Detach. Detach With Love. You’ve Got to Be Kidding!

Detach. Detach With Love. You’ve Got to Be Kidding!

I’ve been in a number of situations lately where my heart goes out to the wives, husbands, children and parents of alcoholics and drug addicts who are brand new to this journey called “recovery.” Their deep, deep pain, anger, desperation, confusion, isolation, longing for it to be better, sadness — and in some cases, numbed silence — waxes and wanes as terms swirl through conversations.

Terms like codependent, enabler, SLE, IOP, in-patient, intensive out-patient, AlAnon, NarNon, powerless over alcohol, dual diagnosis and co-addictions are batted about as if they are words in conversations we exchange with that nice check-out clerk at the grocery store. Terms that make no sense, nor can they be viewed as applying to them because they were just trying to get their loved one to stop and now they’re just trying to get them clean and sober.

And, then, of course, there are the concepts of “detach” and “detach with love.” What the heck do these mean? “Who’s going to make sure my loved one is safe; doesn’t use; gets a job; succeeds in recovery if I detach?’” they often say.

Detach. Detach With Love. You've Got to Be Kidding!

Detach With Love – But How?

For some, the suggestion they detach with love, is followed by their equally incredulous response, “Are you kidding? After all they’ve done to me? You are off your rocker. That’s asking way too much!”

And when you think about it, it is all too much. It feels like being told you have to learn to read, write, speak and translate German and Chinese within the next month (the time-period for the typical 28-day, residential addiction treatment program) or YOU will have failed.

So, for all of you who are new to this, take it slowly. And, by slowly, I mean take it just for today, and in some cases, just for just the next 5 minutes. You do not, nor can you, have all (or even 2) of the answers to what happens next. To give you a hand with this, the posts linked at the end of this article may help you stay in just for today (yes, another one of those catchy phrases you’ll hear a lot). As you learn to detach, you’ll eventually be able to detach with love.

Detach means to…

realize that each of us has a brain that has its own neural network wiring based on our individual experiences, thoughts, influences, genetics and the like. The only brain we can control, and therefore the only behaviors we can change, is/are our own. Therefore, we can detach from another person when we remember their brain, a brain that is not within our power to control, controls their thoughts and behaviors.

Detach with love means to…

have love in your heart [which, believe it or not, originates in the brain] for another person, who may not be living their life the way you think they should or want them to, while at the same time, detaching — letting go of the notion you can change them given you can’t change their brain — only they can. In the case of detaching with love from someone with the brain disease of addiction, it helps to think of it as you having accepted that addiction is a brain disease and that the behaviors exhibited while your loved one is active in their disease were/are the result of the chemical, structural and functional brain changes caused by their disease. Therefore it’s okay to love the person but hate their disease. Truly accepting that you cannot control that person’s brain (regardless of whether they’re using their substance of addiction but especially if they are) is a huge piece to being able to detach with love.

For now, however, focus on just trying to “detach.” And when all else fails (which it will because this is all so new), focus on your breath and simply breathe. Breathe in; breathe out; breathe in; breathe out. For those brief moments, your mind will detach and give you the moments of much-needed peace you need.


P.S. When you’re ready for more information,  check out the “Brain Research | Brain Scans” and the “Secondhand Drinking | Help for Families” categories listed in the right column.

Lisa Frederiksen

Lisa Frederiksen

Author | Speaker | Consultant | Founder at
Lisa is the author of hundreds of articles and 11 books, including "If You Loved Me, You'd Stop!," "Addiction Recovery: What Helps, What Doesn't," and "Secondhand Drinking: the Phenomenon That Affects Millions." She is a national keynote speaker with over 25 years speaking experience, consultant, and founder of She has spent more than 14 years studying 21st century brain research in order to write, speak, and consult on substance use disorders prevention, intervention and treatment; mental disorders; addiction (aka substance use disorders) as a brain disease; adolescent addiction treatment vs adult addiction treatment; effective treatment for co-occurring disorders (having both a substance use and mental disorder); secondhand drinking | drugging; help for the family; and related subjects. In 2015, she founded SHD Prevention, providing training and consulting to companies, public agencies, unions, nonprofits and other entities to address the workplace impacts of employee secondhand drinking and alcohol misuse.
Lisa Frederiksen

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43 Responses to Detach. Detach With Love. You’ve Got to Be Kidding!

  1. Olga Hermans says:

    It is a terrible thing to grow up with alcoholics, not knowing what is going to happen. Thank you for reaching out to people in need!

  2. Sherie says:

    I agree with you that the only brain that we can control is our own. A lot of self inflicted pain occurs when we take responsibility for the behavior of another…because we really can’t do anything about the actions of another, even if we love them dearly.

  3. Great post Lisa. Some real truths here. I can honestly say that had I not believed in what you wrote here “Therefore it’s okay to love the person but hate their disease.” there is no way my marriage would have survived my husband’s relapse. It is one of the few positives of being an alcoholic that I had ‘insider insight’ of the disease and was able to detach. Even then it wasn’t easy!

    • Thank you, Carolyn! I, agree, that concept was a huge game changer for me, as well. I had so wrapped my loved ones in their alcoholism-related drinking behaviors that I could not see the “real” them in the swirl of my feelings of anger, distrust, hurt, sadness, betrayal — feelings caused by their drinking behaviors and my lack of understanding of their diseases… I really appreciate you reading and adding your experiences.

  4. Karla Campos says:

    Glad that you keep the families in mind when you write about alcoholism. I like how you mention “detach with love”, many family members feel so guilty when they can’t do anything about a loved one’s decisions.

  5. I love what you are doing and bringing awareness and education to people new to recovery. Thanks! I look forward to reading more of your posts.

  6. Tara says:

    Thanks for your great post.
    Detach with love seems like something anyone would do for somebody they love 🙂

  7. Marie Leslie says:

    Great post, Lisa. It is all so true. People throw about these terms like we can do it with the snap of our fingers. It is a process and it must be one step at a time. I am thankful that I have learned to be able to “detach with love”. It has made all the difference to my sanity and peace in my own life. I cannot help anyone if I am in constant turmoil, especially over that which is not in my control.

  8. Hi Lisa,

    I can remember when I was a new parent with an addicted child, and felt overwhelmed with the terminology and the world of recovery and addiction. This disease affects families of all kinds, no one is immune. You offer a wonderful explanation of detachment (with love) which is the first term that many parents hear when they attend support groups. It can be an experience filled with anguish, but joy can seep through with time, if we let it. Take care.

    • Thank you so much, Cathy, for sharing your experience. As you’ve said, the beginning is so very overwhelming — I think that’s often why families give up — they’ve been working so hard to keep it all together that this “one more BIG thing” is just too much. I only hope this helps them see that even if they take in just one or two concepts and really embrace them — they’ll see improvement for themselves.

  9. Lisa, this is a great article. It’s hard to wrap your brain around detach or detach with love. It’s also hard for the newly recovering persona and family to set boundaries period, knowing what to own as their issue. It does clearly come down to dealing with your own issues for sure. Thanks!

    • You are so right, Lisa, it’s all about setting boundaries (I remember I had no idea what one was, let alone how to set it :)!)so you can deal with what’s yours and let go of what’s not. Thanks so much for reading and adding your comment!

  10. amazing post and its how I’ve been able to love and except many people I know have a problem. Lovely advice!

  11. well it must have been the week for love and detachment, I had an article about loving with detachment and letting people be who they are. Very wise advice in this case too!

  12. Anita says:

    Gentle reminders and such wonderful advice! I think we all sometimes think if disassociation as a hate thing..I have family members that I spend little time with because of their negative impact on me. I still love them I choose not to spend time so as not to be like them 🙂

    • Beautifully said, Anita, “I have family members that I spend little time with because of their negative impact on me. I still love them I choose not to spend time so as not to be like them.” Talk about detaching with love! 🙂 Thanks so much for reading and adding your comment.

  13. Sharon O'Day says:

    From the outside, Lisa, that really IS an alphabet-soup vocabulary with almost-foreign terminology. But your clear, reality-based definitions of ‘detach’ and ‘detach with love’ make so much sense that they may actually be able to pierce the emotional filter that the loved ones are applying.

  14. This is such an important lesson, Lisa. When we learn that we can’t control another persons thoughts or actions, it is so much easier to let go with love. Thank you for explaining it so well.

  15. Great post. I can’t even imagine what it is like to live with a loved one suffering from a drug or alcohol problem. Whether it is a child, parent or spouse the confusion that must happen within your mind has to be immense. Thank you for sharing.

    • It really is immense and affects one in four children and over half of American adults — yet most efforts are targeted at helping the person abusing or addicted to the substance (extremely important, to be sure) but equally important is to help their loved ones, as well. Thanks for reading and adding your comment.

  16. Lisa Knudson says:

    The concept of Attaching With Love is used in the Alanon program. It is confusing for many as it sounds good in theory but it is so difficult to do in practice! I find it helpful to not only think of it in terms of the Alcoholic/Addict in one’s life but Life in general; whether it be encountering frustrating events with work, kids, friendships, etc. Thanks for the article!

  17. Debbie says:

    our journey down this path began with our son in 2007 , he was 19 at the time. we are not new to this it these terms however soft reminders as you so respectfully and graciously write about are needed and necessary. while detachment for us has come in gradual phases we see it is necessary for both the addict and family and we wouldn’t consider detaching in any way without love! it is certainly an art form to learn but key to wellness for all. we haven’t completely mastered detaching but we practice this and get stronger and better every day. perhaps some are better at it than others. I find the most confusing part of the action involves thinking it must come from the heart and soul however if I practice this and do it only from my mind and thought process and think of my actions as empowering my addict to do for himself what he is capable if doing it allows me to disengage from that component if our relationship. I must remind myself that it is not healthy to do for others what they are capable if doing for themselves ???? thank you Lisa!

    • I loved this line of yours, “it is certainly an art form to learn but key to wellness for all.” I remember being so overwhelmed with this concept and the fits and starts I took – I’d do it and then I’d undo it and then do it and then undo it – it felt like it took ages to get it. But as you also wrote, “I must remind myself that it is not healthy to do for others what they are capable if doing for themselves” – that is so true, and keeping that in mind helps with detaching. Thank you so much for your comment, Debbie, and congratulations on your progress!!!

  18. MISSY says:

    I’m trying to learn how to detach from my alcoholic husband. Unfortunatly, it is worse on the weekends. During the week, he is very functioning and it doesn’t bother me. He works, helps with our son, pays the bills, seems fairly normal, I’m the only one who ever knows that he is ‘drunk’, besides his alcoholic mother. But without fail every single weekend there is an episode. I hate weekends. Hate them. I want to detach from weekends. Detach from that person he is on the weekends. I would like an audio book that I could listen to, on the weekends so that I could go into a peaceful place and enjoy myself without having to worry about him. I just want to plug in and let go….maybe I could start by just listening to some classical music, but I’d like something uplifting and positive. I just want to zone out.

    • I’m so sorry, Missy – gosh I remember those days. Something that helped me learn to detach was learning about the brain disease of alcoholism – and if it’s not fully developed into alcoholism, the brain changes (thus behavioral changes) caused by alcohol abuse. I don’t know if you’re aware of my book, If You Loved Me, You’d Stop!. It’s the book I wished I’d had way back when – it helps with this understanding, as well as what you can do to help yourself enjoy your life in spite of it all – here’s the link: This website,, also has wealth of information about addiction. If you’d like to contact me directly, my email is and my office # is 650-799-9813 (PST) – there is no charge for initial email and phone exchanges, by the way.

  19. Butch says:

    Lisa, thanks for your gracious help. Should I tell my wife that I am detaching with love or just do it? I know her well. She will see my detaching with love as me just trying to hurt her. I have not been mean to her but although I love her, I really can’t stand to be around her and avoid her as much as possible. I am trying to learn to “not care” but it is very frustrating when she puts forth no effort at all to seek help or help herself. She went to a few AA meetings and has never tried to help for her gambling addiction or her prescription drug problem.

  20. […] with Love, and other articles I found these helpful 🙂 Detach. Detach With Love. You've Got to Be Kidding! – About Letting Go… – Codependents Have a "Brain Thing" Going […]

  21. […] Frederiksen, on her blog Breaking the Cycles, provides yet another […]

  22. Lora Scelsi says:

    Growing up with immediate family members and extended family who were alcoholics all I can say is they make all around them suffer. Never met a kind alcoholic once in my life!!! My question is the school system, police, and social services rarely truly remove children from there abusive, vicious alcoholic parents, ever. In America all we hear about is how everyone wants to drink and party all the time. No one cares about young children being left alone because the parents are drunk at the bar and wont be home until four in the mourning. When they come home they are mean to there kids. We worry about problems in other countries. We blame all problems on immigrants while American parents get stoned drunk. I would rather see pot legal because alcohol is the most evil drug. Drunkenness is not a disease its a choice. All I can say is all alcoholics that are in your life detatch, no contact they are the terrors of the family. Shameless, mean and cruel they are. Stay away remove yourself from these leeches once and for all. They never change and when a person gets older there bad qualities get much worse. Expecting an alcoholic to change is hopeless. Where is the police to lock up the drunks???

    • I am so terribly sorry to hear how awful your experiences have been, Lora. If you’d ever like to talk about it or hear some suggestions that may help you (in spite of their drinking and drinking behaviors), please feel free to call me at 650-362-3026 (I’m in California on PST). If I don’t answer, I will call you back, and there is no charge. ~Lisa

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