Disengagement is the most dangerous way to corrode connection.

The Betrayal of Disengagement

Disengagement ...the most dangerous way to break trust, to erode connection. Conexus Counselling blog

Disengagement…the silent, slippery betrayal.

Have you even thought of disengagement as betrayal?

We usually think of betrayal in terms of infidelity–affairs–that a partner was unfaithful in engaging in a sexual relationship with another.  Others engage in intimate emotional relationships which may not have sex in the relationship. These relationships have walls where windows should be, and inappropriate windows in the relationship where walls are best had.

Other common betrayals which hit the must-go-see-therapist-in-crisis threshold?

  • significant financial mismanagement or secret spending resulting in the discover of a scary pile of debt
  • drug use or porn viewing or gambling discovery…the disclosure of a secret, the discovery of engagement in an undesirable activity, and often a hefty red number on the line of credit or the discovery of a hidden credit card statement

It is absolutely necessary to deal with the shock and horror that has the couple reeling after a cataclysmic betrayal.  

However, a good deal of the time, a silent, more insidious betrayal is discovered…a betrayal begun a long time before, eroding the foundation of the relationship, priming it for disaster: Disengagement.

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 would say disengagement.

Brené Brown,
Daring Greatly
(bolded emphasis mine)

Let me be clear, people…this ain’t no frivolous line I found in some obscure book.

This is something that we see regularly at Conexus Counselling.  Often when couples show up with a marriage in shambles, disengagement has had an enormous (tho largely hidden) effect on the marriage. And disengagement is sneaky. It’s hard to name it.

The betrayal of disengagement is:

  • Often written off as a partner “making a mountain out of a molehill”.
  • Pawned off as “well, boys will be boys”, giving a legitimacy to the practice of ignoring the primary relationship in a husband’s life. He spends night after night watching hockey with the guys, a beer in his hand.
  • Explained/rationalized as necessary e.g. “I have to put all these hours in at the business or it will fail” How do you argue against a line like that?
  • Minimized as insignificant: “C’mon, it’s only hanging out with the girls watching Survivor/The Bachelor/Grey’s Anatomy/The Good Wife…it’s ladies night out. It’s not like I’m having an affair.  What’s the big deal?  Don’t you want me to enjoy my life?”

When a partner feels disengagement, and raises the concern:

  • she is called out as being whiny or a drama queen
  • he dare not express the loneliness cuz you know what’s coming for a guy…He’s gonna be labelled as a weak softie, a wuss, a wimp, a cry baby. Why would any guy want to raise the issue of a partner’s disengagement if that’s gonna happen?
  • s/he simply doesn’t have the opportunity to raise the concern because some level of engagement would be required to even start the conversation…and between the incredible number of hours at work, and the children:  They. Never. Connect.
Brené Brown also says:
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 painthere’s no event, no obvious evidence of brokenness. It can feel crazy-making.
(Emphasis mine)

“There’s no event, no obvious evidence of brokenness.  It can feel crazy making.”

The cost of disengagement is high…very high.  It takes a toll on the relationship.  It creates a vulnerability in the relationship as broad as a barn door for the marriage to become like the walking dead…looking like its all there, but so not.
  • Sometimes the cost is a hollow marriage, that limps along with a focus on the children, with little more in common than a mailing address. Both partners are disengaged, and don’t invest in the relationship to change it.
  • Sometimes, in desperation, the partner that has experienced the disengagement resorts to behaviour that is out of line with his/her values to cope with the pain of the fears and shame.  An affair. Alcohol. Excessive shopping. We all know what happens in these situations. And it ain’t pretty.  Trust me.

I don’t know of anyone who has entered a marriage thinking, “When it gets hard or busy or risky, I’m gonna pull away without acknowledging it.” or “When I am not heard, I’ll give up trying” or “If my spouse doesn’t hear me when I express a concern, I’ll just pull away and put my interests elsewhere.”

Nobody does that.

Not intentionally, anyway.
Inviting a partner to authentic engagement is risky, daring, courageous work:
  • It means raising a stink over something that is covert, hidden and insidious.  Your partner probably won’t understand.  Your partner may be frustrated with you seemingly making something out of nothing.
  • You may want to show your partner this blog post…to show your partner that you are not crazy, you are not making this up, that the distance between the two of you has a name: disengagement…and that with disengagement, there is pain. Always. For both.
  • It might mean calling in a therapist to help you say to your partner, “I am intolerably lonely.  And this situation is not sustainable.” with the therapist helping you be heard, and to begin working at a dialogue.
  • Re-engaging may prevent some rash, inappropriate and highly expensive behaviour that will create social, relational, family, psychological costs for years to come.  Please note I am not legitimizing extramarital affairs as a logical outcome of disengagement…I just call the pattern as I see ’em.

**If your partner has called you over to look at this blog, please know that it is serious.  Engage in a long, curious, compassionate conversation that explores why s/he wanted you to read it.  Please? Know that being shown this blog is a tentative, brave and maybe desperate signal to wake up and pay attention.  Being shown this blog, quite simply, is a gift that I’m inviting you to accept. A hard gift (painful, but given out of care and desire to make things better)

If this blog interests you, you might want to grab a copy of my book that includes this idea in one of the chapters. Available in  kindle or paperback form on Amazon:

And if you would like some assistance to figure this out and repair the corrosion, give us a call at 204 275 1045 or contact us, and we will be in touch with you within a business day.  I promise.

***Fun fact:  At 1:15 seconds, you will notice a woman in a blue dress on the right hand side of the aisle, first seat with medium length brown hair.  That’s me.  Yep, I got to be part of the taping of this show…it was fun! And deeply enriching to hear these two intelligent and wise spoken women having significant conversation!

2 Comments

  • L. MacKelvie

    Gosh I wish I had known about this along time ago. Not that it would have saved my relationship. But it would have saved both of us many years of hurt and pain. Do you have more articles on this subject.

  • L. MacKelvie

    Gosh I wish I had known about this along time ago. Not that it would have saved my relationship. But it would have saved both of us many years of hurt and pain. I would like to see more articles on this subject if you have any. thanks.

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