Why Relationship Disengagement Hurts More Than Cheating Ever Could

by Eve Stern

No one ever said breakups were easy, but if I said there wasn’t a spectrum to them, I’d be lying.

It's only natural to conclude acts of lying and cheating are the most painful ways to have our hearts broken, but in reality, this isn't the case.

Why is it that when our partners fall out of love, stop talking to us or, better yet, disappear on us, it hurts that much more? Why does it take that much longer for us to forget and move on?

The answer rests in the power of disengagement.

It's an underestimated and indefinable pain we rarely ever talk about.

Disengagement is not as sexy as the affairs we see on television, and it’s usually not the term we hear when discussing how a relationship came to an end.

Stories of disengagement are rarely shared because many of us feel embarrassed and confused, and we have only ourselves to blame.

In "Daring Greatly," Brené Brown, my favorite champion of vulnerability, shame and, well, feelings, explains disengagement as,

“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.”

As someone who has experienced a multitude of hurt from cheating, lying, manipulation, ghosting and everything in between, I support this claim wholeheartedly.

Disengagement leaves us feeling betrayed because someone stopped trying, showing up and opening up to us.

Soon before I was cheated on, I felt the disengagement seep in. It became so unbearable, I was forced to end the relationship.

However, the cheating, which I learned about soon after the breakup, hurt less in comparison (despite being shocking and inconceivable).

The title alone, “cheating,” provides a clear, logical answer to our pain.

It is through disengagement's lack of definition and ambivalence that creates a wealth of uncertainty and unanswered pain.

In a way though, I was almost grateful the cheating and lying came to fruition.

It brought me the black and white reasons I needed, even strength, to end the relationship and move forward.

It’s almost as if at some point, society mailed us an unwritten rulebook of terms for breaking up, with cheating on the top.

Yet, when it comes to not feeling loved and cared for in relationships, we’re usually told to work on the relationship harder or to forget about it altogether.

Either way, we are still left with such an unforgiving pain. Why is that?

Brown breaks it down for us by explaining,

“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.”

Crazy-making is simply the only way to put it. This is why, although not all equally scaled, these forms of disengagement — waiting for that text back, never getting called back, getting ghosted after a successful month of dating or not being heard in a serious relationship — are all pervasively awful acts.

The pain is rooted in our inability to pinpoint it, which is harder to process than the logical pain born from cheating and lying.

Unfortunately, in this generation, the persistent use of technology keeps us simultaneously engaged and distant from one another, and disengagement is at an all-time high.

Aziz Ansari, comedian and now relationship expert, analyzes this conundrum in his most recent stand-up, "Aziz Ansari: Live at Madison Square Garden":

“Everything has changed. Take your most basic problem as a single person: When you like someone, and they don’t like you back. Or, take the reverse: When someone likes you, and you don’t like them back. At one point in time, it used to be kind of a weird thing. It was awkward, it was a conversation, it was something you had to deal with. Now, what do people do? Someone likes you, and you don’t like them back? Just pretend to be busy, forever. That’s what people do now. They pretend to be busy forever, and then they conduct this strange psychological experiment where it’s like, ‘Hmm, how much hope does this person have? How many times do I need to pretend to be busy before they realize this many scheduling conflicts is statistically impossible and something else is going on?’”

Regardless of the number of ways we now have to connect with one another, each of form of communication also provides an opportunity to ignore and disengage from each other.

Through the use of text messages, we can completely cancel on one another last minute, break up or even worse, never respond.

Disengagement triggers shame, humiliation and insecurity. No one deserves disengagement.

We muster the confidence to put in our all, we choose optimism, and we uphold even the slightest expectations.

There is a lack a respect and a lack of value we feel when someone doesn’t even show up or even possess the courage to reject us face-to-face.

I can't offer a solution to this because when we take risks in love, we risk getting hurt.

In spite of that, if you can understand why you’re in pain and why it feels like you’re drowning in a never-ending pool of feelings, it sure as hell will help.

“When people we love or with whom we have a deep connection stop caring, stop paying attention, stop investing, and stop fighting for the relationship,” Brown writes, “trust begins to slip away and hurt starts seeping in.”

Just know you are not crazy, despite how you may feel. Know every ounce of pain you’re feeling from that person who got up and disappeared is normal (even if you technically weren’t in a relationship).

Remember a lack of reason does not make it your fault, your blame to take or your solution to find.

Realize you may never find any answers, but you'll still be more than okay.

Plus, if you get an answer, you might not want to hear it. The truth is the universe may never provide us the answers we want at the time we want them.

But once you can accept this, peace will find you, even if the pain is still alive.