How –Detachment” Has Pathologized People Who Need Relationships

How “Detachment” Has Pathologized People Who Need Relationships


We humans are social beings. We come into the world as the result of others’ actions. We survive here in dependence on others. Whether we like it or not, there is hardly a moment of our lives in which we do not benefit from others’ activities. For this reason it is hardly surprising that most of our happiness arises in the context of our relationships with others. Nor is it so remarkable that our greatest joy should come when we are motivated by concern for others. But that is not all. We find that not only do altruistic actions bring about happiness, but they also lessen our experience of suffering. Here I am not suggesting that the individual whose actions are motivated by the wish to bring others happiness necessarily meets with less misfortune than the one who does not. Sickness, old age, mishaps of one sort or another are the same for us all. But the sufferings which undermine our internal peace—anxiety, doubt, disappointment—these are definitely less.” – The Dalai Lama

I recently presented in a mere 10 minutes to an audience of about 40 people why relationships are critical to mental health. I included some psycho-education on the neuroscience of relationships and attachment theory, as well as a brief group exercise on attunement. I was pleasantly surprised by the positive response I received. Many people approached me with interest and relief over the acknowledgement that needing relatedness as an adult is normal and healthy. One person said to me “it really is all about relationships” with a big smile. Later that same day, a therapeutic school asked me to present to teachers and parents of adolescents on the same topic. This was in an effort to help people understand how to be supportive of young people in angst: to literally use their own feelings and reactions (both positive and negative) and relatedness as a tool for understanding and helping. It seems that this conversation is catching. People are hungry to know more about relationships, and relieved when they discover that they are healthy for wanting them.

I was drawn to existential psychotherapy for a variety of reasons. The philosophical inquiry regarding themes such as freedom, responsibility, mortality, and relatedness challenged my mind in a way that also challenged my heart. The emphasis on the moment encouraged an awareness and aliveness that was lacking in traditional talk therapy models and that seemed to inadvertently encourage the disengaged avoidance inherent in the constant recycling of an old story. However, the two greatest aspects that I now see as intimately connected and that continue to deeply impact me are: (a) the non-pathologizing stance in regard to our defensive and sometimes detrimental behaviors, and (b) the relationship as the primary healing agent in therapy.

Manualized treatments and outcome-based models designed to whet the appetite of managed care plans have failed to acknowledge the “context factors” that contribute to the efficacy of good therapy. In Existential-Humanistic Therapy (2010), Orah Krug and Kirk Schneider point out that there is now research to support these “context factors” of psychotherapy—the clinician’s personality traits and interpersonal style. Historically speaking, this is not news. Yet, due to our increasingly medicalized stance on mental health treatment, rooted in a highly political environment that relates to big money (pharmaceutical companies and cost management), we somehow forgot the research of humanistic pioneer Carl Rogers that backed the Person Centered Approach. Along with Eugene Gendlin (who developed the focusing technique that is also critical to therapeutic change), Kiesler, and Truax (1967), Carl Rogers identified the therapeutic conditions—congruent communication and authenticity of the therapist, unconditional positive regard for the client, and empathic attunement—that are the three most critical factors for change in psychotherapy.

I have a background in Early Childhood Education, and therefore I have always felt a strong pull toward attachment theory and the human science of relatedness. This theory says that for the first five years of life, our primary developmental task is to form attachments and organize a somewhat unconscious understanding and style of relating. Clinicians such as John Bowlby, Melanie Klein, and Mary Ainsworth all contributed to an increasing body of research on attachment styles in children that are thought to influence how we relate to other people as adults. However, these theories generally have only applied to children. Adults, however, have been pathologized for having any attachment needs. “Grown-ups” are supposed to be totally independent and rational, and “health” is predicated on the ability to “detach” from our relational anxiety and make calm, deliberate decisions regarding our own needs as separate beings. Adults no longer need other adults. Their own ego is sufficient.

I have always struggled with this notion, and our postmodern Western adaptation of Eastern spiritual practices that place emphasis on “detachment” have always perplexed me. Something has never felt quite right to me regarding this juxtaposition between what I was trained to understand regarding attachment theory and its implications around the very palpable human need for intimacy and interdependence, and the notion that spiritual health means to “detach.” A good friend and fellow existentialist (who has studied Dharmic and Yogi philosophy) has pointed out to me that the Sanskrit word for detachment, “aparigraha” means “non-grasping.” In other words, the goal is not to let go, but rather to loosen the grip. Connection and relating are still valued. I concur with her and respect that notion. However, I don’t think that many people understand detachment this way, and I have often felt that Western society has used this notion of detachment as a means of spiritual bypass that feeds a hyper-individualized narcissism cloaked in what I have heard mentor Eugene Taylor refer to as the “you may touch the hem of my garment” syndrome. My own translation of this is, “Oh, you have feelings and needs? Well, I don’t so I must be more enlightened than you.” I want to issue a reminder that there is a fine line that runs between healthy narcissism and unhealthy narcissism. It’s one thing to want to love one’s self (a love that is ultimately reliant on a previously loving relationship that we have integrated) versus a denial of our vulnerabilities, inherent human delicacy, and very real reliance on others for both physical sustenance such as food and water, and intangible relational sustenance such as positive and negative feedback, validation, and affection. Translated into existential terms, our ability to face our anxiety around relatedness and aloneness in a vast universe is a key component to a more dynamic understanding and experience of human existence. It is when we admit that we have needs that we truly become egoless (at least long enough to have a brief touch with reality, and then back we go to the ego). This is the type of letting go that I am interested in.

Recently, I have been relieved to read about “adult attachment theory” and to gain understanding of not only how our spirits are impacted by inconsistent and threatening relationship dynamics, but also our very neurobiology. Sue Johnson, a couples therapist, normalized the adult need to form attachments with the most successful couples therapy model to date, Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy, and in her book, Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love (2008). She also contested the Westernized style of hyper-individualism that has done great damage to contemporary relationships, noting that we have created a culture that prizes disengagement from emotions and imperviousness to how we are impacted by and impact others. In the BBC television series segment “Love and Power” from All Watched Over By Machines of Love and Grace (2011), Adam Curtis, the critically acclaimed documentary filmmaker, explores the relationship between Ayn Rand and Allen Greenspan and the adoption of Rand’s “virtues of selfishness” as a national cult of ruthless assertion for power and affluence. Many moguls of the Silicon Valley adopted Rand’s unethical views that every man must be for themselves regardless of their impact on others. Indeed, it is no wonder that our entire country is built on the foundations of selfishness, and ultimately, a hyper-individualism that ignores our impact on others in order to increase financial gain and comfort. We look up to selfish people who make it in a capitalistic country that asserts “it’s a dog-eat-dog world.” It’s the American way. What we fail to realize is that these notions that have created smaller support systems and increased disengagement are very recent, and that most cultures have a more inter-connected and wide social system. I find it ironic that we take “detachment” from the East, a culture that values family and submission to community far more than we do here in the West. Once again, perhaps we lost something in the translation? We Westerners are good at picking and choosing what aspects of Eastern philosophy suit us best, leaving behind the rest. Yet, I see the above quote by the Dalai Lama and am reassured that the teachings of a spiritual tradition that values detachment do not, however, value isolation and indifference. Relationships and caring for one another is inevitable, critical, and most importantly, wonderful.

Rollo May touches on a similar theme in Love and Will (1969), explaining that although the Victorian era created a culture of self-sacrifice and prudence, the backlash of the 1960s in favor of individualism and freedom only created a culture of empty, meaningless interactions that never truly sated our need for true, deep encounters. It is no wonder that addiction became more prevalent as a result. People thought they were “liberated,” but really created a culture of interpersonal impoverishment. We had, as I would say, “fast food relationships” designed to instantly gratify us, and yet, all it really did was make us decadent, irresponsible, and ignorant of the damage done, that being a newer generation of adults left behind like used Big Mac containers on the ground, confused and hurt by infidelity and divorce. I experienced it in my own family, and can’t deny the impact. It is difficult to trust the integrity of a relationship when there are no models of people who understand that good relationships include pain, acceptance of another’s challenges and hard work, with the result being growth and joy. We don’t get an either-or on relationships. They take time and are a package deal. Any notion that we throw out the old one, and the new one will be better is, excepting abuse and addiction, just selling snake oil.

Dr. Bruce Perry, a groundbreaking neuroscience researcher, has aptly pointed out that as a species, human beings could not possibly have survived without relationships. We do not have long, sharp claws; strong sharp teeth and jaws; fast limbs; or powerful wings to carry us off. We have survived so long due to our ability to form bonds with a large clan: in essence, we have found our power in numbers. Because of this, Dr. Perry asserts that the brain is relational in nature. It is part of our genetic code to seek out relationships not only for nurturance, but also to strengthen our sense of survival. That is why when we feel a rupture in our attachments, we literally have a biological reaction. Our sympathetic nervous system is aroused, and adversely, it is an engaging and empathic human response that assists a distressed human being with engagement of the parasympathetic nervous system—the part of our neurobiology that relieves pain and restores a sense of balance and repair in our bodies. This is reinforced by the research on life expectancy and relationships, and literal reduction of stress upon exposure to painful stimuli when a warm and loving person is present and bearing witness to the person under stress or in pain. The originator of somatic experiencing for working with trauma, Steven Levine, teaches us that one of the greatest resiliency factors for healing trauma is having a loving witness present to listen to and validate our experiences.

Regarding ruptures in relationships, it is also important to note that relational distress is not necessarily caused by physical and verbal aggression. Emotional pain often entails an element of stonewalling and lack of responsiveness to a person who needs emotional support. In children, this lack of responsiveness creates great distress. The same can be said for adults. It is just as painful to be ignored and to have our emotional needs disqualified and dismissed as it is to have somebody come at us with anger. Some say that this form of disengagement is a passive aggressive, malicious act. I’m more inclined to believe that some people do this in an effort to lick their wounds and protect themselves, and yet true intimacy involves all emotions, including expression of anger and hurt. In fact, John Gottman (1999) determined in his research on “the four horses of the apocalypse” in conflict and commitment that emotional disengagement is a greater predictor of failure of relationships than is a healthy expression of anger. When a person is completely abandoned or consistently not responded to, there is no engagement at all. Once again, this attests to the power and importance of attachment and relatedness.

I write this article for a variety of reasons. As a passionate existential mental health practitioner, I have found that explaining this aspect of human existence to clients greatly alleviates their anxiety and helps them feel more “normal.” When I tell them, “no, you are not weak or an insecure person for wanting to reach out and be responded to: you are human and this spiritual need is grafted into your very biology,” there is a gained sense of trust and relief. The clouds lift and dignity is restored. People do not feel like a “less than” for their sense of grief, loss, and distress over the pain they feel in their relationships. Rather, they are able to reclaim their right to be in relationships that contribute to a dynamic sense of well-being. I am not saying that learning to take care of one’s self is nullified with this perspective. It is, indeed, critical for an adult to learn to take care of themselves. I do not believe in the pop culture mental health cliché “I am not responsible for your feelings.” However, I do believe that we at some point must take responsibility for how we manage our feelings, even if someone else has done something to create a painful emotional experience. If we are to actually be responsive to others, we must take care of ourselves. However, I refuse to ignore the very complicated paradox that highlights the importance of having supportive relationships in order to scaffold this ability to take care of one’s self. Responsibility is derived from having responsibility modeled for us, and to be responsible is to be not only committed to our agreements (e.g., co-workers, lovers, children, friendships), but to be able to respond. Resiliency theory states that the number one most important component that determines success as an adult is having at least one positive and supportive relationship to help mitigate the effects of adversity and trauma. This is what existential psychotherapy is about. The “in-between-ness” that Krug and Schneider speak of Existential-Humanistic Therapy (2010), or rather the attendance to what happens between the therapist and client, attests to the power of relationships and their primary necessity.

The second reason why I write this is because it is exciting to me that there is now evidence-based research that supports the notion that the therapeutic relationship is the most critical factor to therapeutic efficacy. The existential-humanistic model is somewhat a product of our reaction to empirically based thinking that lacks the nuances and romance of the human condition, and therefore we have been reticent to accept anything empirical, even when it supports our claims. We somewhat have cut off our nose to spite our face, and I believe this to be a mistake. Being integrative means to be dynamic and holistic. Rather than move from one end of the pole to the other, I would rather suggest that we are “adding to” and broadening our scope of competence and understanding. Let’s be inclusive and tip our hats to the other therapeutic models that support what we assert about relationship-based therapy. In addition, let’s accept any acknowledgement we may receive as a result. By building these bridges, we are modeling a form of relatedness on a larger scale that only reinforces what we already intuitively know—relationships are primary and critical to emotional health.

Third, I write this to challenge the popular culture on their new idealization around “detachment.” I am not saying that there is zero value in detachment, but just like my concern that some existentialists take an oppositional stance against anything empirical regardless of its advantages, I also feel concern that our new-found fascination with “detachment” is a polarized reaction to over-enmeshed models of relating that minimize and strip away the individual’s identity. This is creating another extreme and de-contextualized condition of relating that is causing an entirely new kind of damage (i.e., are we really detaching, or numbing?). I sometimes suspect that a re-languaging of the words “attachment” and “detachment” may help alleviate the problem (perhaps reaching out and reaching in?) and also encourage us to look at the two as conditions of being that are helpful in a variety of situations. As a pragmatist, I would say that we glean our wisdom by discerning which condition is called for when we assess the idiosyncrasies and context of certain situations, and determine the impact of our choices whether we decide we need to detach or attach. Either way, something inside of me feels circumspect any time a polarized way of being is promoted. That’s too black and white for me. I choose to advocate for something more balanced that supports a dynamic and depth-oriented range of behavior and experience.

Finally, I write this because it is a way I can “roll up my sleeves” constructively rather than “put up my dukes” in reaction to ideas about attachment, detachment, and notions of mental health that I personally feel are of great detriment to the public at large. Contrary to the cliché that a good therapist has some imaginally perfect life, I have had my share of adversity and crisis that has resulted in pain and frustration in relationships. We can’t plan everything, and there are times when things happen that require us to access every resource imaginable. There have been things that happened where the only access to self-care I had was a self-reminder that “this too shall pass” and a phone call to somebody who could help or just listen. In retrospect, I look back and see just how much I needed other people to provide assurance and support. Some people were able to be present and understanding, but some people judged me for not being able to “take care of myself” when things were so dire. It hurt me deeply and I will admit that I am still recovering from the understanding that some people will not step up and help because it is either not a part of their value system or they don’t have the capacity. However, I have learned something extremely valuable in this painful process: I value caring about other people more. They are not expendable, but rather priceless. I just will not take people for granted and I believe that part of becoming a responsible adult is to recognize and take responsibility for how we impact others. I have also been learning to let go of my old defense of “I don’t need anybody. I am totally self reliant.” That is illusory. Nobody is completely self-reliant, and to be able to humbly acknowledge one’s need for relatedness I now see as a strength, not a weakness. It is an existential acknowledgement of my mortality and participation in the human condition, and involves a humility that honors vulnerability and reinforces a greater capacity for intimacy. I have learned to recognize that if I feel hurt, scared, or angry when I am ignored or don’t have access to other people for support, it is not because I am insecure: it is because I am human. I tell my clients often, one of the greatest paradoxes inherent in overcoming our narcissistic defenses is that we find our strength by identifying and embracing our human frailty. I take great comfort in knowing this, and see the efficacy in sharing my thoughts with clients and the public at large about this. It helps people feel normal, and that is a good thing. So I close with this line from a favorite song:

“People who need people are the luckiest people in the world.” –Performed by Barbara Streisand (1964).


Curtis, A. (Director). (2011). Love and power [Television series episode]. In D. Crossley-Holland (executive producer), All watched over by machines of loving grace. London: BBC Productions.

Dalai Lama. (2002). Altruism and inner peace. In M. Craig (Ed.), The pocket Dalai Lama. Boston: Shambhala Publications.

Gottman, J.M., & Silver, N. (1999) The seven principles for making a marriage work. New York: Three Rivers Press.

Johnson, S. (2008). Hold me tight: Seven conversations for a lifetime of love. New York: Little, Brown & Company.

Levine, S. (1997). Waking the tiger: Healing trauma. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.

May, R. (1969). Love and will. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Perry, B. D. (2004). Maltreated children: Experience, brain development and the next generation. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Rogers, C., Gendlin, E., Kiesler, D., & Truax, C. (1967). The therapeutic relationship with schizophrenics. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Schneider, K., & Krug, O. (2010). Existential-humanistic therapy. Washington DC: American Psychological Association.

Styne, J., & Merril, B. (1964). People Who Need People [Recorded by Barbara Streisand]. On Funny girl soundtrack [Medium of recording: Vinyl]. Los Angeles: CBS Records.

— Candice Hershman

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