Emotional Detachment: When the No Contact Rule Is Not an Option
The No Contact Rule is always the best policy when ending an abusive relationship, however, many people don’t have that option. For example, if you share a child(ren) or if you both work for the same company and can’t afford to transfer or find a new job. In these cases, it’s vital that you learn how to emotionally detach and let the verbal jabs, criticisms, eye rolls, dirty looks, sighs and other passive-aggressive and/or just plain aggressive behaviors bounce right off of you.
What is emotional detachment?
There are two schools of thought on emotional detachment. Eastern-based, meditation types define emotional detachment as the ability to:
- allow another person the freedom to be themselves
- accept that you can’t change or control them
- be compassionate and caring toward the other person while calmly accepting whatever happens
They explain that detachment is not indifference because indifference means you’re neither present nor caring toward the other person.
This is all well and good, but when it comes to an emotionally abusive spouse, partner or colleague, it’s not safe to be compassionate and caring in response to their abuse because it makes you a good target for more abuse. It’s only safe to exercise compassion and caring toward an abusive individual from a very safe distance—psychologically and/or physically. I don’t think it’s possible to develop compassionate emotional detachment until you’ve had time to heal from the abuse.
If you’re not quite ready to don saffron robes, the less “enlightened” form of detachment may be the best option for you. I define emotional detachment as the conscious choice to not allow another person push your buttons and hurt, anger, frustrate or annoy you. The easiest way to do this is to develop indifference. The opposite of love isn’t hate; it’s indifference. While it’s natural to hate someone who has hurt you repeatedly; hate still gives her power over you. Indifference removes your psychological stake in her, her behaviors and the relationship.
It can take a while to develop indifference and emotional detachment. Until you reach the point where you no longer care what she says or does, my advice is to fake it ’til you make it. Here are some tips for cultivating practical emotional detachment:
1. Downsize her. Reduce the importance you give your abusive spouse or partner and increase positive influences in your life. Shrink her influence over you by:
- Making new social contacts or reconnecting with old ones. The more time you spend with healthy, positive people; the less exposure you’ll have to her toxicity. This has the added bonus of reminding you that there are happy, kind people in the world which makes it more difficult for you to minimize or rationalize her hurtful behaviors and less likely to believe her lies that you’re a jerk who nobody likes.
- Replacing bad habits with good habits. Instead of sulking, simmering in mute rage or flying off the handle, take up jogging, join a basketball league, etc. Making yourself physically and psychologically stronger will make you more immune to her nonsense.
2. Set boundaries. When she says, “Jump,” stop saying “How high?” Tell her, “I’m working on something important. I can’t do x, y and z right now.” When she comes to you with a problem she wants you to fix or wants you to do something she’s capable of doing herself, respond by saying, “Wow, what are you going to do about that?” or “I’m sure someone as smart and capable as you will be able to handle that very easily. Let me know how it goes.“ When she rages; tell her you’re going out until she regains control of herself. If she gives you the cold shoulder; go for a walk or meet a friend at the gym. Create consequences for her bad behaviors, just like you would with a 5-year old.
3. Make yourself your first priority—especially if you have children. It is so very important to take care of yourself when you’re involved with an abusive woman. She’ll drain you and eat up all of your energy, resources and attention until you’ve nothing left for yourself if you let her. In this respect, this kind of woman is a parasite and you’re the host. If you don’t take care of yourself and maintain your physical and mental health, you won’t be able to be there for your children when they need you. This is the same reason airline safety regulations instruct you to put your oxygen mask on first before assisting your child.
4. Observe; don’t react. Everything your wife, girlfriend or ex does that drives you up a wall is purposefully designed to hurt and get a reaction from you. She controls you like a puppet on a string by getting you to engage in the content of her verbal attacks, silent treatment and/or passive-aggressive jabs (e.g., saying something cruel in a sweet tone of voice and then accusing you of being oversensitive). Therefore, take a mental step back when she starts the fun and games and simply observe her machinations for what they are.
Her covert and overt attacks are the adult equivalent of a 5-year old who calls a grown-up a “doody-head,” pouting, saying a bad word or tormenting you by saying the same stupid phrase over and over again; “I know you are, but what am I? I know you are, but what am I? I know you are, but what am I?” When you show a 5-year old that they’re getting to you, they escalate the behavior—just like your abusive wife, girlfriend or ex.
5. Observe and reframe. Think of her as a 2-dimensional TV sitcom or melodrama character and stop taking her seriously. Oh boy! It’s time for “The Susan Show” again. What crazy things will Susan say and do this week? Stay tuned to find out! The reality is that abusive borderline, narcissistic and/or histrionic women don’t have any depth. They’re very 2-, if not 1-dimensional beings. There isn’t any “there” there. If you continue to search for some deep meaning in her behavior and why she does the things she does, you’ll only continue to frustrate and disappoint yourself. What you’re looking for simply doesn’t exist.
Alternatively, think of her as a lab animal who has learned which levers to push to get her reward pellet. When you stop rewarding her with the reaction she seeks, sit back and watch her go into overdrive. She’ll push even harder on your buttons and levers and try to find new ways to get a rise out of you. All you have to so is sit back, observe and smile until she gives up in confusion and despair.
Next week, I’ll continue to explore other ways to emotionally detach from your partner and her abusive behavior. Thanks for your patience.
Shrink4Men Coaching and Consultation Services:
Dr Tara J. Palmatier provides confidential, fee-for-service, consultation/coaching services to help both men and women work through their relationship issues via telephone and/or Skype chat. Her practice combines practical advice, support, reality testing and goal-oriented outcomes. Please visit the Shrink4Men Services page for professional inquiries.
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