How Chronic Emotional Detachment Affects Relationships — And What You Can Do About It

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man and woman overcoming emotional detachment
Love

Perhaps one of the most important requirements in creating and maintaining healthy relationships is to have a secure attachment.

Yet, many people grow up in homes never having this in their families of origin, which results in a feeling of emotional detachment that can hinder your relationships as an adult.

As you grow into adulthood, the unconscious part of your mind seeks to recreate this unhealthy idea of "love" in your choices of partners.

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Emotional detachment is rooted in childhood.

This is unconscious behavior because your conscious mind wants the exact opposite: A good, healthy relationship. But you may keep finding patterns of choosing partners not too distant from the parent who gave you feelings of unworthiness and unacceptance.

Freud called this "repetition compulsion" and Alice Miller, psychiatrist and author of The Drama of the Gifted Child, named it the "art of absurdity."

The movie Rocketman is illustrative of this conundrum. Elton John spends his life choosing partners that duplicate the behaviors of both his parents — his narcissistic mother and his detached father.

It's well known that people repeat the past without any conscious recognition. You find partners who bring you the worst nightmare to resolve your childhood wounds, then get rid of them for the very reason you unconsciously sought them.

Seems nuts, right? You think it’s love when it’s really a chemical magnetism that pulls you to the exact person who can truly help you discover your deficits from your past and teach you how to heal.

This phenomenon is not new, and once you recognize that you're doing it, you can learn how to stop it.

What is a "secure" attachment?

The best definition I can share with you was written in a letter from one of my colleagues and dear friend Judith, for whom my book, I Hate the Man I Love, was dedicated.

We shared three days of reconnection and gratitude for our relationships, and both personal and professional experiences since our reunion a year prior.

In Judith's letter to me, she defined secure attachment as:

    • Feeling loved for who I am, not what I do.
    • Feeling safe.
    • Feeling secure and that someone will protect me.
    • Feeling seen.
    • Feeling heard.
    • Feeling able to be vulnerable.
    • Feeling loving eyes.
    • Feeling loving touch.
    • Feeling cherished, adored, unique, special.
    • Feeling appreciated for my differences and talents.
    • Feeling accepted when my behavior is different than others.

I feel that this best summarizes the content, peaceful feeling of this attachment style.

How does chronic emotional detachment affect your relationships?

Now that I have defined a secure attachment for you, let me share how it impacts your relationships without it.

Humans are wired for connection. When you disconnect, you go into crisis.

Neurobiology tells you that the brain — unlike any other organ in your body — cannot self-regulate. Your brain needs another brain to self-regulate. This is called "brain resonance."

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In today’s world of psychology, it's common to believe that emotional detachment runs parallel to emotional abuse. The chronicity of emotional detachment can result in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Because of how you grew up learning about what you should expect from a partner through your relationship with your family of origin, you're seeking to repeat what you know unconsciously for familiarity and comfort.

That means you may seek out a certain "type" of person or relationship, even though it consistently results in a nightmare.

This is why you might always feel like you pick the "wrong" person for you.

However, without a partner, you'd never know who you are in your essence. This is the pain of growing up.

Without it, there is no growth. Your relationships stay at the edge of growth, until you learn how to discover your true essence through your partners.

This means if you grew up in a household where love was withheld, causing you to yearn for love, you may subconsciously seek out a partner who is afraid to give you the love you seek.

This is the idea behind what Martin Buber called the theory of “I, thou.” It is the substance of Bradshaw’s "Creating and Maintaining Healthy Relationships," Hendrix’s Imago Therapy, and Schleifer’s Encounter-Centered Couples Therapy.

Without a secure attachment, your relationships are doomed.

You cannot expect it to be given to you by your partner, because that's not their responsibility, nor is it yours to give to them. However, each partner can facilitate the other's growth from emotional detachment to secure attachment by visiting the world of the other through the work of therapy.

By doing this, it's a double gift. It's a gift for each partner — to the partner hungering for love, and for the partner fearing to be loved.

The dance of codependency is, “Come here, go away.”

The split is unbearable for both. The more the one seeking the secure attachment demands it, the more likely the one who is fearful of attachment will pull away.

The crisis is when the partner who needs it with a fear that they will perish without it, and when the partner who fears intimacy will suffocate to death when it arrives.

It’s a conundrum! Life is full of them.

What you can do about emotional detatchment in your relationship.

Couples' therapy is a good step you and your partner may both undergo to treat yours or your partner's emotional detachment.

When you have a broken bone, it requires an orthopedic surgeon to heal it. When you want to invest money, you may require a money manager. When one needs to deliver a baby, its best to have an obstetrician or midwife handy!

The same is true in needing a professional when wiring a home, fixing a plumbing problem, and fixing an air-conditioner. We call upon those who are trained to take care of these issues.

Think of your relationship and attachment in the same sense. Reestablishing a healthy connection when you're fighting with detachment isn't something that can be done without a trained professional.

If you and your partner don't know how to clean the space you live in, the pollution continues to mount until it becomes dangerous. You'll react to the danger in the space you both unconsciously co-created.

When you have a problem, seeking a professional to fix it is expected.

The same is true for your relationships. You need to seek a professional who can help clean the relational space so you can feel reconnected again and find that sense of secure attachment.

Once this happens, your central nervous system quiets down and you feel safe — the exact feeling you've been starving for since childhood. It’s only your partner who can make this happen, and only with a trained therapist!

RELATED: How The 4 Attachment Styles Affect Relationships + How To Know Which Is Yours

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Joan E Childs, LCSW is a renowned psychotherapist, inspirational speaker, and author of I Hate the Man I Love: A Conscious Relationship is Your Key to Success. To learn more about how Encounter-Centered Couple Therapy can renew and restore your relationship, contact her here.