Detaching with Love
Learning to let go of being the fixer, controller, manipulator and enabler.
Posted Nov 26, 2019
It is often said that alcoholism and addiction is a family disease, and it is impossible for an addict or an alcoholic not to create ripples of destruction that have some degree of impact on their family, friends, and even coworkers.
In her book, The Addict in the Family, Beverly Conyers relays her story as a mother of a heroin addict. In this personal insight into her stories as well as those of other families, she talks about the importance of being able to detach from the addict and to allow natural consequences to occur. This, as she indicates, means learning to recognize when you are taking over that responsibility and moving from a support system to an enabler.
Detachment is not a normal response. When parents see children struggling, a person sees a partner or spouse having difficulty, or when friends and coworkers identify downward cycling in someone they care about and value, it is natural to step in and help. However, trying to swoop in and fix everything eventually becomes overwhelming and frustrating, and it will eventually begin to impact your physical and mental health. It is also, at its core, enabling behavior.
Detachment with Love
In Al-Anon and Narc-Anon, people are taught about the importance of detachment, but this is not walking away or blocking your heart from caring. In fact, detaching with love means that the love and caring continues, but you stop trying to be the fixer and the problem solver for the addict.
In order to begin the process of detaching with love, there are a few central beliefs or tenets to contemplate, understand, and incorporate into your thinking about the addict and the addiction.
You Are Not The Cause of the Behavior
By allowing the addict to own his or her own behavior and decisions, you are able to see yourself outside of the role of fixer and problem solver. It is easier to see how their actions and choices are causing their problems, and they should also be responsible to face the consequences of those choices.
No matter how much the addict tries to push the blame for the addiction or for the behaviors onto you, it is critical to detach from this type of thought process and dynamic.
You Have No Power To Control His or Her Addiction
Recognizing that you do not have the power to control what the addict or alcoholic does, good or bad, allows you to detach and let go of the responsibility. Anyone who has been around an addict recognizes the irrational thought patterns that are common as a result of the changes in the brain. In a study in 2018 by Koffarnus and Kaplan, posted in Pharmacology, Biochemistry, and Behavior, various tests showed that addicts had higher levels of impulsivity, sensation seeking, and other high-risk behaviors. These facts are directly related to the impulsive and destructive choices that are often made.
Letting go of trying to control the addict's behavior is a part of detaching with love. It also is essential to allow full responsibility for their behaviors to rest on their shoulders - not on yours.
You Cannot Save Them or Cure the Disease of Addiction or Alcoholism
Trying to rationalize or treat addiction as a typical disease, like a cold or the flu, is not effective. It takes time for the addict to accept the responsibility for his or her own actions, and to take the necessary effort to make some tough life choices.
By detaching with love, you can maintain your loving, caring relationship without suffering from burnout, anger, frustration, and even from continuing to enable, which is counterproductive to the addiction recovery process. It is also a way of showing the addict you trust their ability to chart their own course, which is a powerful and positive message they can carry with them.
Conyers, B. (2003). Addict in the Family: Stories of Loss, Hope, and Recovery.Center City: Hazelden Publishing.
Koffarnus, M. N. (2018). Clinical Models of Decision Making in Addiction. Pharmacology, Biochemistry and Behavior, 71-83.