Emotional Detachment: Definition, Causes & Signs
What is emotional detachment? Discover the causes and signs of emotional detachment and strategies to reduce it and improve emotional connection.
Because emotional detachment can negatively affect relationships, we will also provide some strategies to reduce it and increase emotional connection for a healthy and thriving relationship.
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What Is Emotional Detachment? (A Definition)
Broadly speaking, emotional detachment is the inability or unwillingness to connect with others on an emotional level. Emotional detachment can also mean that people do not engage with their feelings, which can translate into repeatedly being disconnected or disengaged from what other people are feeling.
It is similar to building a wall between yourself and the outside world and not letting it down for anyone. Emotional detachment may interfere with the person’s life, impacting social, emotional, and even work areas. For example, a person might have a hard time creating or keeping a personal relationship, or it might be challenging for them to share their feelings or emotions.
Emotional detachment is a complex issue. For some people, being emotionally detached is a coping mechanism—a strategy that is used to protect them from stress or getting hurt. For others, it can be a reaction to trauma, abuse, or unprocessed emotions, which makes the person unable to open up about their struggles.
Although emotional detachment can be helpful in some situations if used with a clear purpose— such as not caring if people gossip about you—it can have a negative effect if it’s too much or if you can’t control it. For instance, if you are unable to connect with other people or have a hard time expressing emotions, it might impact your personal relationships. However, it’s important to keep in mind that emotional detachment is not simply a ‘switch’ that can be turned on and off at will.
The Opposite of Emotional Detachment
The opposite of emotional detachment is emotional connection. Feeling connected to someone else, a friend, a partner, a parent, means a deep feeling of intimacy. In this case, intimacy does not necessarily translate into sex or physical attraction but rather a way of knowing the other that goes beyond the surface level. For example, it can mean that you know someone will be consistently available, especially in times of need, or it can mean that you really listen to the other person, not simply just hearing and sharing openly.
One important part of emotional connection between humans is vulnerability. Being vulnerable with a loved one allows them to see the real you and helps you to live a more fulfilling life. Opening up can be frightening, so give yourself time and space to practice this skill. You can remind yourself that you’re not alone: in fact, many of us struggle with vulnerability. Learning to emotionally connect with others is an important part of emotional change and maturity.
World-renowned scientist Brené Brown argues that being vulnerable actually takes a lot of courage, and when we let ourselves take down those walls, we open ourselves to experiences that bring meaning to our lives.
Causes of Emotional Detachment
Emotional detachment can have different causes, such as past neglect or trauma, mental health conditions, or even medications. Some common causes of emotional detachment include:
You can watch the video below if you’re curious why someone might be emotionally detached.
Video: 6 Reasons Why Someone Is Emotionally Detached
Emotional Detachment Symptoms
Emotional detachment is not an official diagnosis in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM 5), like major depressive disorder. However, it can be a symptom of other disorders, such as attachment disorders, or it can be the result of past trauma.
Some signs of emotional detachment might look like:
Emotional Detachment in Relationships
Emotional connection in relationships is a crucial part of being in a happy and committed relationship. However, emotional detachment might feel like you are paddling alone in a boat that requires two people to do the work. Not only can this seem incredibly challenging and frustrating at times, but it can also lead to confusion about the relationship and build resentment over time (Colona & Buckman, 2018)
In a romantic relationship, some of the emotional detachment signs include (Gunther, 2020):
Stonewalling, a form of emotional detachment that often arises during conflict. Stonewalling is also one of the four ways Dr. John Gottman can predict whether a couple will divorce or not. He names the four characteristics that lead to divorce “The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse”—a metaphor describing the end of times in the New Testament. To make a healthy relationship work, Gottman argues that a couple should invest in their relationship and create “an emotional bank account.” This account has “deposits” of positive interactions, such as compliments, dates, physical affection, and “withdrawals” through negative moments.
Video: How to Cope With an Emotionally Detached Partner
Emotional Detachment in PTSD
PTSD, or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, is a disorder that develops in some people who have experienced or seen a scary or dangerous event.
Emotional detachment or avoidance is a common reaction to trauma because it helps people escape painful negative emotions. Emotional detachment might be adaptive (beneficial) at the time of the trauma, as it can protect you from unwanted thoughts or feelings. Still, it can actually disrupt recovery because it interferes with emotional processing (Clohessy & Ehlers, 1999). However, studies show that avoiding or suppressing feelings might not only make some PTSD symptoms worse but can contribute to developing PTSD symptoms after a traumatic event (Clohessy & Ehlers, 1999; Boden et al., 2013). In PTSD patients, emotional detachment is also associated with PTSD severity (Feeny et al., 2000).
The experience of trauma can lead to very intense emotions, such as overwhelming fear or anxiety. Some researchers argue that for people with PTSD is more difficult to express positive emotions, and they might require a “higher” positive emotion, but they are nevertheless able to experience them (Litz & Gray, 2002)
Emotional Detachment Disorder
Emotional detachment is not officially listed in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) but might be a symptom of other mental health disorders, such as:
How to Fix Emotional Detachment
Sometimes, being emotionally detached can negatively affect your life or relationships. However, there are many ways you can cope with emotional detachment. Here are some examples of how to let go of emotional detachment and build connections with others:
Articles Related to Emotional Detachment
Here are some more articles to read that can help you improve your emotional experiences and relationships:
Books Related to Emotional Detachment
Want to keep learning how to develop healthy emotional responses? Check out these books:
Final Thoughts on Emotional Detachment
Emotions and feelings are an important part of human connection. Emotional detachment can happen for different reasons, but it can negatively affect you and important aspects of your life. That’s why learning how to manage emotional detachment in yourself and others can be key to having more satisfying social relationships.