The Rule of Disengagement

rules for disengagement

From Swords to Ploughshares

I’m noticing how often people get into arguments and tangles with each other. No one is listening, nothing is accomplished and everyone gets hurt. That’s really too bad. Here is one simple rule that will help.

When people get “squirely,” disengage.

I’m choosing the word “squirely” because it covers such a wide range of irrational or dysfunctional behavior. It might mean anger or accusations you don’t deserve, or clinginess that isn’t appropriate, or manipulation or ordering you around. Anything that isn’t “straight.”

And what do I mean by “disengage?”

1.  Disengage physically:  You might say, “This isn’t going anywhere, I’m going to go out for a bit,” and do just that. What’s important is that you put physical distance between you and the person who is not acting or talking right. In doing so, you break the interaction. But it is also important that you not do so in a threatening way. “I’m leaving forever.” would be extremely threatening. This is not about retaliation, but taking a break for a limited time from an interaction that isn’t going anywhere. Of course, more controlling partners may try to block you from leaving physically, but you can become like teflon without moving and that’s the what it means to:

2.  Disengage emotionally:  Al-Anon has a great phrase for this:  Detach with love. It means letting  go of any expectation of changing the other person or teaching them a lesson. Did you know that trying to change the other person is the main source of frustration, anger and pain? Once you let go of your wish to change the other person, you won’t feel those emotions. You won’t be tempted to “detach with anger” where you reject the other person in retaliation for their refusal to change.

Trying to change others is one of the most frustrating undertakings in the universe. Think of it the other way. How do you feel when someone takes it upon themselves to change you? We naturally steel ourselves to resist any such attempt. So if you truly relinquish your wish to do neurosurgery to the other person’s mind, then you won’t feel frustrated or angry. In fact, you will be more serene and interested in understanding. After all, the interaction started in the first place because one or both of you wanted to be understood, and understanding will naturally lead to empathy and caring and love.

So what does that mean in practical terms? It means listening first, because what the one who is not acting or speaking “straight” was really hoping for was that. Maybe you still can’t achieve understanding. Maybe someone is really blocked. You are still stuck. Then it’s time to detach with love. You become bland but civil. There will be no real exchange. It might sound like this: “I’m sorry I don’t think this is going anywhere and I don’t really want to argue.” Or, if that degree of clarity is going to trigger an argument, then it might be: “Yes, OK. I understand,” then silence. The other person: “What do you mean, don’t you have an answer?” You: “No, not right now, I don’t.”

Either way, by physical disengagement or emotional disengagement, you have let go of a conversation that was only going to increase the pain and damage. Having stopped before words were said that can’t be taken back or actions taken that couldn’t be forgotten, you can now wait a while and assess whether or when it might be possible to have a real exchange in which you each listen to one another and with the intent of understanding each other rather than changing anyone but yourself.

I recently heard an amazing example of the positive things that can come from disengagement or detach with love. A couple’s arguments had escalated to the point of verbal and physical violence. Finally, the wife was ready to let go of the marriage, but without hate. It was simply surrendering to the reality that things weren’t getting better and that living with the rage wasn’t good for either of them. As she let go (detached), her husband suddenly felt the loneliness and sought help. He he had been trying to change her with violence and she had been trying to change him. All it took was for one to let go, then the whole destructive machine came unglued.

PS:  I haven’t posted for a while because I am working hard on a new book called How We Heal and Grow:  The Power of Facing Your Feelings. I’ll keep you posted.  JS


  • I work with my clients all the time on the principle. It’s always fun to hear other people promoting the same ideas. Thanks for posting!

  • To avoid suffering we cultivate detachment. Being forewarned that attachment sooner or later entails sorrow, we want to become detached. Attachment is gratifying, but perceiving the pain in it, we want to be gratified in another manner, through detachment. Detachment is the same as attachment as long as it yields gratification. So what we are really seeking is gratification, we crave to be satisfied by whatever means. We are dependent or attached because it gives us pleasure, security, power, a sense of well-being, though in it there is sorrow and fear. We seek detachment also for pleasure, in order not to be hurt, not to be inwardly wounded. Our search is for pleasure, gratification. Without condemning or justifying we must try to understand this process, for unless we understand it there is no way out of our confusion and contradiction. Can craving ever be satisfied, or is it a bottomless pit? Whether we crave for the low or for the high, craving is always craving, a burning fire, and what can be consumed by it soon becomes ashes; but craving for gratification still remains, ever burning, ever consuming, and there is no end to it. Attachment and detachment are equally binding, and both must be transcended.

    • Here, detachment is presented not as a way to avoid pain or loss, but as a tool that can sometimes fix relationships that are not working. JS

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