Attachment versus Detachment in Intimate Relationship

I have seen many people emotionally detach in relationships under the “disguise” of practicing non-attachment. However, there is a big difference between shutting down from another person and practicing non-attachment. Personally my life has been one of flipping between destructive co-dependent relationship and detachment. “Compassionate detachment” (or perhaps non-attachment) may have been a better road to tread. However, my awareness of what these types of connections are in practice has been an on-going experiential journey of progressive understanding.

Detachment, Emotional Shut Down & Estrangement

My life journey started with harsh lessons in emotional estrangement and detachment. Both my mother and father were seriously emotionally damaged however, as a child I did not know that! I was conditioned to believe that I was over-emotional because I emotionally reacted to my parent’s physical abuse and the absence of emotional connection with both me and each other. It seemed that the world was incredibly cold, harsh and merciless from a very early age. My father arrived home from the Vietnam War when I was 6 months old. That was the first time he met me. He did not admit to having post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) however, I now know that he did. A symptom of PTSD is “emotional estrangement”, which is the shutting down from loving or connecting emotions. All my memories of my father were of this incredibly shut down, depressed, negative, angry man.

My mother on the other hand, made it clear that she had no desire to have children and seemed to take it out on me throughout my childhood. So detachment had to be cultivated in me to survive my childhood. I learnt to hide myself and to shut down my intense emotions because it only made things worse. In order to cope, I found my own way to shut down from the world around me!!!  I learnt the fine art of dissociation and daydreaming!

I do not even think I was aware of shutting down emotionally as an adult in intimate relationship until relatively recently. I have been on the receiving end of punishing behaviour from men in relationships without knowing why. I now see they were reacting to their own perceptions and pain patterns that were triggered by my withdrawal. My shut down however, was an unconscious coping mechanism I learnt in my childhood to survive from my parent’s emotional disconnection. When these men either became volatile, destructive or abandoning, then my abandonment and fear patterns were re-ignited. I concluded that people simply hated me and were going to go out of their way to hurt me no matter what I did. I now see that they WERE reacting to something… my emotional detachment!!!

Detachment & Healthy Attachment

In psychology we have coined the term “healthy attachment bond” which means an early childhood relationship with significant others that consists of love, trust, supported autonomy, and stability. These are the building blocks of healthy intimate relationships later in life.  There are some schools of thought that suggest we can create an inner sense of love and security later in life even if we do not have these early relationships with our parents. Being of the camp of people that believes in the possibility of deep inner change and healing, I advocate that we can re-create a healthy attachment bond in adulthood. It needs to be in intimate relationship (outside of the early parent/child relationship) that these attachment bonds can be formed. A friendship can provide these to some degree, and friendships can be deep and enduring. However often they lack the everyday intimacy and affectionate connection that may be needed in developing a safe and secure attachment bond. An intimate relationship needs to be supportive, loving and stable to cultivate a sense of inner belonging and permanency within the couple relationship. Through this connection, each individual can cultivate a sense of stability and love within themselves individually.

The biggest difference between developing inner safety and security as a young child in a healthy parental relationship and two people developing it in an adult intimate relationship, is that the adults require conscious awareness and good communication skills to be able to pull it off. As a child we are totally reliant on the healthiness of our parent. As an adult we need to constantly practice self-awareness of our already damaged emotional patterns and then communicate them with each other before a safe and secure attachment bond can form.

The Practice of Non-Attachment in Intimate Relationship

The practice of non-attachment in intimate relationship is yet another step forward beyond the safe and secure attachment bond. It is not possible to practice non-attachment until healthy attachments are formed, otherwise they are really only different manifestations of unhealthy detachment. The practice of non-attachment is being able to detach from our own and the people’s patterns while simultaneously being able to connect and love ourselves and others beyond the patterns.

Non-attachment is non-reactive. It is being able to remain present and calm while allowing others to do what they do. Of course it does not mean stay around aggression or violence. Rather it is about “right action” that values self and other, without becoming caught in blame, criticism, reactivity, rescuer/victim patterns, detachment or enmeshment. Non-attachment is being able to remain in a space of compassion and respond to events rather than react. By default, this involves a sense of inner-security, self-love and stability to be able to remain emotionally centred and not become caught in the hurricane of interpersonal relationship dynamics and intrapersonal patterns.


What does attachment mean to you in you relationship?


8 Responses to “Attachment versus Detachment in Intimate Relationship”

  • I like Marian Williamson’s take on this….where she talks about the need for ‘apartness’ and ‘togetherness’ in a healthy, mature relationship. I think sometimes we need more apartness to find ourselves and from there we can move back into togetherness with a sense of contentment and self sufficiency, but with a desire to share our newly found selves with our mate.
    Thanks for the post! Karen

    • Hi Karen, thank you for your comment, I totally agree! The combination of togetherness and apartness is an important thing to balance in intimate relationship. You have inspired me to look closer at Marian Williamson’s take on this!

      Lots of love

  • Kama:

    Vanessa what a wonderful reflective post on what is such a huge topic. You have asked what does attachment mean to you in a relationship but I am going to answer that by answering what non attachment in a relationship means to me. Non attachment in a relationship means that my personal emotions or choices are not determined by by the emotions and choices of my partner. In other words my happiness is not dependant on someone else. To put it in to the extreme, if my partner died, I would be sad and grieve but I would also continue to live a full life. Non attachment means loving the other person with such a compassion that you want them to live the life they wish to live, even if this meant one day separating. Non attachment means being together because we want to be and not because we feel we should stay together. If non attachment is to function fully without fear and detachment then both parties need to meet in a joint place of non attachment.

    • Hi Kama, what a fantastic comment!!! Thank you for sharing what non-attachment means to you. The more I feel into non-attachment, I feel it is a sense of not taking on my partners patterns while being able to remain open and present in support of them. It was interesting you talked about grief and yet embracing life even if the relationship ended in the death of your partner or separation. I agree that true love does not possess and yet I still stumble over grief. And yet I am very aware that my relationship with grief is my issue and not really about my partner at all!!!

      I always enjoy your valuable insights
      Lots of love

  • Paul nixon:

    That was me who liked the blog. We all have to live in the now and not in the thought of the now with our heads, as we think to much with heads and not enough with our hearts. We don’t live in the moment of our self and being true to our loved ones as much as we could.


    • Hi Paul, thank you for your comment. It is so true that unfortunately we live too much in our heads. I think this leads us to attachment and ego as the mind is where the ego dwells. Our hearts, on the other hand is where we really connect with each other and is where we can practice loving fully without attachment.

      I appreciate your insights
      Lots of love

  • Hey. Loved the article. To me detachment means doing everything in your power to make a relationship work, yet at the same time being ready to lose that person if things go wrong constantly and because of him/her. A relationship is a two people job.

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