[ dee-kuh-thekt ]
/ ˌdi kəˈθɛkt /
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verb (used with object) Psychoanalysis
to withdraw one's feelings of attachment from (a person, idea, or object), as in anticipation of a future loss: He decathected from her in order to cope with her impending death.
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Origin of decathect

First recorded in 1955–60; de- + cathect


de·ca·thex·is [dee-kuh-thek-sis], /ˌdi kəˈθɛk sɪs/, noun
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2023


What does decathect mean?

To decathect means to detach yourself emotionally from a person or thing, especially one that you think you’re going to lose, such as a loved one who is dying. This is typically thought to be a coping mechanism to avoid or lessen the pain of losing a person or thing that you’re emotionally attached to.

Decathect is a formal term used in the context of psychology. It is the opposite of the verb cathect, which means to become emotionally invested in or attached to someone or something.

The process of decathecting is called decathexis.

Example: As my novel got rejected by publisher after publisher, I began to decathect from my dream of becoming a published author.

Where does decathect come from?

Decathect is a combination of the word cathect and the prefix de-, which indicates removal or negation (as in words like declutter and dehumidify). The root of both cathect and decathect is the Greek katéchein, meaning “to keep” or “to hold on to.” It was formed as a translation of the German besetzung, which was used by psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud to mean “a taking possession of.” (The word catharsis sounds similar and is also used in the context of psychology, but it comes from a different root, the Greek kátharsis, “a cleansing,” from the Greek katharós, “pure.”)

It’s fitting that cathect comes from a word meaning “to hold on to,” since that’s what we want to do to the people and things that we love. When we decathect, we start to let go—often preemptively. Someone might decathect from a dying loved one or pet, a friend who is moving away, or a life goal that doesn’t seem to be possible. This is often done to try to avoid emotional pain, but it can backfire. Many therapists will tell you that it’s healthier to fully go through the grieving process.

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How is decathect used in real life?

Decathect is a rarely used word. It’s a very formal, technical term that most people say in a simpler way, like detach or disengage.



Try using decathect!

Is decathect used correctly in the following passage?

When I was little and my dog got really sick, I started to decathect. I stopped playing with her so I wouldn’t miss it when she died. I regret not spending those last days with her.