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What Is Emotional Detachment?

Discover the causes and signs of emotional detachment and strategies to reduce it.



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 used 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.

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:

  • Past experiences. Exposure to traumatic events and interpersonal trauma in childhood is associated with emotional detachment, but so is psychological trauma in adulthood (Dvir et al., 2014; Foa & Hearst-Ikeda, 1996). Children may also use emotional detachment as a way to cope with a traumatic event.

  • Other mental health conditions. A couple of mental health conditions include emotional detachment. Some of these psychological illnesses include bipolar disorder, depression, personality disorders, and PTSD.

  • Medications. Emotional detachment might also be a side effect of some medications, including antidepressants such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), which are used to treat major depressive disorders and other psychiatric disorders.

  • Personal choice. Some people might choose to detach emotionally as a way to cope with stress, anxiety, or boundaries violations.

Signs of Emotional Detachment

  • Difficulty showing empathy to others

  • Difficulty sharing emotions or opening up to others

  • Difficulty committing to a relationship or person

  • Feeling disconnected from others

  • Losing touch with people or problems maintaining connections

  • Feeling “numb”

  • Inability to identify emotions

In a romantic relationship, some of the emotional detachment signs include (Gunther, 2020):

  • Not being available. Your partner might not answer the bids for connection (like requests for something or help needed in an emergency). Even though there will be moments when any partner is less available because of stress, work, or personal issues, being constantly emotionally unavailable or rejecting bids for connection can indicate emotional detachment.

  • Poor communication. Communication is an important skill that needs constant practice, and not all communication is verbal. Poor communication simply means that a partner is not communicating in a way that is clearly understood by the other partner or is expressing disgust or rejection through body language.

  • Reduced affection. There are many ways to show affection. Learning you and your partners’ love languages is an important step towards building a strong relationship. For example, emotionally detached partners might have a hard time expressing affection or saying “I love you,” which can negatively impact the relationship.

How to Be More Emotionally Attached

Here are some examples of how to let go of emotional detachment and build connections with others:

  • Build a support system. On your path to understanding your emotions, an important step is to connect with people who support you. Building a support system has many mental and physical health benefits and can be an invaluable help as you begin to gain awareness of your emotions.

  • Practice mindfulness and meditation. Mindfulness is an ancient practice that can help you focus on the present moment, which can include your emotional response to an event or how you typically think about emotions in general. Learning how to practice mindfulness and meditation can help you build self-awareness and self-compassion.

  • Practice being emotionally vulnerable. Being vulnerable is an important part of any relationship, as it helps you build an authentic connection, creates a stronger bond, and breaks down emotional walls. Learning how to be vulnerable takes time and patience from you and those around you, so it’s important to have people who support you on this path.

  • Seek professional help. Asking for help does not mean you are weak. If emotional detachment is affecting your life, talk to a therapist. A licensed mental health professional can help you work through difficult emotions with science-based interventions and techniques, which can help you reconnect with your emotions. There are numerous types of therapies and interventions that you can choose from, so take the time to find one that works for you.

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References

  • Dvir, Y., Ford, J. D., Hill, M., & Frazier, J. A. (2014). Childhood maltreatment, emotional dysregulation, and psychiatric comorbidities. Harvard review of psychiatry, 22(3), 149.

  • Foa, E. B., & Hearst-Ikeda, D. (1996). Emotional dissociation in response to trauma. In Handbook of dissociation (pp. 207-224). Springer, Boston, MA.

  • Gunther, R. (2020, December 31). The Danger of Emotional Detachment. Psychology Today.

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