Home > Abusive relationships, Borderline Personality Disorder, bullying, divorce, Marriage, Narcissistic Personality Disorder, relationships > Emotional Detachment: When the No Contact Rule Is Not an Option

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. 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.

Photo credit:

Iron man by freakscity on flickr.

  1. TJ
    February 7, 2017 at 6:07 am

    This article is so helpful and it is ironic that it mimics my struggles with the emotional abuse that I endured from 3 entirely different assailants. I don’t think I would have stayed around long enough to be manipulated by just anybody for that many years but when 2 of the ones doing the damage were my own daughters and the other was my spouse, it begins to become so mind boggling that it mentally deters your better decision making skills. Yes, the people I trusted the most and loved more than life, had turned on me like wild, vicious animals. I felt like they were taking turns mind raping me with all the gas lighting and playing the victims of despair while covertly manipulating me and almost succeeding at making me think that I was the crazy one! Looking back on it all, it’s hard to believe my exhausted mind is still in tact after the borage of emotional assaults it endured!

  2. LifeOfDave
    November 10, 2015 at 9:10 pm

    I’m going through divorce to my BPD/Narc wife and the most difficult times for staying detached aren’t when she is negatively abusive, it’s when she is being “positively” abusive. She is a master charmer and has a way of emotionally seducing me back into attachment. She can maintain the charm for long periods. As soon as I let my guard down and start responding in any type of caring way she’ll start attacking me emotionally. Not immediately but usually by our next encounter. It will often be passive-aggressive and random. It comes out of nowhere and escalates quickly until she is blatantly cruel. By this time I’ve set myself up as vulnerable and have to work back to detaching once again. It plays itself over and over, each time different enough I fall for it no matter how hard I try not to. I really need the No Contact rule but my 3 kids are more important right now.

  3. Maria
    July 10, 2015 at 11:49 pm

    This website is the best I have came across so far. The descriptions are so accurate and spot on that it’s almost scary. Well, it is scary, knowing that there a so many more people out there like the narc who abused my boyfriend for 20 years. I thought nobody could be as crazy as her, but apparently their are so many more abusers and the sad thing is that besides the victims, nobody else sees what is going on.

    My boyfriend and his ex have a son together, so the NO CONTACT advice is unfortunately no option. And with her manipulative ways she still tries to control him, like constantly change plans regarding custody, not making decisions, complaining that she needs more money, if the CS the check has been sent to her yet, etc. etc. What it comes down to: there is still contact almost every day!! 2 years after their break up!!

    She also started a smear campaign with his family immediately after he left her. And now she got herself invited to a wedding in HIS family! My boyfriend almost didn’t want to go, but then she will win and he will look bad in the eyes of his family (most of them don’t even know what happened exactly because he doesn’t want to talk about it).

    We have no idea what to expect at that wedding, of course his ex will be at her best behavior and show the family how sweet and innocent she is and how she is still close to them. Probably while glancing and staring at us when nobody else sees it. It will be frustrating and annoying, but we have to be strong and try to detach ourselves emotionally and just smile.

    Thanks so much for all the helpful articles!

  4. June 22, 2015 at 6:07 pm

    I am going through a divorce, and it is blowing my mind that I was living with the cluster “b” for 14 years.

    I picked up on something the first two weeks that told me to run… But her seductiveness and wounded lil girl, was too much for me to stay conscious of the lions den i was walking into.

    I am a psychologist and can pick up a borderline’s scent because my hair stands up in the back of my neck when i am near one. So how did this one end up in my house and 2 kids and decade later without me running for hills gives much credit to the ego. I was in denial at home and spot in at work.

    I am working on the indifference part of Emotional Detachment with spouse. I feel i have the ability “eastern” detached in most all others of my life.

    It is like cluster B’s are aliens and they eat humans. I am a human and eat animal… It will never work. I am dead meat, so i filed for divorce. Now, that just slapped the sleeping baby, the tantrums and mood swings are tipping the scales. Battening down the hatches!!

    Thanks for your insight and website

    Dr rob

  5. steve
    February 13, 2015 at 1:02 am

    After I read this, i realized you must have been either married to my own wife before i was, or you have been placed on Earth by God for the sole purpose of trying to save the sanity of those men among us who have ended up in these types of situations. Your blurbs on her behaviors are so remarkably astute: “e.g., saying something cruel in a sweet tone of voice and then accusing you of being oversensitive” “saying a bad word or tormenting you by saying the same stupid phrase over and over again” or how you write elsewhere that these women usually don’t have any direction or purpose in life, but that their new sole purpose is to anihilate you….this is my reality! Hard to endure as the divorce proceeds, but reading your comments helps me realize i’m not truly insane.

  6. June 30, 2014 at 3:06 pm

    Thank you for this article, I know this article is meant for men but have found myself in a situation with a man like the women described in this article. I also have become detached and indifferent where I do not engage and so forth… but being that I began about a month ago… The emotional lashings almost seem to be getting more aggressive and desperate. I am in a tough situation where I can not just walk away – What can I expect? Will he ever recognize that he’s being manipulative and maybe try to better himself for himself?

  7. strugglingwithitall
    April 10, 2013 at 3:24 am

    I am currently going through a divorce from a histrionic, bpd….and I am struggling with the detachment since we have a 2 year old. Our divorce is in process, she has had multiple affairs, and is now pregnant by her current boyfriend who she fell in love with in a week. this is a month prior to my knowledge the affairs were going on.

    any insight or help would be greatly appreciated.

    • Gordon
      April 12, 2013 at 4:05 am

      Wow. Affairs and love within a week. She definitely has some issues. I’ll give you some advice my friend. You are needing some big hugs right now bro. What you need to do is maintain your zen. Your being. Your day. This is your life and she messed up and is NOT right in the noggin.

      Find a therapist as soon as you can. Under the CB’s radar of course. Don’t tell her anything that she doesn’t need to know. Read through the articles here. Buy the Walking On Eggshells book. If you’ve been going through up’s and down’s with her for awhile the book will be a nice compliment to the information and comments on this site. This site opened my eyes before I was about to make a huge decision with a person that I didn’t feel 100% with. She gave me a marriage ultimatum and threatened breakups every weekend. I stumbled on this when searching for information on verbal abuse and ultimatums. Nothing I did and I mean NOTHING I said or did made any difference ever. I tried to get some compromise between the two of us. It was like a broken record of thoughts from her. Everything in the past was brought up over and over if I didn’t do everything she wanted. Even things I didn’t say or do. She hopped from me to her ex-husband and back again I don’t know how many times until I said enough is enough. The last time she came back to me, she said that she wanted to be with me because her ex had anger issues. I felt like we were finally getting somewhere. Then she kicked me out of her house because I didn’t marry her the next day. I went no contact. I still get hateful emails from her. She has even falsely posed as her daughter sending me hateful text messages. These people can be very sick. I wanted to help her with lots of things but it was never enough. You’ve probably been through the same things here. I’m sure you’re a good loving guy and you just want to be happy and make other people happy as well. You will get there. Just know that there is life ahead. She isn’t your dream girl because she has lured you in being something that she isn’t.

      You’ll see relations with what you’re going through in comments made by other people here.
      Big hug!!

  8. Adira
    March 23, 2013 at 8:44 pm

    Very good advices! Thanks dr.T!
    I have a 1,5 year old girl and her father is a BPD without any treatment.We are still in the divorce process and after many episodes of emotional violence I am still scared and trying to develop emotional detachment.It’s very difficult because I don’t fell strong enough yet and we will share custody of our child. How can I protect her from his “ugly” face? Now he doesn’t visit her, but pretend to talk on the phone daily with me. I can’t do this, just sms..
    Last summer he threatened me with a gun in my own car, when I was with our daughter telling me that he will kill me because he dosen’t agree the divorce and finaly stopped the torture crying and saying that he will have nightmares if he kill me..Can I have any more advices, dr.T..something special about bpd-males?

  9. Darryl Boullaire
    February 21, 2013 at 6:51 pm

    just got out of a 13 yr abusive relationship. My new GF forwarded me this article. after readin it and the comments i almost feel like ive been a huge moron for all 13. saw signs of irrational behavior early (running out side in her underwear jumping on my car preventing me from leaving after an argument, lighting my car on fire for not taking out the garbage, telling the kids i didnt love her when she was mad. i had a breakdown 3 Xmas ago standing in a sports store 100 lbs over weight thinking “how did i get here”. because i love my kids so much i refused to leave the house and just put up w her abuse and unreasonable behavior. She’d gather the kids upstairs and start crying to tell them “daddy wants a divorce” if we talked about how unhappy i was. shed erase computers so i couldnt access email. she would google my name to see if i was cheating then blast me saying that i hide it well. when id confront her w these issues she would always say ‘EVERY MARRIAGE IS LIKE THIS.” NEVER AN APOLOGY. Never. she’s abondoned my kids in a strip mall for two hours (11, 7 qnd 5 at the time) blamed me fpr picking them up and said she wouldnt have taken them but she had to go to counselling because of what i had done to her by leaving. she’s emailed and pretended there were hardships my kids were going through which turned out not to remotely exist. las week she lied and said she walked to get the kids in the snow storm because “you werent available for us” and the nearly froze on their walk home. My youngest called me that night and told me Mom came with a neighbor to get them all and indeed didnt walk. We have a 50/50 agreement and i would say i have them a bit more than that. All the kids have said they want to live w me and she continually says ‘if you live w your dad i’ll have to sell this house because he wont have to give me the money that i need to stay here’. they are now petrified to communicate anything that happens unsafe or not bc of her paranoia. we communicate now through a third party and i refuse contact. Any no contact tips you can give me that would help me stick to the no contact long term?

    • venkat
      March 6, 2013 at 3:32 pm

      god bless u and your kids darryl.

      i understand it is very painful when one has kids. i am in the same place. get the custody of your kids soon. money is important but not the most. you can work harder and make the difference of the loss in money.

    • Mellaril
      March 6, 2013 at 4:42 pm

      Check out the Doc’s blogs:

      •OurFamilyWizard, Part 2: Common Excuses Made by High-Conflict Parents Not to Use OFW and Effective Counter-Arguments (April 13, 2011)

      •OurFamilyWizard: An Excellent Tool for Co-Parenting with a High-Conflict Person, Part 1 (April 8, 2011)

  10. Kevin
    January 18, 2013 at 10:48 pm

    My BPD has given my daugthers x-mas present away because I bought cheap crap.

  11. venkat
    August 8, 2012 at 1:54 pm

    Being a man, i cried after reading this article and other articles in your site. I have been married for 8 yrs and every day in my life, i used to think on what bad karma i did to anyone in my life to get a partner like this. It is my misfortune that i cannot leave her, since i have 2 kids and i love them very much. I have never seen such a cold hearted person in my whole life. Sometimes, it feels i can tolerate up beating and physical abuse from anyone, but tolerating her cold hurtful words is the most painful thing in the world.

    Your site gave me the strength and help me understand her issues. I am able to deal with issues in much better manner.

    thanks and god bless you

  12. Laura
    July 2, 2012 at 5:48 pm

    Wow, what a useful article on detachment. I have tried the saffron-robe approach and I believe I am a kinder and less selfish person for my efforts but I have found myself losing my sense of reality. Your advice to “watch the show” really struck a chord. I am in the role of passive audience member and the gentleman who said that this sadly necessary detachment “is not a real relationship” helped me a lot. And, yes, I truly needed to hear that our partner SHOULD be our primary source of emotional nourishment. That helped a lot.

    I am seeing that the man I am with has little to no depth or emotional accountability. He says over and over “I have the depth of an ashtray.” I thought it was insecurity but now I see it as emotional laziness and self-indulgence. Sadly, we can’t solve any problems, grow any closer, face the tough issues of aging or children because of this avoidance on his part.

    After two years, lots of patient and artful attempts to connect, and some therapy, I find I am dangerously lonely. Starting to starve emotionally. By that I mean I am tempted to be unfaithful and to lie as he has done. But I have never been a woman who cheats or lies and I don’t want to lose my hard-won integrity to this situation. Fortunately I have begun to work out, reach out and detach instead. Your wise and useful site is the best I have found. And to all the brave men parenting with psychos: hang in there. We good women do exist.

Comment pages
  1. August 1, 2012 at 12:25 am
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  3. October 17, 2011 at 10:03 pm
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  5. December 17, 2010 at 6:43 pm
  6. December 2, 2010 at 10:51 am

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