Detachment in Friendship

A while ago I was talking to my spiritual director about some anxieties I was feeling in one of my friendships. This was a close friendship which had been tested by time (and by my own idiocy) but I was still having a hard time trusting that it would endure, and coping with the changes that were occurring in the friendship.

My spiritual director nodded and said, “It sounds like you’re ‘attached’ to this friend, in the sense that you’re relying on the friendship for your well-being. This isn’t a Christian approach. Only Jesus can always be there for you in the way that you need; what you want right now is understandable, but your friend really can’t give it to you. You need to be willing to let go. Maybe the friendship will fade away. Maybe you need to invest more in your other friendships, as this one changes. Whatever happens to you, you will be loved and sheltered–but by God, not by the specific other people you’ve picked out.”

That was tough to hear, as you can imagine. But I came to see that my priest was basically right. I did start to invest more in other friendships–and also give thanks for them more often. For the first time, I realized that when Jesus says we must hate mother and father, wife and children, and even our own lives, to follow Him, He is talking to me; I must be ready to live without the relationships which mean the most to me.

In a twist which will be unsurprising to anyone who has experienced attachment, the first friendship has only strengthened since I took a more detached attitude toward it. When we clutch at friendship our friends often feel clutched-at. Seeking friendship as a way to fill an emotional or spiritual need is a good way to lose friends: It’s an egocentric approach, albeit often unconsciously so; it occurs when we view friendship as medicine (even when it’s medicine for the soul) rather than a site of mutual self-gift.

Gay people in the churches often need to defend our right to pursue intimate friendships. You guys know that I am a firm believer in friendship as a form of love, a form of kinship, a vocation as true and rich as any other.

But just as marriage isn’t about Pac-Man finding his missing piece, so devoted, intimate friendship can’t be about solving the problem of the self. (And see this related reflection on “completionism” in celibate partnerships.) It’s worth noting that we do need to practice detachment in our friendships: the willingness to give them up or live without them, to live for God alone. This places friendship on the same plane as familial relationships and even personal survival. It’s not a denigration of friendship.

Wes’s new book is super (more on this from me soon); I don’t know if he would agree with this assessment, but it’s possible to describe one of its narrative arcs as the movement from attached friendship to detached. (I hope it’s clear that “detached” friendships can be intimate, adorned with promises and blessings, and emotionally powerful.) Wes gives a brave and moving depiction of a friendship which became an attachment for him. He’s so open about the fact that intimate love is one of our needs–the fact that we need it is not something to be ashamed of–and we often fall into attachment not out of selfishness, but simply due to a tragic mismatch between our needs and the ability of the one we love to meet those needs.

Needing love is human. Giving all the love we need is only the province of the Divine.

21 thoughts on “Detachment in Friendship

  1. This is… pretty much spot on for one of my friendships the past couple of months. Thank you for articulating and affirming the conclusion I had finally come to on my own about needing to practice some detachment and giving more appreciation for other friends in my support network. I hope I will be able to witness the strengthening of that friendship in the way you did, but even if I don’t, I try to remember this: when I was wailing once, “But what if this friendship doesn’t last??” (I couldn’t decide at that point if I really wanted it to or not, honestly), God reminded me, “You don’t know what will happen tomorrow, much less in two months, a year, five years. But I do. And when you get to those times, I will *still* be watching out for you and loving you and loving your friend, wherever the two of you are. So what I ask of you *today* is to trust Me and to love your friend well.”

  2. I understand the primary point of this post, but I do have concern about some of the terminology. It does not seem to do enough to separate healthy emotional dependence from unhealthy emotional dependence. It seems to imply at times that “dependence” itself is a problem and that “we only need God” (as the cliche goes). Consider these statements:

    “You’re relying on the friendship for your well-being”. The implication here is that we do not need to rely on others for our well-being. And yet, we do. We were created as social creatures and we will become mentally ill, physically sick, or even die without relying emotionally on other people. It is essential to well-being.

    “Attached” is used in a negative sense, while “detached” is used in a positive sense. This implies that being attached to someone is a problem. These concepts have different connotations in popular parlance that the likely Ignatian meaning the spiritual director gives. To be emotionally “detached” is generally not a healthy thing. Interpersonal attachment is important for human flourishing. I would recommend using the alternative phrase “inner freedom” which is a phrase that captures the Ignatian meaning of detachment without the confusion in terms.

    “Seeking friendship as a way to fill an emotional need.” Of course, we seek friendships to fill emotional needs and that is entirely appropriate. Relationships are *supposed* to meet an emotional need. That is not the same thing as being emotionally enmeshed or co-dependent such that one is “clutching.” But in this case, the appropriate terminology should be “co-dependency” or the like.

    “Only Jesus can always be there for you in the way that you need.” This sounds like the old cliche. We only need Jesus. But that is not true. We do need others. I understand this statement is trying to say that because human beings are fallible we will be disappointed at times. But, we should in fact expect and cast a vision for faithful friendships that we can rely on. To be concerned that a friendship might not endure is a legitimate concern. We should be able to rely on our friends. The fact that we might worry that there is not enough food doesn’t mean we say we become detached from food in order to alleviate the problem. Rather, we rightfully lament and continue to seek toward a better way.

    Also the use of Scripture to say we should leave our family is taken out of context. There is a certain historical context in which Jesus’s disciples were going to experience rejection from family based on their allegiance to Jesus. We should never “live for God alone.” If we did we could not fulfill the second commandment to love our neighbor. For Jesus, living for God meant he had 12 close friends with him 24/7 and his brothers and his mother were often around. He did not give up his relationships to live for God.

    Anyway, again, I understand the intent of this post, but the haziness of some of the phrasing and terminology is problematic to me. It too closely resembles common bad teaching and cliches. Using “attachment” and “detachment”–especially without explaining their definitions can lead to connotations not intended. And even with definitions, I think they are best avoided and other more helpful terminology like “inner freedom” used instead.

    • Karen,

      I share your concerns. I’m a long-time reader of Eve’s blog and have been thinking about this article all day. I’m glad to see that I am not the only reader who was troubled by this article.

      The way the article is written (and I realise I may be interpreting Eve’s words incorrectly), it sounds as though the Spiritual Director is saying that any degree of emotional and/or spiritual interdependence between two friends is “un-Christian” and that he means this as a doctrinal statement (or in Catholic terms, a dogmatic statement) as opposed to just his personal opinion. Although the priest is entitled to his opinion, I am not aware of anything in either sacred scripture or sacred tradition that would support this idea as doctrinal. In fact, taking even a sola scriptura approach, a glance at a single verse, Matthew 26: 40, would suggest the priest is fundamentally wrong.

      The priest’s statement to Eve sounds more like something one would read in the work of Abraham Maslow or Carl Jung, or hear for that matter on the “Dr Phil Show,” than it does anything you would read from the Church Fathers, the saints, or from great Christian minds (like Lewis, Tolkien, Chesterton, Kierkegaard, Bonhoffer, Von Hildebrand et al). It comes across as an attempt to graft a very culture-bound, almost gnostic belief rooted in 20c Western psychology onto a 2,000 year-old religion and imply it applies to every single Christian believer who ever lived, from the martyrs of the Reformation on both sides (Catholic and Protestant), the martyrs of the French revolution, the persecuted Christian church in China and the Middle East today, to Irish Catholics who held to their faith during times of intense religious persecution – and every other type of Christian in between. I can’t speak for any of these people, but I am sceptical that most Christians who lived through such times would agree with this priest’s statement about belief in interdependence being an un-Christian approach.

      The priest is entitled to his opinion, but for those of us who don’t share his view on this subject, to be labelled by implication as un-Christian for holding a contrary view is, in my view, troubling to say the least. But perhaps this priest is just much more “self-actualised” than I could ever hope to be 😉

      • Hello all! Karen, thanks for your thoughts. I agree that humans are, in Alisdair MacIntyre’s phrase, “dependent rational animals.” Our dependence on one another is lovely (and can teach us dependence on God) and not something to be ashamed of or fled from. At the same time, if you’ve reached a point where you feel you can’t go on without another person, or you place responsibility for your own emotional and spiritual well-being on that person, or various other markers of “attachment” (this is something you can only discern for yourself), it may be helpful to recall yourself to your ultimate dependence on God–and His unfailing, all-encompassing fidelity to you.

        As far as language goes, I tried to be really clear in this post that I was speaking within a context where we all agree that intimate, devoted friendship is a good. I definitely agree that many people have misused language of “attachment” as a way of scolding gay people for having deep, loving friendships. That doesn’t mean attachment doesn’t exist, you know?

        I’m not sure there’s any language which will work for everyone and give nobody the wrong impression. The things which strike you as cliched were what I needed to hear at the time, and I continue to find them pretty powerful. By contrast I’ve seen “co-dependent” misused in addiction/recovery circles much as you’ve seen “attached” misused, to denigrate sacrificial love, so I have an immediate negative reaction to it. That doesn’t mean it’s the wrong word to convey what we’re talking about, just that there are some people (like me!) for whom it won’t do much good.

  3. Karen, those are some good points to consider. Those words do often carry connotations that are far different from what I’m certain is the intent of this post.

    Granted, I’m an evangelical myself, so there’s often quite a bit of distance between me and the language that’s used in Catholic circles, but I think I clearly understand what Eve is and isn’t saying about attachment. But that is only because of a familiarity with the *kinds* of things that Eve writes, and the overall beliefs about friendship that she and other SF writers share (something she alludes to in her post). But for a larger audience, I do think the words could use a little clarification.

    That said, it’s very difficult, in the scope of a blog post, to address every conceivable misunderstanding that may arise from one’s word choice. I suppose that’s what the comment section is for.

    • Mike, I should also add that the concept of “emotional dependency” has a lot of baggage from the ex-gay movement, wherein strong emotional connections to the same-sex (even if healthy) were viewed with suspicion. So, I think language is important even when addressing those who are gay.

      • Karen,

        As regards the idea of “emotional dependency,” it is interesting – and poignant – to compare the following two statements:

        “Whatever happens to you, you will be loved and sheltered–but by God, not by the specific other people you’ve picked out.” — Eve’s spiritual director

        “It is in the shelter of each other that people live.” — Old Irish Proverb

  4. I “like” this post as much as I don’t want to like it. I have seen the damage of dependency and attachment, but it is so difficult to give up the connection I desire in my friendships. Furthermore, if your premise of attachment to an individual is not healthy from a Christian mindset, how does this transfer over to marriage? I agree that Christ needs to be the fulfillment, but I am guessing there would be major pushback from married folk who would claim the “one-flesh” mindset calls for attachment.

  5. Good post. Friendships have a natural rhythm you never really lose a friend but sometimes they go in another direction and that is when you need to practice letting go. This is the message I got from Eve’s post. As well friendships are forged in different circumstance such as a trial or through periods when you need them because of the gifts they bring to you personally. I think we need to learn to recognize when a friend may need to grow and excel in other beautiful ways and they need other people alongside them during those times. Missing a friend is difficult though but it will make the joy of connecting with them again that much more joyful. 🙂

  6. Yes. Thank you, Eve. As helpful as I find this community and its inquiries to be, this reality was the unsettling missing piece that I couldn’t quite put my finger on.

    No one (wife, friend, or group of friends) under the sun was created to completely satisfy our deepest longings for intimacy. This reality does not diminish our loves, but rather increases their longevity, health and beauty.

    I’ve experienced that when I “need” my spouse in order to survive (emotionally, spiritually, mentally), I have given them a position above what they can bear, let alone fulfill. But when I seek attachment in God alone, it frees me to love in a cruciform way, seeking the other’s good without the essentiality of reciprocity.

    As the good C. S. Lewis wrote, “When first things are put first, second things are not suppressed but increased.”

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  8. Well, this was timely. It expressed a lot of the same thoughts I’d shared in an email to a friend last week. Coincidentally, the same friend I’d often been quite angry with for warning me against excessive attachment to a couple of others, because I misunderstood her right up to the moment I understood.

    Ditto for that section in Wes’s book, which I read about three weeks ago. It so echoed my experiences over the past two years, and he was so open and real, that there were times I saw myself in it so clearly that I couldn’t help but laugh, cringing. It called to mind the time I was standing outside our church with the aforementioned friend, and she suggested I try to be dignified in the face of the loss of a friendship. I burst into tears and told her, “I have no dignity.” Easily the most pathetic I’ve ever been, and that’s saying a lot! The turning point was when she didn’t recoil from my grossness but responded with, “You do not exist for other people. You exist to return your soul to God.”

    I’d probably heard thousands of variants of that, but it has stuck with me. Without that loss, which forced me to take her words to heart, I don’t think I would ever have come to embrace celibacy, instead of just grudgingly going along with it. Even if I’d gone from hoping something would change someday and I’d marry and be all tra-la-la happy forever, to exchanging that vision for one in which friendships would satisfy me, I’d have been as unhappy as I’ve always been. My prayers aren’t all beggy-pleady anymore; neither is what I expect from others. Like the comments indicate, though, it’s a hard thing to capture in words. I hold love more lightly now and am not terrified I’m throwing it away…? I’m not preoccupied with what will become of me. I don’t mourn for things that haven’t happened yet, and am (I hope) less likely to go insane with grief when they do. Something like that.

    I don’t think it’s so much this weird bodiless, souls-in-a-vacuum idea that Jesus is all we need as it is a trust that He knows what we have need of; sometimes it will look different than what we want. People will let us down; they will choose wrong (so will we). But much like those times when things–financially, say–look really bad, and at the last possible moment work out, I look back to how like that it’s been when I’ve met a couple of my friends. When my best friend and I were introduced, I had the immediate thought, “This one is important. You will love her.” So I added her to my daily prayers. We only chatted briefly a few times after that, till her husband passed away a year later. By the time I needed to love her, I already did. I can’t imagine a less likely match–I’m 29, she’s 57, she has two children several years older than I am, and three much younger. Several grandchildren, too. But God knew what we had need of–and one of the greatest fruits of my celibacy has been that I both recognize loneliness and wasn’t one of the people who was too busy to write her family into my life permanently. I would be devastated to lose her–and if we both live normal lifespans, I will have to one day. But my actual sanity doesn’t hinge on her like it has on others at times. I love her the more for that, or at least more maturely. Like the difference between a baby at the breast, who knows only need, and an adult child who has grown to know her mother as a separate being.

  9. I’ve been thinking for a few days about whether to comment here.

    I can’t help but wonder whether there isn’t some implicit Freudian assumption at the root of this admonition, i.e., the notion that all attractions–whether emotional, aesthetic, intellectual, etc.–are, at their root, a desire for sex.

    If we accept that premise, then we do seem to have two choices: (a) nuclear family, where we seek to find all of our attractions satisfied by a spouse, and we flee any kind of attraction toward third parties; and (b) a sterile celibacy, where I seek to avoid making any kind of interpersonal connection with other people. I have a hard time accepting the notion that my being gay must necessarily doom me to a life that takes on the appearance of a self-imposed solitary confinement.

    Again, this is why I reject the Side B approach, even while I reject the Side A acceptance of sodomy.

  10. I really liked this post by Eve. When I first read it a few weeks ago, I found it to be a helpful reminder of things I knew in my head but not as much in my heart. But yesterday, due to some difficulties with my health, I was in a place where I spent some quality time with God through journaling. This allowed some of these truths to move from my head to my heart.

    During that time, I was able to confess to God that I had turned a close friend of mine into an idol. And I was able to own the fact that this wasn’t the first time I had idolized a friend. I was also able to reflect on what idolatry can look like in friendship. The verse where Jesus demanded hatred of father, mother, etc came to mind and so I concluded that that unless my love for my friend is actually hatred in comparison with my love for God, my friend has become an idol to me.

    I also reflected on how Jesus approached friendship, both with his Father and with created human beings. His friendship with his Father was by far what mattered most to him. This is reflected in how often he spoke of his Father and how much time he spent in prayer to him. Yet at the same time, Jesus shows us what it means to have intimate and deeply emotional friendships with created human beings. His weeping over Lazarus and his particularly close friendship with John beautifully demonstrate the love he had for particular friends.

    I would personally prefer we use the language of idolatry rather than attachment/detachment, but besides that minor point, I am thankful that Eve shared this thoughtful post. May God grant us the grace to be more like Jesus in our friendships.

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