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)



3 thoughts 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

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