Reading the Wikipedia article about Emotional detachment raised my eyebrow.

It says:

Emotional detachment is a maladaptive coping mechanism, which allows a person to react calmly to highly emotional circumstances. Emotional detachment in this sense is a decision to avoid engaging emotional connections, rather than an inability or difficulty in doing so, typically for personal, social, or other reasons. In this sense it can allow people to maintain boundaries, and avoid undesired impact by or upon others, related to emotional demands. As such it is a deliberate mental attitude which avoids engaging the emotions of others.

This detachment does not necessarily mean avoiding empathy; rather, it allows the person to rationally choose whether or not to be overwhelmed or manipulated by such feelings. Examples where this is used in a positive sense might include emotional boundary management, where a person avoids emotional levels of engagement related to people who are in some way emotionally overly demanding, such as difficult co-workers or relatives, or is adopted to aid the person in helping others.

(Emphasis mine)

This is weird, to say the least. First Wikipedia claims that emotional detachment is a maladaptive coping mechanism. Then it immediately proceeds to list its numerous traits that seem decidedly positive, if not even needed in certain situations. According to this description one could reason that emotional detachment is all but necessary for anyone thrust into extreme circumstances, as it enables such a person to react properly to such situations. Wikipedia itself stresses that this detachment is not forced upon an individual, but rather it just gives them new options how to react; the individual may chose to use or not to use this new option, depending on situation.

In this light it would even seem to be an important skill all those in extreme professions (such as soldiers at war) must eventually learn, as well as all those who are thrust into toxic relationships.

Then how is it maladaptive?

Am I failing to understand something obvious or is Wikipedia spitting out BS, as it often does?

  • $\begingroup$ Be aware that even Wikipedia themselves have highlighted at the top of the page you linked that "This article has multiple issues." Particularly, it lacks enough citations to back all claims within the article. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 13, 2022 at 4:20
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    $\begingroup$ While Wikipedia is useful as a guide, sometimes things get confused. I will write a more detailed answer when I have the time, but briefly, I think that a lot of the article is being confused with compartmentalisation. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 13, 2022 at 4:30

1 Answer 1


It may well be that the author miswrote, but if it was actually his intention to write "maladaptive" then the word could be interpreted as fitting its context in the following sense, highlighting detachment's abnormal or counter-intuitive aspect compared with 'normal' engagement:-

Maladaptive as in "not adjusting adequately or appropriately to the environment or situation." So 'appropriately' would be normal, engaged emotional response. Since the subject here is 'detached' (non-response) it is 'maladaptive' from a naïve perspective, as in not responding 'normally'.

Maladaptive. Latin male (adv.) "badly"; Late Latin adaptare "to adjust," from ad "to" + aptare "to join," from aptus "fitted". So, badly-fitted, abnormal, even if emotion detachment is actually for the best in a particular circumstance.

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    $\begingroup$ "Normally" or "adequately or appropriately"? These are two different things. Sometimes what is "normal" (ie most common? default?) reaction might not be adequate or appropriate for given circumstances? $\endgroup$
    – gaazkam
    Commented Dec 17, 2022 at 18:14
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, there's some possible ambiguity, but for a logical reading of the quote it can mean maladaptive as 'not what one would normally expect', but with a more detailed or nuanced view could be the quite the most appropriate response, on a higher level. For instance a surgeon not freaking out when a patient's artery ruptures would be 'supernatural' calm; the natural response being freaking out. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 17, 2022 at 18:27

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