How to Handle Emotional Detachment Issues

Emotional detachment involves the disconnection from emotions, particularly ones involved in interpersonal relationships. It can present as numbness and may lead to relationship and communication problems, difficulty feeling or expressing empathy, or other emotional regulation difficulties.

Read on to learn more about emotional detachment and how to treat it.

A young woman looks disengaged as her partner speaks to her. He has his hand gently rested on her arm.

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What Is Emotional Detachment?

Emotions are more than just how we feel. They help determine how we react to situations, influence social functioning, and facilitate bonding with other people.

We affect and are affected by other people's emotions, positively and negatively. Healthy emotional regulation allows a person to work through emotions without being consumed by them.

Emotional detachment means a person has difficulty tuning into their emotions and connecting with others on an emotional level.

While they may feel disengaged and appear to lack empathy, people with emotional detachment do experience emotions and usually want to express them and connect with others, they just have difficulty doing so in a way that is typically considered appropriate.

People experiencing emotional detachment may:

  • Find it difficult to show empathy
  • Have trouble expressing and sharing emotions
  • Have difficulty committing to a relationship or partnership
  • Feel disconnected from others
  • Feel “numb”
  • Find it hard to identify their emotions
  • Be unaware that their actions may be seen as rude
  • Practice avoidance when a situation involves the expression of emotion

In Relationships

Emotional detachment can occur in relationships as well. Periods of disconnect are common in relationships and usually resolve once both partners are in a place to reconnect. If the detachment becomes pervasive or ongoing, it can cause problems in the relationship.

Emotional detachment in a relationship may look like:

  • Reduced availability or preoccupation
  • Not communicating location or plans
  • Terse communication
  • Placing others before their partner
  • Reduced affection and intimacy
  • Reduced investment in the relationship

Condition or Symptom?

Emotional detachment is not a condition unto itself. Rather, it is a symptom that can be associated with other mental health conditions.

Identifying Emotional Detachment

If you are experiencing emotional detachment, seeing a healthcare provider is a good place to start. They may:

  • Talk with you about your feelings, behaviors, and other symptoms
  • Do an exam or run tests to look for physical reasons for your symptoms
  • Make a referral to a mental health professional

Emotional detachment is a common characteristic of several disorders, so it's important to speak with a healthcare provider who understands it and is knowledgeable about how it can manifest.

Causes and Triggers of Emotional Detachment

There are many things that can influence how a person regulates emotion, including emotional detachment.

Past Experiences

Exposure to traumatic events and interpersonal trauma in childhood is associated with many impairments in children and adults, including emotional detachment and emotional dysregulation.

Complex childhood trauma and a lack of adequately responsive and consistent emotional support in childhood can affect a person's ability to tolerate intense emotions, form healthy attachments and relationships, and develop a sense of self.

Childhood trauma could involve inadequate care in an institutional setting or other out-of-home placement, or traumatic losses or changes in the child's primary caregiver.

While childhood trauma can create problems that persist into adulthood, trauma that occurs in adulthood can also cause emotional detachment.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a condition that can develop after a single exceptionally threatening or horrifying event or from prolonged exposure to trauma such as abuse. Emotional detachment is one way in which PTSD may manifest.

Attachment Disorders

Emotional detachment can be a symptom of an attachment disorder, such as:

Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD)

  • Stems from extremes of insufficient care in childhood
  • Less likely to interact with other people
  • Do not seek comfort from others when stressed or upset
  • Difficulty responding to comfort when distressed
  • Children may appear sad, irritable, or scared while engaging in normal activities with their caregiver

Disinhibited Social Engagement Disorder (DSED)

  • Stems from a child experiencing a pattern of insufficient care
  • Children may be overly friendly and affectionate, such as approaching strangers without fear and even hugging them
  • Unafraid of strangers, and will often go with someone they don't know without checking in with their caregivers

Mental Health Conditions

In addition to PTSD, emotional detachment can occur as part of several different mental health conditions, including:

Side Effects of Medication

Emotional detachment may be a side effect of some medications, such as certain antidepressants.

A 2016 study analyzed survey data of people who had been using antidepressants for three to 15 years. While the majority (89.4%) reported that antidepressants had improved their depression, many also noted side effects, including adverse emotional effects. 64.5% reported feeling emotionally numb.

Intentional Coping Strategy

Emotional detachment can be a useful tactic many people use to protect themselves in stressful situations. While pervasive use of this emotional coping strategy can be maladaptive (unhelpful), it can sometimes be a healthy way to set boundaries.

For example, having a healthcare provider who is skilled at regulating connection to their emotions is associated with:

  • Better patient adherence to treatment
  • Improved communication skills
  • Better decision making
  • Better disease management
  • Reduced anxiety
  • Better health overall
  • Higher quality of life in patients

Conversely, being overly connected to emotions can interfere with medical decisions, objectivity, and judgment. Being overly emotionally involved with patients and being exposed to high levels of negative emotions can cause providers to experience:

  • Personal distress
  • Compassion fatigue
  • Emotional exhaustion
  • Burnout

Devoting too much time and commitment to patients can also lead to neglecting their personal time, hobbies, and family responsibilities.

Being able to engage in selective emotional detachment can allow providers to stay calm, be objective, perform painful medical procedures, and protect themselves from becoming emotionally overwhelmed. Learning how to regulate their emotions allows them to be empathetic when called for and detached when necessary.

Is Emotional Detachment Always Harmful?

Detachment is not always a bad thing, especially when done in a healthy way. Research has shown that being able to psychologically detach from work during non-work time is important for mental health and well-being. People who have detachment from work during off-hours tend to be more satisfied with their lives and experience less psychological strain, without negatively affecting their work. Some studies have shown this detachment can even improve job performance.

Treatment for Emotional Detachment

Treatment for emotional detachment depends on what is causing it and what the individual's goals are. If it is a component of another condition, such as depression or PTSD, the whole condition needs to be treated.

Psychotherapy (talk therapy) may be beneficial for people experiencing emotional detachment. This might include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which involves identifying and examining maladaptive thoughts and behaviors and transforming them into healthier processes and strategies. Or it could include psychodynamic psychotherapy, which emphasizes the acknowledgement and expression of affect, and examines our emotional defense mechanisms.

If there is a relationship component to the emotional detachment, therapies are available that address the couple or family as a whole.

Discuss your concerns with your healthcare provider or mental health professional, and tell them what you hope to achieve with treatment. They can help figure out which approach is best for you.

How to Cope With Emotional Detachment

In addition to professional treatment, there are some ways to help cope with experiencing emotional detachment.

  • Meditation and mindfulness: This can help reduce stress, promote calm, and improve reactions to negative thoughts and feelings.
  • Writing: Keeping a journal can help you get your thoughts and emotions out instead of detaching from them. It may also help you notice patterns or triggers for your emotional detachment.
  • Avoid self-medicating with substances: While they may provide temporary relief, substances like alcohol can make symptoms worse, or lead to more problems in the long run.
  • Seek support: Support groups are a great way to connect with others who understand what you are experiencing.
  • Allowing vulnerability: Being vulnerable can be hard and takes time and practice, but it's worth it. Work on opening up with people you trust and feel safe with.
  • Make art: Getting creative can be a healthy way to connect with and express your emotions.

When to See a Healthcare Provider

If you find emotional detachment is having a negative impact on your life, making relationships difficult, or may be a symptom of another mental health problem, see your healthcare provider.

Help Is Available

If you or a loved one are struggling with mental health, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area. 

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Summary

Emotional detachment can be part of healthy emotion regulation, but it can be harmful if it leads to interpersonal problems. Trauma, mental health conditions, and medication side effects can all cause emotional detachment. Help for emotional detachment depends on the individual, but may include talk therapy. If it is a component of another condition, treatment will need to address that condition.

A Word From Verywell

Healthy emotion regulation doesn't come easily for everyone. Emotional detachment can be hard for the person experiencing it and for those around them. If you are experiencing emotional detachment that is negatively impacting your life, see your healthcare provider or a mental health professional to determine next steps.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How can you work on emotional detachment issues in a marriage?

    Working with a counselor or therapist who understands emotional detachment can help partners learn to reconnect and improve communication. It may take time, work, and commitment from both partners, but emotional detachment in a relationship doesn't necessarily mean it's over.

  • How can you help someone cope with emotional detachment?

    Recognizing that the person's distance is a coping mechanism rather than a punitive tactic can help you feel compassion instead of anger. You can help them by proving a safe space for them to be vulnerable and open. You can also support them in seeking treatment if needed.

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