Emotional Detachment in Relationships
Throughout this book, Patchett showed us how these bonds were formed between the hostages and the terrorists. We start to see them as real people, with their own set of flaws, problems and little quirks. We learn to love them or dislike them based on the things the author reveals. As we immerse ourselves into their stories, we almost forget that they’re fictional characters. We become attached to the characters, even discussing what we like or dislike about them and which characters we like more or less. We forget that from the very beginning, Patchett revealed the tragic end. “Carmen forgot, too. She did not remember her direct orders to form no emotional bonds to the hostages.” So are we truly capable of being emotionally detached from others?
According to the Guide for Sociology of Health, Illness, and Health Care, emotional detachment has two meanings. “The first meaning refers to an ‘inability to connect’ with others emotionally, as well as a means of dealing with anxiety by preventing certain situations to trigger it; it is often described as ‘emotional numbing’ or dissociation, depersonalization….In the second sense, it is a type of ‘mental assertiveness’ that allows people to maintain their boundaries and psychic integrity when faced with the emotional demands of another person.”
Do we know people that are inherently emotionally detached? A population that is characterized by their emotional detachment is psychopaths. Their lack of empathy and inability to experience emotions the way we do yet their ability to convince others as ‘normal’ has attracted the interest of many psychologists and neuroscientists. Among these neuroscientists is Kent Kiehl, who specializes on the study mental illness found in incarcerated populations, especially psychopathy. He works with neuroscientist Joshua Buckholtz, who studies genetic risk factors that make people more predisposed to antisocial behavior and addiction problems. According to Kiehl, psychopaths are 25% more likely than non-psychopaths to go into prison. Together, they put together a forensic database on the brains of 1,000 psychopaths for examination with 15-35% of US prisoners being psychopaths. According to them, “their brains process information differently from those of other people. It’s as if they have a learning disability that impairs emotional development.” The causes of psychopathy are still difficult to discern because of the different factors that may contribute to this condition. Childhood maltreatment and negligence are examples of early developmental problems that leading to increased risks of depression, suicide, violence, drug abuse and crime. Yet there is not enough sufficient data to correlate these environmental factors to psychopathy. Neuroscience theories about what may cause psychopathy includes defects to the frontal lobes (responsible for reasoning and motor control) and decreased activity in areas of the brain involved in moral reasoning. Furthermore, there is a study that used a series of words that have positive, negative, or neutral connotations [1, 2]. This study observed the reaction of psychopaths versus non-psychopaths to words that have emotional content. Psychopaths take longer to recognize emotional content of a word. For instance, milk is positive, scar is negative, and gate is a neutral word . Researchers report that most of the brain activity in psychopaths mainly focuses more in cognitive processing rather than emotion. To me, this simply means that they can’t help but think more than feel. Kiehl even went as far as saying that psychopaths have “level heads but empty hearts.” Most psychiatrists try to help these people with therapy, however, some studies show evidence of traditional therapy making them worse. Kiehl indicated that none of the therapeutic methods (psychoanalysis, group therapy, client-centered therapy, psychodrama, psychosurgery, electroshock therapy or drug therapy) seems to work when treating psychopaths. Hopefully, more can be revealed about the causes of this condition in the future to give us a better understanding of psychopath people and even potentially take away the stigma of this condition.
But why do we consider emotion to be such an important factor in social behavior? This is a very interesting concept because it is difficult to understand what it’s like to lack emotional attachments. Furthermore, we are taught to think with empathy in order to build strong and healthy relationships with others. According to Kiehl, “so much of the way regular people make sense of the world is through emotion. It informs our gut decisions, our connection to people and places, our sense of belonging and purpose.”  Despite most of our different achievements in life, I think that most people would agree that connections are a big factor in how far we can go. I think that sometimes, our connections can be the foot in the door or the little push we need to get into our dream schools or dream jobs. As we grow up and start separating ourselves from our parents, we try to form a sense of identity and individualization. In doing so, we start to meeting new people and form ‘cliques’ with those we feel we have the most in common or feel a ‘connection’ with. A lot of this solely based on the amount of negative or positive emotions we may have towards certain people. We have more positive feelings for those we trust and keep close whereas we may be more indifferent or less amicable to those we have negative feelings toward. Throughout our school years we are encouraged to network and forming good relationships with people the people we see each day. Only through social interactions do we learn to become more self-aware, aware of other people’s, empathy and develop social skills/behaviors. We develop these skills to ‘belong’ and feel like we are a part of something bigger. In doing so, we can also inspire positive or negative emotion in other people.
Overall, I thought this topic was very eye opening because I don’t realize or often think that some people may not have the capability to feel emotions as strongly or understand their own and other people’s emotions as well as I do. I would like to further my research by looking more into how emotional detachment may affect romantic relationships and if it exists, how do they make it work? Also, I wonder if certain circumstances cause emotional detachment like PTSD due to their traumatic experiences? Also, does our occupation force us to feel the need to be detached from people (nurses, police, etc.) in order to do our jobs properly?
- Kiehl KA, Buckholtz JW. Inside the Mind of a Psychopath. Scientific America. 2010. 22-29.
- Kiehl KA, Hoffman MB. The Criminal Psychopath: History, Neuroscience, Treatment, and Economics. Jurimetrics. 2011; 51:355-397.
- Weitz R. The Sociology of Heath, Illness, and Health Care, 6th edition. Just the Facts101. Content Technologies, Inc. 2014.