Emotional detachment is a psychological term that can refer to either a positive or a negative behavior. When emotional detachment is negative, it presents as an inability to really connect with other human beings; this person might remain emotionally unavailable in all relationships, even though he or she is physically present in the relationship, which can lead to problems. The second type of detachment, which is a positive psychological behavior, is the ability to recognize and empathize with other people's feelings without compromising one's own personal boundaries, emotions, or sense of self. The second practice is one that can be cultivated and improved upon, and can be beneficial to relationships, whereas the first is usually detrimental.
The first type of psychological emotional attachment may also be referred to as dissociation, depersonalization, or emotional numbing. Frequently, it will occur due to some sort of psychological trauma that was experienced in the past after the individual felt emotionally connected to another person. As a result of this trauma, the individual might consciously or unconsciously choose to protect himself or herself by refusing to allow a similar situation to occur. As a result, this person's behavior in a relationship can be quite frustrating to others, including family members.
People with emotional detachment will often experience the inability to connect to others in relationships. This may make it difficult for them to empathize with others, to share feelings, or to appear engaged in conversations from an emotional standpoint. They may seem to analyze situations intellectually and seem incapable of sharing feelings. Some will practice avoidance techniques, and may refuse to visit places where the trauma occurred, or may not want to develop relationships at all. These symptoms are more common when the emotional detachment is accompanied by some type of anxiety disorder; often, people will attend therapy for help with this type of behavior.
It is important to remember that emotional detachment, when discussed as a positive personality trait, is in no way similar to the dissociative behavior discussed above. Instead, these people are able to engage emotionally, share emotions and empathize with other people, but they are able to do so at a level that is not harmful to themselves. This is sometimes referred to as mental assertiveness, and is attributed to people with clear boundaries in their minds that they are able to maintain, even in stressful or highly emotional situations with others.