There is a saying in the self-help world that if you don’t listen to the lessons the universe is trying to teach you they will show up in stronger and stronger ways until you notice them.
For me the lessons about disengagement and detachment were like this.
I don’t think I’m the only one to experience this.
I do believe that learning to disengage and detach in a way that feels loving to me are probably the single most powerful things that I learned early on in my marriage. Then I went on to experience and learn this over and over again in many parts of my life and in connection with many people in my family.
When I think back I can remember things from my adolescence and early adult years that were lessons in disengaging related to my relationship with my parents but I don’t think I knew that’s what it was at the time.
The concepts of disengagement and detachment are too big and complex to cover in a single article. These are my opinions and my understanding of these concepts. Keep in mind that I am a life coach. I never pretend to be anything but that. If you think I’m wrong I invite you to let me know.
The definition I use for these terms is brief as follows.
Disengagement is a process of intentionally becoming not engaged in a situation.
Detachment is being aware that each individual is a separate human and that feelings about the person can be different from about the behavior.
Disengagement can be tough for doers.
If you are like me and you experienced success in your personal life by taking charge, making decisions and doing things, disengagement can be tough to execute. Also, I feel like I was raised in a time where the professional success advice was very much hustle and lean-in so maybe it’s partly because of my age.
You might also struggle with delegation in work environments.
If you find yourself saying, “never mind, I’ll do it myself.” This is you.
Disengagement may seem like it is counter to socialized “good parent” lessons
If you are a person who has been socialized to think that your worth as a parent or caregiver is related to how well the children in your space look or behave well then detachment can be a very hard conceptto embrace.
This is because it can feel like giving in or giving up. It can feel like being judged for what you cannot control.
If this resonates with you I want to gently suggest that the tools of engagement actually liberate you from feeling the perceived judgement of others.
Here’s a personal story about disengagement.
This story involves another member of my family and as I do that I’ll remind you that I share my story from my perspective. It is intentional when I leave out details about the other people involved. That is to respect them because I love them. I respect that they have a different perspective of all of these events.
I quarreled and fought with my stepdaughter often when I was new to my role of stepmother. My version of this is that she would be upset and I would respond to the situation with a raised voice and strong emotions. In other words, I yelled.
20 years later I can tell you that probably I yelled in response because I felt like I needed to respond. I yelled back because I was trying to win the situation. I yelled in response because I had pretty much zero skills with young kids.
In the moment, my response did not feel like something I had any choice or control over.
I was aware that I felt really unhappy about this. My whole body would be on high alert for hours. It got to a point where I was having a physical reaction just knowing that my stepdaughter was going to come to the house. Which is why I was meeting with a therapist (and questioning my some of my life choices).
One day my therapist suggested I try disengaging. He had suggested this for weeks running. I had been reading a book which also included these terms of disengage and detach. While I thought I understood them I wasn’t applying them in my actions. This is something I now call the knowledge trap.
I let him know that I wasn’t sure what that meant. He said don’t yell back. Stop participating in the argument. Disengage. Take actions to stop being a part of the argument. This for me was truly transformational.
Disengaging is not always easy.
I’m not even going to pretend that it’s even always possible to disengage. There were times when I remember taking steps to attempt to disengage and being unable to accomplish this. I would walk away and she would follow. This is why I feel it’s helpful to get advice from people who have actually been in challenging situations that come up in complicated family dynamics. I think personal experience impacts the way solutions are offered.
Some people will suggest that disengagement is always available as an option and I’m not sure that’s true. There were times where she would come into my space and when I moved she would follow me. Or I would take steps to disengage but I could still hear the tantrum and I would continue to feel engaged. But having the awareness that disengagement can be an option was and is still helpful for me.
I want to add that sometimes disengagement is perhaps not appropriate. There are situations where an adult might be needed by a child. I may not want to be engaged but if a child needs me then I will remain engaged. In those cases I don’t think disengagement is always a great option. If you want more details about how and when this might come up just ask.
The last thing I want to say is that I sometimes see people confusing disengagement with choosing to ignore a child. In my opinion these are not the same thing.
There are stepparent coaches who teach a philosophy that if a child is not your biological child then it is okay for you to adopt a policy of not being involved simply because they are not your biological child. Some coaches may actually use the slogan not your kid – not your problem. I do not personally follow this ideology and in my personal experience of over 20 years even though my stepkids are not my biological kids they have many times definitely been my “problem” to deal with. As a stepparent I am a part of their family. I think it would be very painful to be in a family where an adult openly chose to not be a part of my life. That’s not what I wanted to create for myself. I personally feel that you can have detachment without rejection or ignoring a child. Sometimes it can be very hard to separate these things.
Detachment is about perspective and emotional separation
To practice detachment is to be able to be an observer or a witness not a participant in the emotions.
When watching a child be upset detachment is one of the tools that make it possible to not be upset yourself.
When I disengage or work on detachment I try to do this from a place of love. That’s why I call it loving detachment.
Sometimes the love is for the other person. Always though there needs to be love for me in the equation.
One thing that has been tough for me to learn over the years is that I cannot ignore the love that I need for me.
I think it can be very loving to allow somebody the space to be upset. Or the space to try things on their own and be imperfect at those things. Or space to voice their thoughts and opinions even if I don’t share those opinions.
One thing I think I’ve learned is that one reason I enjoy applying this to the others in my life is that I appreciate it when others allow these things for me.
Detachment is a lovely concept but it can be very hard to apply in a variety of practical situations.
Detachment can be really complicated when we share finances.
Money is a top reason families experience conflict.
This doesn’t go away when you have more than one house in a blended family.
Kids can be very expensive.
Teenagers can make very expensive choices.
While I love the idea of an abundance mindset it can be a challenge to fully embrace the reality of spending money on something that you really didn’t choose because you have to for a family member.
From insurance co-payments, to clothes, to school tuition and extracurricular activities money can be a very complicated topic to detach from.
If I offer a tool to help with this it would be to get good at talking with people in your family about money.
Detachment can be really complicated when you are cohabitating with others.
This is because while we are all separate people our space overlaps. We share space. It is common space.
This is a very common struggle in families.
If the kids in my house make a huge mess and I don’t want there to be a mess in my house this is a conflict. I can be super detached and still really want a clean house.
This is another place where I tend to diverge from several people who coach in my space. The common wisdom is that a stepparent should not always get involved here.
I will admit that if you choose to get involved you run the risk that the kids will not appreciate being told to clean up or do chores by a person who isn’t a parent. Depending on their personality and their age they may inform you that “you’re not my mom” or “you don’t get to tell me what to do.”
Those things might be accurate.
Hearing that from a child may feel hurtful.
As a stepmom you might feel that a biological parent has more authority. I will offer that this thought may come from a belief. I think all parents have the clean up fight with kids at many different ages. Yes, I know that some kids are clean … none of mine were so I’m just jealous. I offer this observation because I think it’s disempowering to feel like this happens because you are a stepparent.
I struggled with this as a new stepmom. How can I balance my desire to have a home that brings me joy with sharing the house with young and messy kids. Especially if a truth may be that if you asked those kids if they wanted to live with me they would quite possibly say, no.
Well one day I just realized that while the kids deserve to feel safe and at home when they are here…so do I. Neither one of these ideas is more important than the other. Also though neither one is less important. That’s why it feels like a conflict. We have different opinions and different desires.
Lovingly detaching means to me that I don’t make the situation mean anything about me or my value as a person. If I ask the kids to clean up and they yell at me in response. Detachment allows me to just see the yelling for yelling. They don’t want to clean up. They don’t want to be told to clean up. That’s it. It also means that I’m not making it mean anything about the other person.
I think sometimes this gets misunderstood. I’m not detaching from the person I’m detaching from their behavior. I’m not detaching from the situation or the person I’m detaching my emotional connection to controlling or being involved in the outcome.
I can totally be annoyed at the situation of having a messy house AND still be a fantastic wife and stepmom. These two things are not related. In my opinion, that’s being detached.
I can ask them to please help me clean up and they might choose not to do that. That still doesn’t mean anything about me and how amazing I am. That’s detachment.
My teenagers can make what I think are ridiculous decisions and I can have opinions about that which are separate from my thoughts about them as my stepkids and kids.
Distance seems to make both disengagement and detachment feel easier.
This is both a good thing and a bad thing.
If you and your stepkid or your mother-in-law are experiencing a lot of conflict, distance as in literal space between you might make you feel better.
It might not make your partner feel better because the person is their child/mom.
When I struggled with my stepdaughter my husband shared with me that he had a deep sadness about this because he wished that the two of us had a stronger bond.
Now here’s a place where distance doesn’t sometimes help.
When our kids grow up and move away we are much more disengaged and detached from their daily lives. For some people this is a tough adjustment because they miss being engaged and they miss being present. Both sides of this situation don’t always feel the same way. If a child moves away because they want the distance but the adult does not want this. The adult may feel distress in this situation.
I think that awareness of the many ways this can show up in a group can be helpful in approaching a situation from a place of love or compassion.
What’s next are a few examples of what I detachment is NOT.
I’m including these because I feel like I see people use the ideas of disengagement and detachment misapplied and used to defend other behaviors.
What detachment is NOT is me being asked to suppress or ignore my desire to have a clean house or anything else that might be important to me. This includes me being able to state that in my own house. Detachment is also NOT me being expected to live in conditions that I don’t find acceptable. Detachment is NOT me being forced to tolerate being treated violently. Detachment is also NOT me feeling like I cannot voice my opinions to my partner about what the house rules can be. Detachment is NOT me feeling like I am a second class citizen for any reason in my own home. Detachment is NOT ignoring another person. Detachment is NOT excluding people from activities in the family.
What it IS is the understanding that because each person is their own individual that no matter how much I might want it the other person may not and this difference doesn’t mean anything about anybody who is involved.
If I want a clean kitchen and you don’t, we are both still good people.
It’s not always easy. This is why I add the word love to my equation.
What feels like love here?
Honestly, sometimes the most loving thing is speaking up for myself. Sometimes it’s walking away and allowing people to just be themselves which includes them being responsible for their own actions. Sometimes it’s hanging up the phone. Sometimes it’s not starting a conversation when you can you feel that you are emotionally engaged. Sometimes it looks like learning to write in a journal instead of word vomiting all over your partner when you are unhappy.
Disengagement – Detachment – Boundaries
If disengagement and detachment still aren’t enough is when I begin to teach boundaries.
In my experience, boundaries are an advanced skill to implement.
Boundaries are often misunderstood. Boundaries are easily misapplied.
The most common thought error here that I see people do is that a boundary means that we can tell somebody else to not do something and they have to listen. This is not how the human experience works for me. Instead a boundary is that I define the boundary for myself and if you cross the boundary I will take action to enforce my boundary to keep myself healthy and safe.
A simple example is if your mother-in-law makes comments about a child’s table manners. If this upsets you and you want it to stop you might think you need a boundary.
You might think a boundary is to tell your mother-in-law that she should not or cannot say those things to your child. This is not a boundary this is a command or perhaps a request if you say it nicely.
When this doesn’t work you might thing you should explain to your mother-in-law why this is important to you and how her words are old-fashioned or just straight out undesirable or wrong. Your intention here may be to reduce conflict and instead this often results in hurt feelings and a big family fight.
The boundary would be if you make comments about my child’s manners I will ask you to leave and no longer invite you to dinner in my house with my child.
Do you see the difference?
That may seem like a huge reaction to this situation and it is. This is why I suggest that boundaries are often misapplied.
The risk is big with boundaries in a family because when boundaries are announced and enforced they can rip relationships apart.
In my opinion, before we jump into boundaries it’s helpful to be very clear on who is involved, what is happening that is causing distress, are there options that can improve this situation without a boundary.
In the table manner discussion above the question there may be other ways to resolve it without a boundary.
If you are interested in more information about working with me you can find that here.
I teach a free class on boundaries and I also offer an entire online course on boundaries. Find information about that here.