Growing Up With Emotionally Detached Parents

emotionally detached parents

I live with my girlfriend in what you might call a mutual arrangement. It’s about all we can handle. Neither one of us wants to be married. We’re both successful career people. It works for us. That is until recently. Last week my girlfriend said she would like to have a baby. I half facetiously asked her, “Well I suppose you want one with me?” Many of her women friends were having their first child and she felt like odd person out. Now raising a child is at the bottom of my list. Neither one of us is into cuddling, even with each other, let alone with a baby. I’m terrified of anybody being dependent on me. I was raised in a household with no hugging, emotional displays or loss of control. We were given many good life lessons and expected to do well in school, all of which I followed. I am a success today because of those lessons. Except that sometimes I get depressed.

Being emotionally detached means not having strong feelings about people we are in relationships with. It is not always a bad thing. If we have to fire someone who is working under us it’s likely a very good thing. If we are forced to listen to our co-workers tales of woe nothing could be better than having things go in one ear and out the other. Even being close to a mate sometimes goes better if we are not hanging on to every word that is spoken to us. Being removed from another’s pain can allow us not to be overwhelmed and hold on to ourselves. Sometimes emotional detachment is a welcome protective mechanism.

However sometimes we get very hurt when others are emotionally distant from us. If we get together with a group of old friends and no one asks about us, our hearts can be broken as we wonder if anyone cares. We may feel like the group misfit if everyone else gets attention but us. Having our children and spouse not even recognize us when we come home may cause us to feel taken for granted or unwanted. Being seen as a role and not as a person by friends may cause us to feel invisible and unimportant even when we serve some useful purpose and are around others. Many of us feel the loneliness of a disengaged culture. We are lonely in a crowd.

Now imagine the hurt of being around emotionally detached people who call themselves our parents and we are too young to put words to our experience. We may have leaped into their arms only to be cast aside or scolded. In our earliest years many of us were severely wounded by our parent’s aloofness. We coped with these wounds by building an invisible wall around ourselves to never allow anyone to harm us again. Unfortunately these walls, while protecting us, have now eventually become our prison as we have difficulties today completely opening ourselves to love or offering love to others. Also we have trouble knowing and loving ourselves. We may be strangers to who we are today and not know how to affirm who we are. This harm often goes unnoticed in a busy, technological society.

Signals of emotional detachment

Aloof people are at best vaguely aware of their detachment. However, the following signals are likely indications of emotional distancing in past and present relationships:

  • Continual avoidance of eye contact, especially in emotionally charged moments
  • Overly intellectual use of language
  • Lack of facial expressions and flatness when addressing personal stress
  • Paucity of talk about personal friendships and their complexities
  • Spaciness and inability to stay present
  • Failure to get excited about anything
  • Emphasis on looking good, being morally correct or trying to impress
  • Hidden fear of emotional abandonment
  • Indifference to spiritual pursuits and self-reflection
  • Inability to explain personal feelings or recall significant emotional life events
  • Overly dramatic style that is lacking in substance
  • Disinterest in expressive arts: poetry, abstract art and soulful music
  • Few discussions of friends, relatives or personal turmoil
  • Willingness to look the other way when others are in pain
  • Abhorrence of clingy or emotional people
  • Diminished ability to reflect on oneself
  • Inability to trust others and receive consideration from others
  • History of chronic unexplained depression and anxiety

How does emotional distance harm us?

Growing Up With Emotionally Detached ParentsCertainly occasional distance between people may not hurt either one. When we don’t talk to old friends for some time we may readily take up where we left off the last time we were together. However, chronic aloofness between people is another story since we are all designed by evolution to be social creatures. In fact we define and regulate who we are by our emotional connections with others. If beloved others are constantly distant from us we can view ourselves as unlovable and undesirable no matter how much we tell ourselves otherwise. The pain of this is often unbearable. To experience this suffering all you have to do is momentarily turn your face away from an infant you are watching and have a relationship with. This is the core pain of the silent treatment. Undoubtedly you will turn your face back to the toddler once you hear his or her protest. This same pain occurs in us adults in our relationships. To cushion ourselves in emotionally detached relationships we develop a hardened self to others, we become less warm with others and we receive less warmth from others even when it is welcomed. Such deprivation may cause us to get depressed and experience chronic unexplained anxiety. We have unintentionally cut ourselves off from the main way we humans regulate anxiety: tender human relationships. Such wounds may last for years even when people are kind to us today.

Certainly a more serious type of harm may occur to us when emotional detachment happened in our childhood, perhaps even in years where we have no memory of it. Because childhood is our learning laboratory for life during key years of brain development, the hard wiring of our brains may have been traumatized by this emotional distancing, even when there was no harm intended by our parental supervision. This means that we have strong involuntary and repetitive physiological reactions to people we get close to. Children whose caregivers were generally aloof people, had post-partum depression, were mentally ill or abused alcohol may fit into this category. This trauma, if left unnoticed or untreated, can severely limit a person for life. Even understanding this fact alone may comfort us. Generally, the damage, like all forms of trauma, can be treated and changed with proper, extensive specialized help.

Cultural factors that contribute to emotional distancing

One of the greatest crimes of modern living is the increasing detachment that most of us live with. Parents are more attuned to their cell phones and i-pads than their beloved toddlers who are dancing around them for attention or else floating off to electronica in their own right. Seeing a group of teenagers sitting in a circle texting each other with no eye contact has replaced the engaged banter of teens making faces at each other. Trying to get a real person on a phone for assistance seems like a quaint and unattainable wish. Driverless cars have replaced cab drivers and all their banter. Social media, while having some redeeming value, oversells itself as the great people connector, despite depriving people of eye contact and physical affection, the crucial ways we humans convey warmth and meaning. All of this dehumanization is occurring at the same time that young people have massive epidemic levels of social anxiety and completed suicides. Culture, like a massive tsunami, sells us a bill of goods that make us less connected to each other and to ourselves. Few of us have the backbone to pick and choose what we embrace about our culture. Most of us don’t even ask the questions of when to opt in and when to opt out. Cultural savvy is a lost art.

Getting close when you’ve always been distant

Rather than just give you advice, let me talk about my story from zombie to human being. In my younger years I used to be a math nerd and was very good at it. I spent most of my time in the artificial world of academia. I thought I had it all figured out until I started having problems with girlfriends. I never saw how distant I was from them and then was repeatedly puzzled and frustrated when many of them dumped me despite my view of myself as a “good catch.” My head was fine but my heart was broken a lot more than I realized. So I signed up to do some volunteer work. I visited severely brain-damaged children in a local institution, many of whom lay on mats all day. Since I felt like such a privileged person I decided to connect with kids who weren’t so privileged.

Unconsciously I knew that I had something very important in common with these kids. It was anguishing to see these darlings at first. I cried the first time ,and almost every time afterwards seeing the kids. Over time it actually became fun visiting them. We pet rabbits and watched them hop around, and I sang songs to the kids. It was marvelous to see their eyes dance when I looked at them and their delighted faces when I walked in to see them. They made me smile. I loved these kids and never missed seeing them for a year. I realized that my heart was beginning to open and heal and that I needed to dedicate my life to people and not my career.

I finished my Ph.D. program in math, found a very warm psychotherapist and walked away from math, eventually finding the love of my life and continuing to do volunteer work. I feel like the luckiest person on the face of the earth to have these children heal my brain damage. I live with that joy and these children (and many others) inside of me every day of my life!


John H. Driggs, L.I.C.S.W., is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice in St. Paul and co-author of Intimacy Between Men (Penguin Books, 1990). He can be reached at 651-699-4573.

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