Displaced, Replaced, Erased -- The Anguishing Heartbreaks of Rejection

03/11/2015 01:18 pm ET | Updated May 11, 2015


Of all of the possible experiences people endure when they are abandoned in love, rejection is probably the most painful. Once felt beloved and valuable, they are understandably demoralized and broken when they are no longer "necessary" in another's life. A once familiar and treasured experience turns into a terrifying, seemingly endless nightmare.

Many times, the warning signs that could have predicted the loss were not obvious or denied. When the partners who are done leave the relationships, those left behind must face not only that humiliation of "being the last to know," but the additional sense of powerlessness that accompanies a "done deal." They are not only abandoned, but robbed of the chance to fix what is broken.

"I think I noticed that he was acting differently, but I probably didn't want to see it. He was clearly avoiding intimacy and not willing to talk about why things had changed. There were so many other things going on that I guess I just kept making rationalizations. I made excuses for his quickness to criticize, but I trusted our history and the amazing love we've shared. The coldness I see in his eyes makes me feel as if I never existed. He looks at me now as if I were a stranger he'd never known.

Now, I find myself doubting everything we've ever shared, and asking a hundred questions that will never have an answer. Was our love ever real? Did I really know him? Does anyone tell you the truth? I've never even imagined of a life without him. I feel like I will spend the rest of my life in an unending tragedy."

"She kept having sex with me the same as we always did. Christ, she seemed to be enjoying it. I thought that meant we were okay, and I probably rationalized that the other signs couldn't have been that important. Sure, she'd go out on the back patio to talk on the phone, and stayed a lot after hours at work, but she always had a logical explanation. I loved that woman's quirkiness and mood changes, so I just figured she was in one of her weird patterns and we'd be on track again.

Then, without a hint, and I mean it, with friggen no warning, she isn't there. I get this weird note that she's been unhappy for weeks, but couldn't tell me because she didn't want to hurt my feelings. That's a lousy insult, like I'm some sort of wimp.

She won't even return my texts or phone calls. I've been erased from a life I thought we both loved. I'm sure there's another guy, and he's probably been around for a while. I'm angry, sure, but mostly feel dumbfounded and crazy. How the hell do you ever trust again? I feel like an idiot."

These heartfelt, raw expressions are not unusual. I have heard so many of them, and most often from people who were once treasured by the same people who now have no use for them. The rejected partners are baffled and unhinged, questioning not only the relationship they've lost, but whether or not they've been this unconscious in other relationships. They come to me looking for answers to questions they never thought they'd have to ask.

1) How did I not see his discontent?
2) How could I have been so attached and not realize she was disconnecting?
3) What could have led me to believe that our relationship was still so valuable, when he obviously didn't feel that way anymore?
4) When did we start falling apart?
5) What were the warning signs I didn't see or didn't want to see?
6) Why did she run away without giving us a chance?
7) Did he ever really love me?
8) Is her new partner just a better deal for her than I was?
9) How could I have done this differently?

By the time a relationship ends, those questions can never be adequately answered. There is too much guilt on one end and grief on the other. Intimate authenticity must start at the beginning of a relationship to make any partnership less vulnerable to later misunderstandings or unexpected rejections. Many new partners are too concerned that they will stop potential partners from sticking around if they are truly open and honest about what matters to them. They don't share what they ultimately will need from a long-term relationship, or what they can legitimately offer over the long haul. They can't foresee that vulnerable and potentially embarrassing information is bound to eventually surface anyway, and hope they will never have to face that possibility.

It takes courage to be authentic and totally open at the beginning of a relationship. New partners who are willing to lay themselves open to critique and possible rejection early on create a foundation that allows new thoughts and feelings to emerge when they need to. That couple is building an altar place from the moment they meet, a sacred foundation of what each can trust in the other. That altar place is the foundation that supports the common intention to live by the same beliefs, ethics, and behaviors that they have agreed upon, while still allowing it to be continuously challenged and restructured.

Because life is certain to bring unexpected surprises and things don't usually turn out as expected, that uniquely chosen place of mutual sacred devotion is always open to challenge and rebuilding. If either partner begins to feel trapped, under-represented, or no longer fully able to live by those sacred agreements, he or she must openly and readily communicate that to the other. That gives both partners the consistent opportunity to renew their vows under each new emerging restructure.

To offer a simple example, imagine that two people come together under the same religious beliefs with the concomitant moral agreements, philosophical interests, and behavioral boundaries that their religion dictates. They devote themselves, in the presence of the other, to fully honor those agreements. Then, over time, one partner begins to feel limited by those initial agreements. The relationship is facing new challenges, the stressors are different, and the original promises have become harder for to fulfill. That partner is too afraid to tell the other that he or she no longer feels the same automatic desire or capability to live within those previously chosen agreements.

That partner tries to share his or her concerns but isn't ready to make a potentially destructive challenge, so is careful to present them in a non-threatening way. The other partner either doesn't hear, is afraid to listen, or dismisses the complaints by not recognizing their legitimacy. The discouraged partner often first retreats in silence, and then tries to adapt to what has now become a less fulfilling relationship.

But, the discontent cannot be quelled. So that unfulfilled partner makes an internal decision to explore other worlds while simultaneously trying to hold on to what he or she is not yet ready to lose. That person may even try to discreetly offer those new ideas to the other, hoping to keep two drifting worlds together. Using our example above, the person exploring an additional or new religious belief, begins immersing himself in the new spiritual direction, feeling more alive and excited by it. He or she is aware of breaking the faith that they had previously agreed upon, and feels both conflict and guilt, but can't or doesn't want to stop what has become so important.

The prior relationship is often still important and that caring can make the conflict harder to resolve. To hold on to both options, he or she changes internally but tries to maintain the old behaviors on the outside. Now there is a world of thoughts and feelings no longer shared. That new place of excitement and exploration beckons to those of similar interests. The now-ready adventurer is ready for what may come. Sexual infidelity is just one potential result, but there are many other possibilities.
To make their decision legitimate in their own minds, most escaping partners rationalize their choices and begin to find fault with their established relationship to justify leaving it. They may become distant, more critical, and less available. The unknowing partner will eventually begin to question, requesting and then perhaps pleading to know what is happening, but get evasive answers. By this time, it is often too late for most couples to find their way back. The betrayal of the couple's original commitment has gone too far. The sadness is that the relationship might have had a chance if the now-transgressing partner had shared his or her distress before seeking something, or someone, outside the relationship.

Bev and Dan:
"I didn't even realize you were so unhappy. I didn't see, or I just didn't take you seriously. I'm so unbelievably sorry. Isn't there any way we can fix this? Is your new life so much better? Maybe you're just comparing it badly now. We can make this work again. We have so much history. Why won't you try?"

"Don't make me feel guilty. I told you I'm done. I tried to find a way to stay. I just don't have the energy or interest anymore. We're worn out. Why can't you just accept this? It could never work again for me. It's too late."

Despite all betrayals, there are couples who love each other enough to get through the sorrow, willingly accept responsibility for each of their contributions, and painstakingly rebuild a new altar place. They are not in the majority, but they do exist. I have had the pleasure of watching them grow through these anguishing interactions and eventually triumph in their new understanding and love.

Cary and Jeannine:
"She's been unbelievable. I broke every vow I ever made to her. I know women who have had partners that cheated on them and they've keyed cars, taken scissors to clothing, and tried to get them fired, but she wants what is best for me. She told me that she never wanted me to be with her if I really wanted to be someone else. She even told me that she understood that she'd neglected the relationship and should have been more available. That does not in any way excuse what I've done. I should have trusted who she was and told her my feelings before I let it get this far. I'll never shut her out again. She's one in a million, and I'll never do anything to risk losing her again."

"He has every right in the world to tell me to get out of his life forever. I never meant to end up in bed with some other guy. I was feeling lonely and neglected and kept wondering if I might be able to find more happiness with someone else. That other guy just showed up. I tried to keep both going for a while and just couldn't keep lying. When I told Cary he was of course, anguished and really angry. When he said he had to take a long walk. I figured I should just start packing. When he came back, he had flowers for me. I felt like a forgiven criminal who didn't deserve the pardon. He held me for a long time and told me that he hated what I'd done, but he loved me more than he wanted to lose me. I couldn't stop crying.

We've spent a long time in therapy together. I've learned why I did what I did. It was a cheap shot. Just because I was lonely did not give me the right to do what I did. We've both grown so much. We're building a new relationship. We wish we could have known this before, but we just didn't see it coming. I know it will take a long time for him to trust me again, but I'm never going anywhere again."

These comments are based on real people I have known. They are examples of who makes it and who can't. Some have to run. They just don't see any other way. Others won't quit because the love is still strong and those partners both strongly feel that they don't want to lose what they have.

Displacement, replacement, Erasing. They cause increasing levels of despair. Experiencing them can harm us at any stage of life in any relationship and can cause the most damage when we do not see them coming or don't have the tools to conquer the rupture.

If you have lost a partner in a current relationship, you must, of course, first deal with the grief of that loss. When you feel able to face the world again, learn the tools to create a stronger, more unassailable relationship in the future.

Heroic authenticity early in a relationship and the willingness to continually challenge and rebuild your altar place are the two building blocks that will make that possible.

Dr. Randi's free advice e-newsletter, Heroic Love, shows you how to avoid the common pitfalls that keep people from finding and keeping romantic love. Based on over 100,000 face-to-face hours counseling singles and couples over her 40-year career, you'll learn how to zero in on the right partner, avoid the dreaded "honeymoon is over" phenomenon, and make sure your relationship never gets boring.