Detachment: What Does It Mean?
Thursday, November 12, 2009 at 8:23PM

By Claudia Peters Ragni, Director, KPC

At first glance, "detachment" is not an attractive word. It sounds cold and insensitive. But detachment is something the families of alcoholics must acquire if they are to recover from the family disease of alcoholism.

Detachment is a valuable concept, necessary for the family’s good health. As individuals (through self-help or therapy) develop a healthier sense of their own identities, the concept of detachment serves to strengthen the family relationships. When you “detach with love,” you are detaching from the problem, not the person. This means allowing the alcoholic to experience the effects of their illness and live with the consequences.

Exactly what does this mean?

Well, it means don’t call in sick for the person when they are, in fact, hung over. Don’t make excuses to bill collectors when they haven’t met their financial responsibilities due to their drinking. Don’t enable them to continue their behavior without significant consequences.

In the earliest stages of detachment, people tend to swing a little too far in the opposite direction and become unwilling to have any interaction with the alcoholic. This often causes the alcoholic to feel that others are punishing him. This is not detachment.

With detachment, a person does not engage in heated arguments with the alcoholic when he is drunk. For instance, assume that the alcoholic has passed out in his car in the garage. His wife checks on where he is -- then leaves him there to spend the night after making sure that there was no physical condition in need of medical attention.

The next morning, when he shuffles into the house, she may quietly describe what happened and why she left him there. Maybe he’s missed work, an important social engagement, or some important appointment. But it is up to him to experience the consequences of his behavior and his disease.

Detachment is a valuable concept for all people to experience in various areas of their lives. For the families of alcoholics, it has specific importance: It is necessary for their recovery, no matter what the alcoholic is doing about his.

Article originally appeared on Kenneth Peters Center for Recovery (
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