“Detach With Love”: Not Yours to Fix

Yellow Monopoly Get out of Jail Free game card

“Detach With Love” is a concept people with drug or alcohol-addicted loved ones learn to apply, for their own sanity if nothing else.

Fran Simone, Ph.D., writing at psychologytoday.com [6-5-15]:

For years, I struggled to control my adult son’s substance abuse. My efforts failed, but that didn’t stop me. I thought that if I tried hard enough, yelled loud enough and threatened long enough, my son would stop the insanity that was destroying his life. When his checks bounced, I covered them. When he stole money from my wallet, I ignored it. When he landed in jail, I bailed him out. When he failed to come home, I searched the seedy parts of town where the junkies and prostitutes hung out. I could not carve myself loose from co-dependency.

…Early on in my recovery program, I was introduced to the slogan, “detach with love.” While I grasped it intellectually, I couldn’t let go emotionally. As I learned more, I came to accept addiction as an illness that hijacks the brain. It can be arrested but not cured.  This helped me develop compassion toward my son and recognize that my fixing was fear-based. I had to learn how to take care of myself and navigate that thin line between helping and enabling. Is this good for me? Can I live with the outcome of my decision? What are my motives? What are my choices? Is this a wise choice?

It took me a long time to slow down and not jump in to fix things. Now when my son runs  into a problem, I listen instead of offering unsolicited advice. I don’t act impulsively. I take time to think. Often, I’ll say, “Let me think about this and I’ll get back to you.” Or if we disagree, I don’t argue. A simple “you might be right,” helps defect quarrels. The slogans   “think” and “listen and learn” have become invaluable. So does the cliché “mind your own business.” As does a sense of humor.

It’s not just for the loved ones of addicted people. It’s for anyone.

In this mother’s failure to “detach with love,” she suffered from errors in thinking. By identifying and changing those errors in thinking, over time and with practice, she became happier, or at least more serene and content.

One error in thinking was her false belief that childhood continues into adulthood. Because her son still acted in immature ways, she correctly felt that he was not acting like an adult. But just because he was not acting like an adult, she falsely concluded that she still must treat him as the little boy he once was. That’s wrong, she eventually learned. She had to treat him as a fellow adult, no matter how immature, deceptive or even corrupt he became.

When he was a little boy, fell down and scraped his knee, she was right to comfort him, and help him take care of the wound. He did not yet know how, nor know any better, and her job was to be there for him, so he could learn.

Fast forward to his 20s or 30s. He’s bouncing checks and she covers those checks. He’s stealing, lying and making all kinds of excuses. But he didn’t have to bounce checks. He could be expected to face the music — legal charges, if necessary — because he knew better than to take this risk. He chose to take these risks, and when they blew up on him, she incorrectly believed it was her job, as a mother, to protect him and bail him out. But he wasn’t helpless, and he was not innocent. When he was little, he may have been; but he no longer was. Yet she mistakenly treated him as if he was, because of her faulty thinking and assumptions.

It’s called “emotional reasoning.” Her emotions told her to rescue her son, no matter what. Because that’s what mothers and parents do. Those emotions were leftover from his time as (initially) a helpless infant and toddler, and then (later) an immature child. Her emotions motivated her to treat him that way into his 20s, not because of anything rational or true, but because she felt that way. Only by challenging and changing her assumptions could she change her behavior towards him. Replacing feelings with facts can be a liberating and enlightening experience, contrary to the false and widely held view that it’s repressive, “mean” or cruel.

In the article at psychologytoday.com, Simone did not mention if her son improved or not, or if he stopped his drug abuse, or not. What did improve was her emotional state. She no longer tried to rescue, repair or fix what was not hers to fix.

“Not hers to fix.” This point is very important. If you believe you can or should fix someone’s problem for them, but if it’s not something for you to fix, then it’s a huge logical and factual mistake.

It’s not merely that you shouldn’t fix another’s problems, or cover up the consequences of their errors for them. It’s that their errors, behaviors and choices are not yours to fix. It’s an objective fact: Your loved one is his or her own person. Their choices, actions, impulses and desires are not yours to govern. To do so, you’d have to get into their minds and bodies and literally be them. That’s not possible. It’s likewise not possible to make the decisions and choices that only they can, or ever will, make.

Detaching with love, in this sense, means accepting the fact of what’s not yours to fix. It means not turning an “I wish” into an “It is,” not when there’s no possible way to do so.

What would wish fulfillment even consist of, in such a case? You’d literally go into your loved one’s body and consciousness, for a few hours or days. You’d make corrective decisions, pay back the victims of the bounced checks, make amends, stop the drug use, set a new rational course of life … and then what? Return to your own body and mind, and then hope your previously messing up loved one has now suddenly reformed? It’s like the fantasy equivalent of doing your son’s homework for him so he’ll look good and get an A — and then expecting him to be that way thereafter. Why would you even wish for such a thing?

“Detach with love” does not only apply to addicted loved ones. It pertains to how you approach any relationship with a loved one, particularly your young adult, now grown children. A lot of people — not just with addiction, but with all kinds of situations — falsely believe that by accepting what you cannot control, you stop caring. No. You can love and care about the person to your last breath. That’s all perfectly fine. It might or might not be rational, because sometimes the person you love and care for is the person they once were, or might have been, or arguably should have been — but not who they actually are.

Nevertheless, rationally or not, you’re free to love whomever you wish for as long as you wish. But by accepting you cannot chart the course of another’s destiny (even if they once resided within your womb, as a fetus), you’re not withdrawing love. You’re simply acknowledging what’s true; so true, in fact, that it’s even obvious.

The truest and most brilliant discoveries often are obvious. At least once you discover them.



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