Detachment Is Letting Go of Someone Else's Addiction

It can be difficult, but important for your well-being

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For friends and family of a person dealing with alcohol or drug addiction, detachment can be a difficult concept to grasp. In the context of the Al-Anon program, "detach with love" is the idea that the family has to let go of their loved one's problem. It gives you permission to let them experience any consequences associated with their drinking or drug use and focus on your own health and well-being.

The Importance of Detachment

If you've dealt with someone's progressive alcoholism or drug use, it might be hard to imagine finding happiness while the substance abuse continues. This is especially true when you have tried everything possible to keep the situation from growing worse.

The stress and exhaustion associated with caring for someone with an addiction can be overwhelming. It may lead to anxiety, depression, and unhealthy behaviors or unsafe living conditions for your family.

The reality of living with alcoholism or any other addiction usually means dealing with one crisis after another. While you may feel like you're constantly in rescue mode, learning to detach relieves you of the responsibility to protect them.

Those who take part in Al-Anon long enough come to realize that detachment is important for the family's emotional well-being. It also helps you understand that there is no way for you to control the addiction.

Detachment Is Neither Kind Nor Unkind

"Detachment is neither kind nor unkind. It does not imply judgment or condemnation of the person or situation from which we are detaching. It is simply a means that allows us to separate ourselves from the adverse effects that another person's alcoholism can have upon our lives."

Detachment does not mean you stop loving the person and it does not mean physically leaving (unless you feel the need). Instead, it demonstrates that you don't like or approve of their behavior. It is stepping back from all the problems associated with addiction and stopping any attempts to solve them. You still care, but it is best for everyone involved if you take care of yourself first.

Many times family members find that they have become too involved with the addictive behavior. The Al-Anon program teaches to "put the focus on ourselves" and not on the person with alcoholism or on anyone else. This is done through a number of key points that members pick up in meetings:

  • Avoid the suffering caused by someone else's actions.
  • Don't allow yourself to be abused or misused during recovery.
  • Avoid doing things for them that they can do.
  • Don't use manipulation to change their behaviors.
  • Don't cover up their mistakes.
  • Avoid creating or preventing a crisis, especially if it's inevitable and may be the wake-up call they need.

For example, if your family member shows up for work late or missing it entirely becomes a habit, detachment teaches you that it's not your responsibility to cover for him. It also applies to making excuses and trying to fix situations, as well as avoiding arguments.

By putting the focus back on yourself, you protect yourself from the abusive behavior and stop enabling it. It's a way of taking some of the power away from them so they're not able to manipulate you.

Ideally, detaching from this person will help them see how their negative behavior affects everyone around them. That's not always the outcome. Yet, as Al-Anon and Alcoholics Anonymous teach, it's important to have the wisdom to know the difference between the things you can and can't change. 

Does Detachment Really Help?

When you're considering detachment, you might be concerned about what happens to your loved one after you detach yourself from them. Maybe you think all of the things you did over these years to "help" that will be wasted. Or, you might have fears about what crisis—jail, hospitalization, death, etc.—may be next.

Your concerns are valid and really show your love and dedication to that person. However, you have to put yourself and your family—especially if that family includes children—first. 

As Al-Anon teaches, "Detachment helps families look at their situations realistically and objectively, thereby making intelligent decisions possible." Al-Anon members also learn that no individual is responsible for another person's disease or recovery from it.

This is very difficult and, on the clearheaded side of addiction, you probably know what should or should not happen, but this logic is lost to the person with the disease. They need to want to change themselves and find the help needed to do that.

Your goal is to be there when they do need you and to be mentally, emotionally, and spiritually strong when they're ready for recovery. When you learn to detach, you can find relief from much of the pain, stress, and anxiety and realize that you deserve to treat yourself right.

This will not happen overnight. It requires time, a lot of patience and love, and support to help you along the way. As they say in the program, "It's simple, but it ain't easy." You don't have to do it alone. 

A Word From Verywell

There is probably an Al-Anon Family Group meeting nearby where you will find people who understand what you're going through. It's by no means an easy process to detach from a loved one with an addiction, so don't try to go it alone. By sharing your experience with others who have been there, you can find strength and hope to help you better deal with the situation.

View Article Sources
  • Al-Anon Family Groups. Detachment (S-19). 2017. https://al-anon.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/S19.pdf