This article is written for those of you who have endured the heartbreaking and icky misery of getting phased out from somebody’s life. Perhaps by having your expectations managed down over time, or by finding yourself gradually getting confined to particular ‘time slots’ with someone who was previously excited to see you. Often, this happens without prior warning. Worst of all, it happens without you having any control over it.
As you rack your brain, wondering what you might have said or done to make it happen, they are seemingly getting on nicely with their life. You get fixated on this mind-boggling experience and ask yourself if you are just being too needy or if the feeling of disengagement is real. You find yourself rereading early texts and emails to find some sort of lead that will help you understand their sudden change in attitude towards you. But you find nothing.
So, you begin to wonder whether to confront the situation head-on, but worry that it may come across as pathetic or controlling. Instead, you keep it in and suffer in isolation with your stomach-churning neediness and discomfort.
To get your head around why this happened, please accept that you are not going to find the answers by putting yourself under the microscope. Tempting as it is to scrutinize your behaviors (as this might make you feel like you still have some control over the situation), you would save yourself plenty of time and effort by viewing this sudden change as a red flag on their part instead. The idea of being phased out is often an early sign of a far bigger problem. Do trust that the little boat you are floating along in has just encountered only the tip of a huge iceberg.
The predictable pattern of a relationship that is doomed from the start
As psychologists, we have the privilege of witnessing many different behavior patterns unfold. Many of these patterns are nearly identical even across different clients. The ‘sinking feeling’ of a partner’s sudden withdrawal is something that we hear about and witness constantly. From here on, things typically follow a predictable pattern of gradual phase-out.
The part that feels particularly important to share with you is that these clients are rarely ever wrong in their instincts. Yes, there are times when I witness individuals who may be wondering whether a new stable and healthy relationship could be ‘right’ due to the lack of unpredictability and drama. This is often the case for clients with a history of unhealthy relationships. What is incredibly rare, however, is to see an individual who presents with anxiety (after the sudden withdrawal of a new partner) coming back to report that the partner has come around again in any sustained fashion.
The ‘hot’ phase – when you feel ‘chosen’ and prioritized
‘Lisa’, a client of mine, had been going out with a guy, ‘Darren’, whom she had met through a friend a few months back (please note that the genders involved have no relevance in this dynamic). He had taken the first steps to pursue her, and in the early months of seeing each other, he was all over her. He was keen to spend all of his free time with her. He would even make frequent remarks about a shared future. The old saying “love can move mountains” had a real manifestation here. Indeed, busy as he was in his role as a law-firm partner, he would cancel work shifts, dismiss nights out with friends, and even miss the odd deadline at work so that he could remain in bed for that extra hour in the morning. For Lisa, the very fact that he was so busy in general and yet could afford to spend the extra time with her felt like flattery in its own right. Never had she felt so special and prioritized. This stage went on for about 10 weeks.
The ‘hot and cold phase’- When you start feeling like contact is falling short but there are still intermittent spurts of intensity
At this point, there is a distinct feeling that something has changed, yet there is nothing tangible to pin it down to. It is very much a feeling that you get. When you meet up with them, everything feels so great and connected that you ridicule your own doubts by telling yourself, “This feels so great/real/intense – I must have just imagined those negative feelings.”
– Trust your gut: If they are keen to see you and trying hard to make it happen, you will know it. You will not feel worried or forgotten about. Their attention to you and the relationship will be somewhat consistent. There will be no need for you to look for signs or ask your friends to help you decipher what is being communicated.
– Stop over-rationalizing and being overly understanding: ‘“He told me he is super busy…I know what that’s like…I wouldn’t want someone who has no life anyway, would I?” While it is true that relationships need to persist beyond the honeymoon phase, do note that the difference between being understanding of someone’s genuine busyness and being overly empathetic to someone’s needs to disengage with you. The difference can be found in how it all leaves you feeling.
– Behavioral mirroring: If listening and trusting your own emotions is something you find difficult, it could be worth mirroring their behaviors and levels of engagement to see what happens. Even when this equates to laying low, initiating less contact, and stopping any chasing you might have engaged in up until this point. This is a way for you to assess their organic interest without any prompts from you. It also protects you from having to end things at a time when you are still hopeful. This intervention often comes with more difficulty than people expect. The fear of letting go of the efforts is often present because you intuitively know that it is through your hard work only that you two are still seeing one another. You will likely find that the intensity weans dramatically when your initiation comes to a halt. This is not a sign to go in harder, but rather a sign that you must get honest with yourself and question whether the residue that now constitutes the relationship is worth hanging on to.
The ‘lukewarm phase’- when it feels like you have been demoted from a high-priority position
Lisa, in the example above, was starting to feel as though she was no longer an important part of Darren’s schedule, or his life, for that matter. She would be presented with time-slots much in the way a work meeting would be arranged. Except, in this sort of meeting, only one person gets to have a say in the frequency, time, and duration of the meet-ups. It was as though she was a desperate customer trying to purchase a highly valuable item. Lisa automatically assumed the role of ‘desperate buyer’; meanwhile, Darren was acting the ‘highly sought after seller’. She noticed a shift in power and a sense of pomposity in attitude emerging. Any attempts she made to address the situation with Darren were met with contempt or complete and utter surprise and ignorance. She felt as though she was going crazy, and he was confirming it.
– Say goodbye: If you are still clinging to a relationship at this point, you are probably finding yourself getting outright marginalized. This is high time to end things—before there is nothing left to leave behind! Do not allow desperation or fear of losing someone to guide your decision at this point. Doing so means you are at risk of rewarding their behavior by making yourself available in the assigned time slot.
The ‘cold phase’- When only sprinkles of attention remain and you are chasing for the old dynamic to return
At this point, Lisa’s relationship with Darren had crossed many lines. The dynamic had turned into a power-play, where the two of them were never winning at the same time. If Lisa was happy, Darren needed some space. When she felt sad or missed him, he seemed to be thriving.
During this phase, you may end up feeling as though you have to produce certain outcomes. These typically take the shape of endless strategizing and planning. You might try to readjust the dynamic back to what was happening with such ease and flow in the beginning. Additionally, you might start to subdue yourself. Your thinking goes: “Whatever I came across like (in the beginning) is what I need to get back to. Clearly, he freaked out when I revealed I wanted a commitment. Better back off and be more casual…’
Retracting your personal needs in this way is wholly incompatible with growing a healthy relationship. How are you going to be in a long-term partnership with a person who is acting as if they are allergic to you having your own emotional needs?
Many people find it confusing in the early stages of a relationship. Not least when a new partner is blowing hot and cold. Here are some important points to consider:
– Look for growth: It is perfectly fine if growth in a relationship happens slowly. It is even okay if the occasional setback happens, as long as such is followed by resumed growth. If, on the other hand, the overall trajectory is going downwards, this data should constitute clear evidence that the relationship is not a keeper. Do note that some people will continue to engage on their terms only by offering further dates with no commitments to follow. It is your responsibility to ensure that this is not one of their options!
– Stay in reality: Try and stay focused on what you are seeing and experiencing, rather than what you remember you experienced before or fantasized about experiencing in the future. The idea that it was somehow ‘your fault’ that things changed is an illusion. Stop chasing after lost times and look at what is provided at the moment. This will make it easier to see that you are in for a bad trade.
– Stop pretending that you don’t have needs or that your feelings can be neglected. From the time you fail to assert yourself and stand up for your authentic needs, you silently undersign on a dynamic that is providing less than you deserve (or need). Having also treated many of the people in the position of ‘Darren’, I can assure you that there will be no brownie points for having needs or boundaries. In their mind, there usually is not all that much reflecting going on. You are likely thinking enough for the two of you. While you are sitting there dissecting the dynamic, they are going along with whatever you show them you are happy with. It is not much more complicated than that. From the time you have agreed on the terms, a contract of imbalance has been mutually accepted. There is now no incentive whatsoever to change for them, and as long as you are providing plenty of reinforcement for the inconsistent engagement—who can even blame them for tagging along? As long as their modest needs are being met and you are not complaining, things from their point of view are pretty grand.
The difference between ‘genuinely busy’ and ‘a vanishing act’
It is perfectly acceptable that people are busy and have areas of life (other than the relationship) that require focus. That said, there is a major difference between someone occasionally being too busy to meet up vs. the idea of being weaned off of contact, togetherness, and intimate relating. The difference can often be found in the way that things feel for you when this happens, as well as the levels of awareness, empathy, and understanding they show towards you in this situation. The ultimate proof, of course, lies in their ability to then ‘return’ as promised. In unhealthy relationships, the return simply won’t happen. Instead, there is a sense that something is unspoken but acted out. In summary, do ensure you don’t get so seduced by the ‘hot’ blows, that you fail to notice that gradually things are only getting cooler.
Do not underestimate your ability to distinguish between a person who is genuinely busy but doing their utmost to see you vs. a person who is coming up with excuses. People with intimacy problems, for instance, are often great at rationalizing. They frequently believe their own excuses, as they are driven by a subconscious urge to create space and distance. Therefore, do not beg for any admission from them that they have started to neglect you.
But what happened? Why did they change?
In a long-term relationship, it is perfectly normal to go through ups and downs. This fact should not be confused with a relationship that has barely got off the ground but is already facing stagnation. The absence of growth is something that should be taken very seriously. Unless you feel like you are responsible for it in some way, this is usually a sign that the other person is not comfortable committing to an intimate relationship with you at the present time. You might be dealing with someone with an insecure-avoidant attachment who by definition might have wanted a relationship up until the point when commitment came into the picture. Alternatively, this person is not that into you. This all hurts to hear, but if someone shows you that providing consistency is too effortful for them, you must act on this prompt and stop investing emotionally. Regardless of their reasons, try to accept that being overly understanding of their predicament is not going to suddenly unveil the mutually invested relationship you are hoping for.
‘Let go and let live’
Put the focus on yourself and make your life fun and busy. If they fail to go halfway (or appear indifferent to whether or not meetups even happen with any level of frequency), trust that it is time to let go. Yes, it will hurt you and you will be left with many questions in your mind. Speaking from clinical experience, the answers to these questions never come from them regardless. Your dignity, self-respect, and trust in yourself can be preserved by allowing yourself to let go of someone that is not prepared to honor your level of commitment. You deserve someone who can match your investment and who does not seem to feel it is a chore to make room for you in their life.