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.

Related: 29 Signs Of A Malignant Narcissist

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.

“Yes, Nikki?”

“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;

Related: 12 Steps To Gain Self-Respect

  • 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.

31 thoughts on “The Insidious Poison of Disengagement In Your Relationships”

    • I wish I would have read this years ago when my then fiance was disengaging from our relationship. We had been together for 14 years and as soon as we got engaged everything changed. He wouldn’t respond to my texts, would never call me unless it was late at night after he was done spending time with his friends. I just clinged tighter to him and would call him all the time or always be the one to push for us to spend time together. But then it got to a point where I was the only one showing up to our relationship everyday. I was so embarrassed and so afraid, I didn’t want to tell a soul. I begged him, pleaded with him, got angry, sad, etc. but nothing seemed to change his attitude. In fact it only got worse when I would bring it up. I was terrified of getting married to someone who didn’t love me anymore and started receiving attention from another guy, which to be honest felt so amazing and then my fiance finally did realize but even after I tried to fix it he would go back to his old ways very quickly. I miss him everyday and regret what happened but I don’t know if its better to stay with someone who disengages or to move on and try to find someone who truly loves you.

  1. what if you’re the one reading this wonderful post, and you recognize that you want to engage with your spouse but they are the grudge holding kind?

    • Hi William,
      Maybe you could share this post with your spouse and let her know how much you want to engage with her — and her with you. If she is holding a legitimate grudge that requires apology, then do that. If she is holding on to anger after a sincere apology and efforts to make corrections, then you both might need some marriage counseling. It is one of the best things you can do for your marriage.

  2. Thank you for this article. I cried a little while reading this remembering (now being able to identify it) the disengagement felt during my first marriage. It’s strange to put words to what went wrong. Yes, infidelity occurred but the disengagement was there first. It’s so sad. I tried so hard to engage and my spouse just wasn’t having it. Has there been a study on the most common causes of disengagement in marriages? Also with homosexuals in a heterosexual relationships/marriages?

    • Valeri,
      I think the most common reason for disengagement is laziness. We just begin to take the other person and the relationship for granted. What came naturally at the beginning of the relationship now requires effort. Also, people grow apart, but they are afraid to be honest and address that forthrightly with their spouse, so the use passive aggressive ways to end the relationship. I don’t know if this comes from a study, but it has been my non-professional observation. Regarding the last question, I’m not sure. But I’d bet there’s a ton of info online if you do a bit of research. Thank you so much for your thoughtful comments Valeri. I hope your current relationship is happy and fulfilling for you.

    • Thank you for your response. And yes, my current marriage, of almost 8 years, has been amazing. Through life’s ups and downs we are still strong, in love and most importantly engaged.

      My ex-husband is a good man. He just has a lot of things to work out. His way of coping with/hiding the truth was to disengage. Honestly, I would have been more understanding if he would have just been honest with me. He’s currently living the same lie again and married to another women even though he’s interested in men. Their relationship is facing the same trouble ours did. I’m sad for them both. Nothing will get better until he’s honest with himself and the ones he loves.

      Thank you again for this post.

  3. I am so glad I took the time to read this message today. You have a great website and I don’t always take the time to appreciate the value of what written.

    thank you


  4. Gosh Barrie..The timing of this article is eerie…
    My son and his girlfriend broke up today and he was understandably upset. He said he couldn’t quite put his finger on what led to the break up and he asked me how we ‘know’ when we should fight for a relationship and when not to?
    I said that for me it was feeling loved, valued and accepted to be myself in the relationship in spite of all my shared vulnerabilites and imperfections whilst at the same time offering that same safe and sacred space to the one I love wherein they too know that they are loved, valued and accepted.
    Your article covers the subject so beautifully. I’m going to share it with him.
    Thanks so much Barrie. x

    • Hello again Shaleen! 🙂
      I’m so glad this reached you at the perfect time. I love that serendipity! You told him all the right things — probably more wisely that I have done here. That’s what moms are for.

  5. This reminds me of the vulnerability/care theory of love. We desire to be vulnerable and cared for, and the fact that we can be vulnerable (honest, authentic) and still cared for means we have worth. I can see how disengagement would be so hurtful. I also think about this in light of attachment theory. It seems reasonable that when disengagement occurs the harmed party might be more prone to take on a fearful-avoidant attachment style in future relationships.

    Thanks for the article. Next time I’m tired or irritated with my spouse I’ll have to keep in mind the dangers of disengagement. I find my wife and I staring at our phones too often when we’re together instead of really “being together”. Engage.

    • Hi Aaron,
      What a great comment — and wonderful observations. It is hard to attach when someone is constantly avoiding. I’m sure you are correct — this can cause the injured partner to be especially needy. Yes, we ALL need to put our cell phones down more and look directly at the person across from us, the flesh and blood amazing human we are privileged to share our life with. 🙂

  6. Thank you so much again Barrie. Somehow you’ve hit the nail on the head when I couldn’t even put words to the why of the situation. Thanks so much.

  7. Hi, Barrie.

    I frequent your blog. I like your articles. I liked many of your posts. But I think, this has come out very well. Relationship is all what our life is, it is so important..right?
    I have a wonderful family. I have good relationship too – but always try to improve myself – trying to be a better dad, husband, brother or son.
    Time spent with you – your postings – are always worth it.

    Keep up the good work!

    • Thank you so much for your kind words. I am so glad you find my articles helpful. The continuous work on our personal growth is the most important work you can do. Bravo for you for putting that as a priority in your life!

  8. Hi, Barrie!

    While a little late to the game, I had to comment. Is there ever a time when disengaging is healthy? I ask only because I had to disengage from my stepchildren as they stopped talking to me. They have nothing to do with me – even going so far as to leaving the room when I enter, not eating meals if I am present, etc… I found that I HAD to disengage in order for me to discontinue the hurt/resentment I was feeling in MY home. Any suggestions are welcome. Trust me, I’ve tried everything including counseling….

    • Hi Talia,
      Yes, there are times we must disengage in order to protect ourselves — especially when the ones around us have disengaged or are treating us badly. This is behavior you should not have to tolerate in your own home. I don’t know all the details of your situation, and I’m not a counselor. But if your counselor hasn’t helped, it might be time to find another one. This is a very difficult and hurtful dynamic. I am so sorry you are dealing with this.

  9. Hi Barrie, thank you again for another inspirational and very practically useful post. That being said, however, I might point out (not that it’s not already generally known, but most of us are expert in self-delusion to protect our tender spots) that not even the best of advice can save a relationship which had, unknown to both partners, originally begun on the wrong foot, meaning with the wrong intentions. Too many relationships are started while we’re subconsciously hoping the partner will fill the gaps in our life/heart, the things that we’re supposed to have done on our own, for ourselves. Most often it’s quite late (hopefully not too late) in life that we learn that love is a grand and precious thing, but it’s up to the level of consciousness how we perceive it.

    Despite best efforts and wishes, the relationship dissolves because somewhere along the line I read black where she read white, etc. etc. It’s also the general deterioration of values in society, and I mean worldwide, that selfish motives are taken as standard, and most people expect to be satisfied by the partner, seeing them as their pleasure vehicles, instead of opening their heart to the joy which comes from giving. In my view, it takes elevation of spiritual consciousness, for on the usual platform it’s very difficult to even begin to understand or perceive a good enough reason why someone would maintain a relationship with a single person, when there’s so many others to tempt them. It’s an extensive subject indeed, I just wanted to drop in a couple of words in lieu of reviewing the events of this past year in my life, the divorce and what I’ve learned and would like to share. Thanks again and keep it up.

  10. Thank you for such a powerful article! I actually read this last night and decided to fully “engage” my husband for the first time in months! I always felt this way that he and I were not engaged…and we addressed this issue yesterday. Although I can’t say everything is happy now, we’re actually talking
    and talking about things that matter – I found out his perspective on how the marriage should be last night and we’ve been married for six years! It almost sound sad but it’s true…

    • Hi Jennifer,
      I’m so glad the post propelled you to take action and connect with your husband. Communication is so critical to working through the issues of disengagement. Keep talking!

  11. I am glad I happened upon this article. I have been feeling that something was going with my husband of 10 years. I didn’t feel that he was physically cheating, but I knew something was wrong.
    I spoke with him this morning and that is when I knew he isn’t engaged in our relationship.
    I have shared this article on my facebook, I hope he will take the time to read it. I hope it will open his eyes and his heart.

  12. I cried as I read this. At this very moment my husband of one year is going through yet another week of anger and completely ignoring me. It happens every few months and wasn’t like this the first years we dated. I am going to ask him to read this article with me, out loud, and try and tackle the issue. It’s just killing me and i’m getting to the point of just not caring anymore. To read this frightens, saddens and worries me. But i have hope that we can save our relationship before it’s too late. Thank you.

  13. Thanks for this article, I feel there is not enough written about the problem of disengagement and the devastating effects of this. My husband started to disengage as soon as we married, I have tried to work through the things he is unhappy about, but feel his disengagement has been because of a mixture of passive aggression, control and a genuine need to re frame his thoughts about me and his step-children, he has become so negative, sad for all of us, and yes it makes you feel worthless and betrayed. The disengaged person can end up feeling isolated, depressed and hard done to, you reap what you sow and I have now given up.

  14. Yes totally agree, I disengaged from my relationship because We agreed to get married quite a few years ago but my other half wouldnt save towards it, he wanted to get marrried in Jeans initially but I wanted a proper wedding , I was happy to pay for most of it but when he refused to save at all and then got deeper and deeper in debt I panicked as I realised all my hard work was going down the pan which resulted in many a screaming match me and him DISENGAGING, but ultimately when he rang to check up on me at night and I was really tired working to get extra funds as Knew i was going to be paying for the wedding all alone I disengaged as was pissed off with him and thought he might acknowledge what stress I was in being 35 and not married or pregnant as constantly saving while he got more in debt and he ended up having an affair. Also he was unsociable and insecure so he wouldnt socialise with my friends and wouldnt encourage me with his circle either overly so we becae seperate and disengaged . Then he cheated and ran off wih the woman.

  15. Hi,
    I must say it was extremely enlightening reading this article regarding the disengagement of a spouse. My husband, I believe due to depression, has totally, emotionally removed himself from his family, physically and emotional. We have exhausted every avenue but just can’t get through to him. The more pain he causes his family by ignoring their emotional needs, the more he disengages and pretends that things are not as bad as they really are. Last week, I walked in on my dear 15yr old daughter, she was on the phone to her dad, breaking her heart, telling him that she ‘hated him for what he had done’ and that’s all he could say was..In a angry voice’ I can’t be doing with this now, I just come in from work’ and then hung up on her. I am then left to comfort her and pick up the pieces. It’s just so depressing. All my 5 lively children have been badly affected by their dad’s behaviour and I alone have had to help them to get over and come to terms with their hurt. I am just so annoyed at his lack of care and concern for me, his wife and his children. Sorry about the lengthy post..its just I have no one to share with

  16. My husband was one kind of individual who did not want to communicate, share ourselves, even do things together from the beginning. As we age it gets worse and worse.We are now in an assisted living facility where they want us to room together.What can I do?

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