Emotional Detachment and Ambivalence

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Fear of Obligation

Ambivalence is the experience of having simultaneous conflicting thoughts and feelings. In the case of emotional detachment, the fundamental ambivalence is an authentic desire for greater intimacy on one hand and an extreme aversion to the potential obligations this greater intimacy will entail on the other.

These ‘obligations’ are not usually well-defined in the mind of the emotionally detached person but are more like ephemeral feelings that various crushing, unavoidable demands from the other will infringe upon time, upon personal space, and most importantly upon the heretofore carefully guarded inner emotional sanctum.

Potential Loss of Self

At its most psychological and probably least conscious the great threat behind the prospect of increasing intimacy is the loss of identity, the surrendering of independence, the dissolution of Self. While remaining emotionally detached from others is a painfully isolating and lonely experience it does offer the distinct advantage of virtually guaranteeing continued independence, of guaranteeing what emotionally detached people rationalize to themselves as ‘freedom’. We put freedom in quotations here because those who are emotionally detached are not free, they’re compulsively driven to keep their emotional distance from others even as they yearn for a greater sense of community and for more intimate relationships.

An Unfounded Fear

An idea that can help people confront and resolve the ambivalence we’ve been talking about here is that their fears are largely unfounded to begin with. While it’s of course true that intimate relationships place greater demands on time, space, Self, etc. these demands don’t have to be twenty four hours a day, seven days a week affairs. It’s still possible to carve out plenty of alone time or to decline an invitation for a get together, for example.

We have to remember that solitude is a healthy and necessary part of the human experience and should never be surrendered altogether. It’s just that the emotionally healthy person is able to enjoy spending time around people and enjoy spending time alone and does a lot of both, is able to connect fully with others when appropriate and to detach from others when appropriate. Resolving the fundamental ambivalence of emotional detachment starts with remembering the above, remembering that the courageous step to increase emotional intimacy with someone else, to display the soft emotional underbelly, does not have to signify the total loss of independence, individuality, or freedom. The unconscious fear might go something like “If I give them an inch they’ll take a mile.” But that’s a prediction without much good evidence behind it except for the primary trauma that occasioned emotional detachment as a life solution to begin with.