The Insidious Poison of Disengagement In Your Relationships
“The most important ingredient we put into any relationship is not what we say or what we do, but what we are.” ~Stephen Covey
A new relationship of any kind, even a new friendship, begins with the thrill of connection and recognition.
In this new person, at least initially, we recognize the best of ourselves and the best of who we wish to be.
We circle around one another like turtledoves, cooing our every thought and feeling, and marveling over the wondrous and heady simpatico we share — one that tricks us into believing we are the only two in the world who have this connection.
If things continue to go well in the relationship, the initial froth of unexpected connection deepens into real engagement with the other person. We become invested in them and they in us. We share and listen and make the effort to be fully present and available. With time, we open ourselves more and more and reel out our vulnerabilities, dreams, and secrets in an ever-widening pool of mutual trust. And we hold these things for the other person with a gentle hand of respect and dignity.
As infatuation turns to love, and later as love matures, our emotional ties become stronger and more complexly intertwined. We are truly together, connected as friends, lovers, spouses — whatever the relationship happens to be, we are bound.
At some point in time, several years down the road, the relationship almost always slips into malaise. Time, obligations, and stress separate us from our early joyful connection. We begin to see other parts of ourselves reflected in our beloved other — parts that aren't so appealing. Resentments and frustrations spill over in angry and hurtful words. Maybe we even betray the other not just with our words but with actions.
“Oh, the comfort – the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person – having neither to weigh thoughts nor measure words, but pouring them all right out, just as they are, chaff and grain together; certain that a faithful hand will take and sift them, keep what is worth keeping, and then with the breath of kindness blow the rest away.” ~Dinah Craik, A Life for a Life, 1859
Sometimes we go through the dance many times of pulling apart only to come back together, to heal the wounds and grow stronger and more deeply connected.
But other times, one partner in the relationship begins to disengage, and this is the warning sign of impending doom. Beyond the worst argument, the most hurtful betrayal, the cruelest words — disengagement is death knell for any relationship.
Disengagement is simply the loss of willingness to invest time, energy, and emotion into the relationship. It is flat-lining, going belly up without caring enough to put up a fight, much less to put in the work needed to keep the relationship alive and thriving.
In the book Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, research professor and vulnerability expert Brene Brown speaks of the ultimate betrayal of disengagement:
“What’s the worst betrayal of trust? He sleeps with my best friends. She lies about where the money went. He/she chooses someone over me. Someone uses my vulnerability against me . . . . 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 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.”
It is crazy-making indeed, sometimes even for the one who is disengaged. You are bound but unraveling at the same time. The one who is disengaged may not be consciously aware of it. On the surface, they proclaim busyness and stress, or they deflect or deny the problem is even present.
It only takes one person to disengage for the poison to spread and infect the relationship. Eventually the person trying to engage and seeking engagement from the other will give up. Sometimes this is exactly what the disengager wants. They are passively trying to end the relationship. Other times they are blind to the havoc they are creating and only wake up when their loved gives them a wake-up call or walks away.
I love this story on engagement by Dr. Martin Seligmen, psychologist, educator, author, and former President of the American Psychological Association. It was a turning point in his life and career.
It took place in my garden while I was weeding with my five-year old daughter, Nikki. I have to confess that even though I write books about children, I’m really not all that good with them. I am goal-oriented and time-urgent and when I’m weeding in the garden, I’m actually trying to get the weeding done. Nikki, however, was throwing weeds into the air and dancing around. I yelled at her. She walked away, came back, and said, “Daddy, I want to talk to you.
“Daddy, do you remember before my fifth birthday? From the time I was three to the time I was five, I was a whiner. I whined every day. When I turned five, I decided not to whine anymore. That was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. And if I can stop whining, you can stop being such a grouch.
This was for me an epiphany, nothing less. I learned something about Nikki, something about raising kids, something about myself, and a great deal about my profession. Raising children, I realized, is more than fixing what is wrong with them. It is about identifying and nurturing their strongest qualities, what they own and are best at, and helping them find niches in which they can best live out these positive qualities.
This isn't true just for children. In any loving and mutual relationship, our growth as individuals and the growth of the relationship is dependent on how we connect, understand, and nurture the other — and how they do that for us.
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 others 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.
Of course much of engagement is personal and specific to the two people involved. You know it when you feel it and see it. You know how it felt at the beginning of the relationship when you were both deeply engaged in one another.
How does it look and feel now?
I invite you to examine your closest relationships — with your spouse, partner, children, parents, friends. Are you fully engaged? Are they? Does the relationship need an engagement infusion?
If you are the one disengaged, don't allow the relationship to wither and risk losing it. Remember why you love this person, why you are grateful to have them in your life. And engage with them again.
If you are suffering from the disengagement of the other, speak to them openly and calmly about it. Without rancor or blame, let them know how their disengagement is affecting you. Ask for their engagement — or their honesty that they no longer wish to sustain the relationship.