hinges on allowing ourselves to be interpersonally vulnerable and, ultimately, to accept this vulnerability as an inescapable part of living well. So if we're to experience any lasting fulfillment, we need to recognize--and even embrace--our quite necessary dependencies. Whatever direction in life we pursue, if we're to realize our essential being we simply can't turn our backs on others. Rather, it's imperative that we take risks, or the meaningful relationships we all need to feel whole will continue to elude us.

How, then, can we learn to be successfully dependent (i.e., not get so engulfed by our dependency needs that we virtually lose our identity in relationships)? Obviously, any solution to this probably universal challenge requires us to establish just the right balance between depending on others and depending on ourselves. And achieving such personal/interpersonal equilibrium necessitates that over time we learn how to accurately assess (almost on a "case-by-case" basis) who really deserves our trust--and how much trust at that. In all our relationships we need to learn how to discern what constitutes the optimal combination of involvement and detachment. And for those of us entering relationships with substantial emotional wounds from the past--scars that may have taught us to be extremely wary about getting hurt again--such acumen may be hard to come by. So, too, the courage to stay open and vulnerable in situations experienced as precarious by the scared or suspicious child inside us--that hyper-reactive part of us who all too easily may trigger anxiety in our adult self, and thus cloud our judgment. After all, we're become gun shy for good reason, so we may be far too ready to flee from a relationship than current circumstances actually warrant.

But when accumulated hurts and disappointments force us to become overly detached, our ability to connect with others--physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually--is seriously compromised. Excessive detachment also negatively affects our capacity for empathy and compassion. If for many years we've engaged in what might be called "defensive distancing" (or rather, not engaged with others because of overriding defenses), we may have gotten out of touch with our own hurts, thereby making us less responsive to the emotional pain of others. Excessively detached from our emotions (and precisely those fearful or painful emotions that determined our detachment in the first place), our ability to understand and empathize with the emotions of others cannot but be similarly affected. Additionally, our capacity to experience the joys that intimate relationships alone can provide us may also be seriously undermined. Our defenses--originally so essential to our emotional survival--can end up constraining us in more ways than we might imagine.

Relationally speaking, the most positive and rewarding feelings are available to us only when we can be fully open and accessible--expressive and confiding, involved and concerned. When our lives are more or less bound by the negative biases we harbor against getting too close to others--when, that is, we've come to assume that others are withholding, threatening, deceptive, or just generally abusive--our relationships predictably end up being rather barren. Certainly, we're not able to experience them either as essential or fulfilling. In fact, we're likely to experience our lives--absent such vital connections--as monotonous and mechanical.

Detachment to this extreme can lead us to experience our existence as frustratingly inert and empty--a kind of gaping, lifeless void. Voluntarily cutting ourselves off at deeper levels from others, we inadvertently sever our pivotal connection to the rest of humanity. By so cautiously restraining our contact or emotional response to others, we've effectively killed it off. There's simply not enough "living feeling" left in us to respond in a heartfelt way to our own experience--let alone react caringly to the emotional experience of others.

Note: Part 2 will deal with the opposite extreme--being dysfunctionally attached to others. It will also describe what I consider "the golden mean" of attachment.

To check out other posts I've written for Psychology Today, click here.

© 2010 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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