The Betrayal of Disengagement: Reloaded

I wrote this post for another blog a little over a year ago, but I want to post it here, too, because I continue to get comments on this post–Affective Deprivation Disorder and Alexithymia in Marriage.  Out of hundreds of posts, that post is by far the most read and commented on, and the crux of the comments seems to be founded upon relational neglect and the subsequent emotional and psychological fallout.  I thought that a more personal narrative along with a fresh description of what often underlies the pain of specific relational problems might be helpful in terms of elucidating why we often get in our own way.  If we can’t name it, then we can’t regulate it.  Once we know what’s actually going on within us and within our relationship, then we’ve got a shot at progressing.  And, that produces hope.


You can’t end a nearly 20-year relationship and not feel it.  There is fallout.  I don’t miss him.  I am actually incredibly thankful for that.  When I ended it, I no longer felt love.  I wanted to move on with my life.

Moving on, however, happens in fits and starts, and, for me, it is due to personal pain.  I am not looking back with nostalgia because I don’t feel nostalgic.  What I do feel is fear.  I am anxious about the future based upon my past experiences.  I sat down today and began a functional analysis of myself.

I therapized myself.

“Tell me, Jules, what triggers this fear in you?”

I have suddenly become very anxious and fearful at night.  It just happens.  Almost panicky.  Sometimes the panic carries over into the morning.  So, what is the function of my panic?

I sat at my table and pondered it.

“Well, I acutely feel alone at night.  It’s just me and Busheen.”

Who is Busheen? This is Busheen.


Busheen is a knock off of Pusheen.  This is Pusheen.


Busheen sits on my bed.  Eadaoin gave her to me to keep me company.  Everyone talks to Busheen like she’s sentient.  Even my boyfriend.  When he’s here he’ll say, “Get out of my spot, Busheen,” and Busheen goes flying.  My daughters come into my room and cry on Busheen.  The little girl next door knocks on our door, runs into our house and straight to my bedroom just to grab Busheen and carry her around the house.  Busheen’s got somethin’, but Busheen is no substitute for human interaction.  I feel alone at night, and Busheen doesn’t help me with that.

As soon as I got in touch with that distinct flavor of “aloneness”, I was overcome with the power of that emotion.  It was sheer pain.  I couldn’t even coach myself through it.  I just started sobbing.  I did, however, remember this:

“When we think about betrayal in terms of the marble jar metaphor, most of us think of someone we trust doing something so terrible that it forces us to grab the jar and dump out every single marble. What’s the worst betrayal of trust you can think of? He sleeps with my best friend. She lies about where the money went. He/she chooses someone over me. Someone uses my vulnerability against me (an act of emotional treason that causes most of us to slam the entire jar to the ground rather than just dumping the marbles). All terrible betrayals, definitely, but there is a particular sort of betrayal that is more insidious and equally corrosive to trust.

In fact, this betrayal usually happens long before the other ones. I’m talking about the betrayal of disengagement. Of not caring. Of letting the connection go. Of not being willing to devote time and effort to the relationship. The word betrayal evokes experiences of cheating, lying, breaking a confidence, failing to defend us to someone else who’s gossiping about us, and not choosing us over other people. These behaviors are certainly betrayals, but they’re not the only form of betrayal. If I had to choose the form of betrayal that emerged most frequently from my research and that was the most dangerous in terms of corroding the trust connection, I would say disengagement.

When the people we love or with whom we have a deep connection stop caring, stop paying attention, stop investing, and stop fighting for the relationship, trust begins to slip away and hurt starts seeping in. Disengagement triggers shame and our greatest fears—the fears of being abandoned, unworthy, and unlovable. What can make this covert betrayal so much more dangerous than something like a lie or an affair is that we can’t point to the source of our pain—there’s no event, no obvious evidence of brokenness. It can feel crazy-making.

We may tell a disengaged partner, “You don’t seem to care anymore,” but without “evidence” of this, the response is “I’m home from work every night by six P.M. I tuck in the kids. I’m taking the boys to Little League. What do you want from me?” Or at work, we think, Why am I not getting feedback? Tell me you love it! Tell me it sucks! Just tell me something so I know you remember that I work here!

With children, actions speak louder than words. When we stop requesting invitations into their lives by asking about their day, asking them to tell us about their favorite songs, wondering how their friends are doing, then children feel pain and fear (and not relief, despite how our teenagers may act). Because they can’t articulate how they feel about our disengagement when we stop making an effort with them, they show us by acting out, thinking, This will get their attention.

Like trust, most experiences of betrayal happen slowly, one marble at a time. In fact, the overt or “big” betrayals that I mentioned before are more likely to happen after a period of disengagement and slowly eroding trust. What I’ve learned about trust professionally and what I’ve lived personally boils down to this:

Trust is a product of vulnerability that grows over time and requires work, attention, and full engagement. Trust isn’t a grand gesture—it’s a growing marble collection.” (Brown, Brene. “Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead.”)

This is exactly what happened to me in my marriage.  In retrospect, he never was truy engaged, but over the years it grew worse until he may as well have been completely absent.  I kept asking him what I could do.  “Nothing.”  What had I done wrong? “Nothing.”  Why did he not like me? “You’re fine.”  Why did he find me so unattractive?  “I don’t.”  Why did he stop paying attention to me? ::insert blank stare::  I felt positively unlovable and invisible.  I tried everything.  I tried to be perfect in all things.  I diminished until there was nothing left.  Until I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease.  And I felt so alone.  All the time.  I wanted to understand what I had done to cause him to want to have nothing to do with me, but I was afraid.  I was afraid that he would tell me, “Well, it’s you.  It’s not that you’ve done anything.  It’s just that you are definitively unlovable.  You can’t do anything to fix what is true.  You are impossible to love because there is nothing in you that merits it.  This is why I ignore you.  This is why I don’t like you.  You’re just…you.  You don’t deserve love.”

That was my fear.  I was trying desperately to disprove what I feared but what his actions seemed to emphasize.  As Brené explains, “Or at work, we think, Why am I not getting feedback? Tell me you love it! Tell me it sucks! Just tell me something so I know you remember that I work here!” This is how I felt in my marriage: “Tell me you love me.  Tell me you hate me.  Just tell me something so that I know you remember I live here.”

A profound ontological insignificance began to take root and bloom in me spreading throughout my psyche like an invasive botanical species.  It is very hard to uproot.  It is very hard to fight.  It is completely natural to feel alone from time to time.  Loneliness is part of the human experience.  What I have noticed, however, is that when I feel lonely, I feel ontologically invisible.  As if I could disappear existentially and leave no footprint.  Furthermore, it wouldn’t matter.  This is a learned response.  A triggered response.  And, I can unlearn this.

Brené is right: “Disengagement triggers shame and our greatest fears—the fears of being abandoned, unworthy, and unlovable.”

If you have experienced anything like this in your life, then I would encourage you by telling you that you’re not alone in your experience.  Knowing this, connecting the dots, is how we heal.  Gaining insight into why our emotional experiences are so powerful is how we develop momentum and progress after major life events like break-ups and divorces.  It’s also how we retrain our brains to think differently.  Just because someone else stopped showing up for us doesn’t mean we are not worthy of showing up for.  Trust and vulnerability are hard.  Understanding how to recover and heal after we are betrayed is necessary so that we can go on to be vulnerable and trust again.

And, because I think this is helpful and promotes vision:

What does full and loving engagement involve? At the risk of minimizing an engaged relationship to a list, here’s a list:

  • understanding and embracing the other’s vulnerabilities, weaknesses, and pain;
  • helping and supporting the other to grow beyond those and feel safe and loved;
  • a willingness to share your own vulnerabilities, weaknesses, and pain;
  • active and reflective listening;
  • emotionally mature communication and conflict resolution;
  • physical and emotional presence;
  • proactive efforts to reconnect through fun, play, shared interests;
  • proactive efforts to stay connected when physically separated;
  • consciously placing the relationship in high priority over work, hobbies, and other life distractions;
  • a willingness and desire to grow as a person, to seek personal evolution, and to invite the other person to grow and share with you in this
  • a willingness to forgive and ask for forgiveness. (The Insidious Poison of Disengagement in Your Relationships)


8 Comments on “The Betrayal of Disengagement: Reloaded

  1. Wonderful and insightful post. I can definitely relate to that fear of being unlovable and that there is something wrong with me that makes me unworthy based on previous experiences. You’re right – it is incredibly hard to trust again and be willing to be vulnerable. Thank you for this post. Wish you all the best – speak766

    • Thank you for reading and for commenting as well. I read a few of your posts, and I can say that I understand–particularly the post about your experiencing judgment from your parents for not being “over” past abuse. My family, what little I have, has been judgmental about my divorce asking me why I did not press charges against my ex if he had, in fact, abused me. It is very painful to say the least, and I’m sorry that you have experienced that. I had two major surgeries as a result of my ex’s physical abuse and still…I seemed to lack credibility. People still find a way to blame me.

      I don’t know if this will make a difference for you, but I suspect that people participate in victim blaming because they must find a way to explain the violence and injustice of the act in order to better organize and predict outcomes. If you or I had deserved it (as if we could), then VOILÀ, the abuse is explained neatly. If we can’t get over it in a timely manner that makes other people feel good about their own inner and outer lives, then there must be something wrong with us, hence, judgment. BUT, if there is no good explanation for our life experiences, then there is no way to predict who will be hurt and who won’t be. And, this is the thing that people are trying to do–anticipate and predict pain and suffering. And, no matter how people try, they cannot solve the problem of suffering. No matter how good their theodicy is. No matter how generous or kind or deserving of mercy or innocent they are. People are mistreated. Bad things happen to good people. Bad people make promises and don’t keep them. Good people are duped and betrayed, and bad people get away with criminal acts. It is an aversive thought to almost all people, and the symbol of that sort of injustice is the victim of every sort of injustice. And so…the victim is blamed, stigmatized, and metaphorically run out of town. Why? Because if we can’t punish victimizers, then we punish their victims.

      It is wrong. It is tragic. It is a base, human urge–to distance oneself from the symbol of suffering and evil.

      It is not, however, true or real. You are still you. I am still me. Eventually, we heal. And we are no longer victims. And, 2 years after ending my marriage, I can say that I’m not afraid of my ex anymore. It gets easier. It really does. Keep going. You’re strong.

      • Hi MJ, I couldn’t agree with you more. People blame the victim to try to explain these bad things and make them more palatable. As you say, when there’s no explanation, there’s no way to feel safe because there’s no predicting. Thank you for responding and for your encouragement. Wish you all the best ❤ speak766

  2. Wow! This post really speaks to me.

    Like many people I found your blog from the alexithymia in marriage post. I shared my story there over a year ago and I have thought often that I would like to leave you another message to let you know how profound your empathy and wisdom has been to me! Your words were so healing—a strong, warm hand suddenly clasped to mine—unexpected and pulled me to a firmer patch of ground. And now I’m climbing the mountain in sunlight! I am doing so much better now.

    I still come back to your site and tonight I read this older post. I think it explains something that I’ve really been grappling with. My marriage exploded exactly two years ago, led to an acute breakdown on my part and about six months of couples counseling (and treatment for me, and treatment for him) before he abruptly reversed his commitment and severed our relationship. Here’s what I have been struggling with: why was this experience so deeply traumatizing to me? I nearly lost myself. I suffered through months of anxiety so acute I physically broke down. My husband was not physically or emotionally abusive. We didn’t even have… verbal conflict. The best way I can describe it is that reality seemed to be coming apart at the seams. I want to say now, in hindsight (I wouldn’t have described it this way at the time) that he was an android whose operating system began to malfunction. So my reality got kind of glitchy. This was understandably upsetting, I suppose—but why did I put up with behavior from him that was so utterly unacceptable? I was well aware that it was deeply unacceptable (mostly his continued engagement with his BPD “mistress” who is so destructively manipulative she’d be an unrealistic movie villain). But I was just desperate to keep him, keep us, repair something that I was so afraid to lose I couldn’t even look at the option of losing it in the face. After the six months of barely surviving the turmoil of discovering the affair and this vile lunatic rearranging my life, I barely survived the months after he left me. This trauma really challenged my self-conception as a “strong” person. Obviously that has something to do with ego but I think there’s a more important question buried in there.

    I finally worked it out with my therapist that my fear was fear of being alone. It sounds so plain and obviously now but believe me that was a breakthrough. I think it was so hard for me to figure out because I am someone who is independent to my core and I love to be alone. This is still true.

    So that was my fear, being alone. I can recall how the panic and horror of that feeling would wash over me when I really faced it, when he left. Like in a nightmare, wooosh! the ground sweeps away from you and you’re teetering out in nothing. Deepest worst terror. I continue to turn this discovery over in my mind… why was my fear SO great? How did I come to have such gut-dropping fear of being alone? In my twenties I was not this person. But I acquired this fear. How, why? It keeps niggling at me, it seems like an important question.

    I think this post gives an answer. His disengagement over time instilled that fear in me without my knowing. This is just how it happened. I’ve never viewed his behavior as disengagement, exactly, but that’s what it is. Up to the affair discovery, there was “no obvious evidence of brokenness” but the disengagement was becoming more and more definite. MJ you suggested a diagnosis of covert schizoid for him and BOY did you nail it. He is extremely bright, genuinely good-natured and sort of academically, intellectually liberal/progressive/generous… but totally alexithymic, it turns out, and only rudimentary, dysfunctional nubs where his cognitive and emotional empathy should be. He looked like a good partner from every angle and my relationship seemed good from every angle… but we didn’t check a single one of those items on the “loving engagement” list. He would say all the things I think he wanted to be true—which were what I wanted to hear—but just disengage further. I’m certain he didn’t even realize he was doing it. I believe his ability to compartmentalize began to destroy his ability to make proper memories. So for me this was a real mindf**k obviously and frog in pot on the stove, etc. Such that when things exploded, I had drifted so far from a secure place that I was just paralyzed with terror of being alone.

    I’m going to try this one on with my therapist this week… it feels like it fits.

    MJ, someone commented on another post, “you have an extraordinary noggin.” Boy ever. You are marvelous, you’ve touched my life in a big way, and I am just warmed and happy knowing a person such as yourself is amongst us on this earth. My best wishes to you.

    • This description that you have so graciously put forward of an existential fear of being alone is something that plagued me for about two years after my ex-husband moved out. I felt like it stalked me, and I was utterly shocked that it was there much like you describe. I, too, used to be an extremely independent woman. I traveled the world alone. I lived alone. And I did it somewhat fearlessly. And then…everything changed, but it changed with a slow creep until I was hardly myself. I didn’t recognize me anymore. Just as you describe.

      I have contemplated this fear quite a bit, and I have joked about it in my moments of despair as well: “I’ll end up alone. My cats will eat me. Someone will find me with no face or fingertips. They’ll have to use dental records to ID me…” After getting past the revulsion of feeling this ontological fear of aloneness, I thought about it. I think it is not so much about physical aloneness. I think that this is about being known and believing that one is experiencing existential and ontological intimacy and truly being seen by another human being in a truly meaningful and significant way. And, when that is lost or when one finds out that perhaps they never really were? The feelings of grief, betrayal, feeling duped and tricked, and the utter disillusionment of the entire realization pushes you into an abyss of terror. It is the definition of abandonment, and humans are primates. Primates will do just about anything to stay with their group. A lone primate is a dead primate, and humans do know this. So, the fear of being alone is about dying and experiencing the potential of dying. And it is scary AF. The crux of it all is also really hard to get to because sometimes parents, teachers, and other authority figures played on this instinctive fear when we were children to shape our behaviors. Putting children in isolation is one of the fastest ways to shape their behaviors, and it is due to this instinctive fear of being alone and away from their “group”. There is no safety in being alone. It’s also bad for our immune systems. We know what is good for us. We seek out connection with other people.

      This is why people break down from loss of community and relationship. And why we fear loss. It is totally legitimate. And, I’m so sorry that you suffered so much. I am well acquainted with that road, and I’m sorry that you trod it.

      If I wrote anything that helped you, then that gives me vast encouragement. It somehow redeems my experiences and helps me feel like I put them to good use. Like I spun them into gold. I acted as an alchemist for a while.

      What you wrote here: “I believe his ability to compartmentalize began to destroy his ability to make proper memories. So for me this was a real mindf**k obviously and frog in pot on the stove, etc”. OMG, yes. That is remarkable insight, and I would say that this is exactly what happened here, too, and continues to happen. The stories of his wrongdoing are still pouring forth from my daughters–things I never knew about. And, he continues to act as if nothing ever happened.

      I wish you every wonderful thing. I can tell you that it does get better, and there are really good people out there who are nothing like what we’ve known. It’s quite surprising, too, when you encounter it. Thank you so much for you kind words. It helps me, too, to keep going. And to keep writing. Shalom to you in your domains…MJ

    • BTW, you are so expressive and articulate in writing. Have you thought of blogging?

  3. Yes, you are an alchemist! What a rich and powerful metaphor.

    I’ve been reading Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning and I imagine his philosophical perspective must resonate with you. His argument is that what we really seek as humans is meaningful purpose, not (just) pleasure or physical comfort. And it’s not like there is some ultimate, enlightened universal purpose –rather we each will have our own purposes, based on who we are and our circumstances. Which can change. His purpose for surviving the Holocaust became (re)writing his life’s work, they destroyed the manuscript when he entered the camp. And he had so much to say about suffering, including the idea that enduring suffering has great meaning on its own. I really grappled with that a lot–I could not see how enduring that indescribable hell could have elevated meaning. But I am beginning to understand it, the meaning is within the individual, not with the hell. I can’t and won’t ascribe any “higher” meaning to his suffering and his subsequent extraordinary contribution, his book and his continued life’s work… but I am absolutely in awe of how his suffering was a component of this profoundly meaningful purpose. I don’t feel like I am being articulate. But when you write about how you want your experiences to help other people, and when I can see such incredible purpose in your blog and writing… I see a lot of parallels. It would appear you devour a great many philosophical, therapeutic and clinical writings so I’m assuming you have read Frankel’s work, but if not, I recommend it. (It is very, very heavy but it is so full of wisdom and power that it is bearable.)

    Thank you for your kind words about writing. I have dabbled with blogs in the past. You rouse the interest again…

    • I admit it. I have not read Frankel’s work, but I feel compelled to now. I have avoided a lot of the post-Holocaust writers because much of their writing immediately makes me cry at the onset of reading. And, then I struggle to continue. A Holocaust survivor spoke at my daughter’s school yesterday–a survivor of Dr. Mengele. And, as soon as my daughter started telling me about what she said, I could barely contain myself. I feel profound grief that I can’t express normally over the Holocaust. So many members of my family died over there. It would probably benefit me to read his work. I have studied the subject at length and avoided personal narrative accounts. It’s probably time though.

      From what you describe here, I probably agree with his thesis. I don’t find any inherent meaning to suffering. We have to find one for ourselves that will be meaningful and let that meaning shape how we show up in the world. I think it’s an important intention to set because everyone will suffer, and suffering will shape us whether we like it or not. Intentionally applying meaning to that suffering lets you, in some way, influence the shaping process. I feel less victimized by my circumstances when I decide that my pain will hold meaning. When I say, “This did not happen to me for nothing. I choose for this to hold meaning. I will make this matter.” Suddenly, I’ve internalized the locus of control, and I’m not helpless. The world isn’t just happening to me while I drift off into the abyss. I think that the post-Holocaust writers know a lot about this idea because the power differential under the Third Reich was so extreme. To have any sense of control of their own experience at that point, they had to look to the suffering–“at least my suffering belongs to me if nothing else. What will I do with it?”

      Choosing an intention even in very difficult circumstances is what created the resiliency to help me get through very difficult circumstances. That’s how I got through my separation and divorce. I decided that my daughters needed to see what it looked like for a woman to “get up again” and begin anew even after trauma. There is a belief that lingers heavily even amongst trained clinicians–people don’t heal after trauma. People just manage. I don’t adhere to that belief. It may take a long time and great tenacity, but my intention is and will always be to show that we can and do heal given time and support. In that way, I am oddly grateful for my extreme past experiences. If it illustrates that healing is possible even after extreme trauma, then my suffering has been meaningful.

      I should probably read Frankel. 😉

      I love your comments! You gotta write a blog. I feel encouraged today after having thought about suffering from this perspective. I’m in the middle of a sexual harassment issue at my grad school–had to file an HRO, etc and go to a hearing in June. It’s been extremely stressful. So, I will reframe it today in the context of it being a meaningful experience. Thank you again for reading and commenting. It encourages me to keep writing. i hope that you are doing well in your process.


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