The Disappearing Act

Maybe, instead of lovers, you start out as best friends. Or maybe there has always been chemistry. Maybe someone fixed the two up, thought you would work well together, and you did.

In each case things start out swimmingly, perfectly, and for awhile, maybe even a long while, it's magic, and there's attention and love, and that face I see on the leather sofa two feet away from me is pretty happy.

And the cynic in me waits for the other shoe to drop. Far be it from me to burst anyone's bubble. I'm not your mother. Let the fantasy last. We all need a little hope, and when someone is kind, when someone is attentive, when someone is flirtatious, well, it feels pretty good.

This is the new relationship paradigm, you know, love without commitment. With a divorce rate holding steady at one out of two, what is the point of the crystal and china? Why register at all? Surely weddings are expensive, and happiness a toss of the dice. I'd prefer to think, actually, that it's not. But that's something to talk about another day, not now.

So you're in this relationship and your lover is extremely attentive initially, professes adoration and ever-lasting love, and this feels ever-so-good, and the sex, whoa, is amazing, and you're thinking, I Could Live Like This, and your lover has told you that no one has ever made him/her feel this way before, no one has touched this part of him/her before, and as the song goes,

This May Be an Ever Lasting Love.

I've Finally Found Someone.

And then it disappears. No fights, no drama. No calls. No response.

"I text him. I call him. I leave voicemail. I email. Nada."

There are so many ways to do this, communicate.



There's no such thing as nothing. Nothing is something. We have this phrase, "You can't not communicate. No communication is communication."

From the Life Stinks, department, that's for sure. So unfair. It was so good. Where did it go? Where did he go? She?

It's called the disappearing act, and if you know anything about behavior modification, then you know that some people actually are masters at this thing, modifying the behavior of others to accommodate long absences. They can stretch the rubberband, as we family therapists like to say, like nobody's business. They have an uncanny sense of knowing how long a relationship can linger in nomans land, before sparking it up again, lighting up life, just to disappear again.

Read that post on rubberband, if you haven't already, on emotional distancing and psychological space. Meanwhile, a short if not complete list of where people go when they take an intermission.

(a) back to his/her committed partner, aka, wife/husband

(b) back to life before you, shooting pool, arguing cases, building bridges, whatever a person with a life does

(c) is dating someone else, carrying on more than one relationship at a time.

(d) is getting stoned.

(e) is really angry about something you said, the way you said it

(f) is beginning to see you as much less than perfect, and wants perfect

(g) is doing just fine, actually.

(Help me here. Add to the list)

You, however, are the problem, assuming you're uncomfortable with the situation. You signed up for the problem, friends with benefits it's called. You're a giving person. More-so than your friend. You want more, you have greater intimacy needs. But there never was any kind of deal that referred to intimacy needs when you hooked up. The two of you didn't go over that part of your collective psychologies before becoming involved, before one of you unconsciously committed to the other.

And you can't say they didn't warn you.

So how does a person avoid the manipulation, the bad deal? Is it so outrageous to have this talk about intimacy, about needs, about sharing, about time, about the triggers we have, things that make us angry, all that before we get totally lovey dovey and out of control? Or maybe just get used to being rejected. Maybe that's the ticket. Haven't found that this works, gotta' say.

But since I'm on a roll, can't we talk about having missed someone to talk to as a kid, or having had to share a room with six siblings? These ditties about our upbringing makes us either reticent or more communicative, depending.

Can't people talk about what it meant, being verbally abused, or physically abused, and how that experience likely affected how they interpret things that happen to them, things that are communicated by a partner, i.e., criticism? Probably not, because all that is likely to be unconscious without therapy. We aren't all that in touch with how we distance, why we check out, or why we take things personally.

These are the things that really matter in relationships, you know, intimacy needs, our sensitivities. Just putting it out there. Something to think about.



Lou said…
Addicts and drunks do this. Check out, disappear. They find someone else to wear down.

I was only child, spent a lot of time in my room..reading/day dreaming. My husband came from a family of eight boys and a blaring TV in every room of the house. I probably don't have to tell you I think my husband talks TOO much!
Jack Steiner said…
My grandparents marriage/relationship is one of the few that really seems like a fairy tale to me.

They just celebrated their 75th wedding anniversary.
I think this is representative of how our society sees relationships in general. My wife (of 6 years...thank you) and I were talking about TV shows and how they have sex first, and then figure out how it affects their lives later. Since people see it on TV, they often live it out in their own lives. After all, that's "normal" right?

Still, the checking out thing seems to happen when people get scared, and I totally see that too. I was in a relationship like that, so I know what its like to be checked out on.

Good stuff. :)
Wait. What? said…
Well this hits home - I distance, and well I am in therapy now to figure out why.
Lisa said…
As always, good food for thought. While I have never been in a long-term relationship, I can see myself doing most of these "no's" you have listed as detrimental. I think I am setting myself up for a better relationship realizing this now, rather than trying to undo the harm I might cause later.
Isle Dance said…
--Has something they're afraid to reveal.

--Swore off relationships and can't believe these feelings would be lasting anyway, so why bother going through the risk to find out.

--Is watching long and hard to see if they can trust the other before considering taking action.

--It feels safe just flirting.

(Not that I know what this really means...)
Ah yes, in love with a charming and avoidant person. They are everywhere, aren't they? They're like bears, bumbling in, getting a few nibbles of food, and leaving behind a trail of paper and trash. The secret is to slooooow doooooown. Intellect does sometimes trump chemicals when it comes to matters of the heart--and dopamine.
Mary LA said…
This post fills me with so much sadness. Many of us who find an early solution in cutting off and distancing from abusive situations or escape social oppression by disappearing into exile will come to form relationships with those who are similar -- and inevitably both sides avoid commitment and then one of us does the vanishing act.

I somethimes think of it as an emotional diaspora.
Amanda said…
FAbulous I've always loved your blog. Hey the nursing blog carnival is coming up and I'm hosting - I'd be totally honored if you'd submit! Just email me or go to Thanks! :)
Glimmer said…
But the vanish-er is not just pulling that on the love object, I venture. Isn't it a lifelong coping mechanism, too, committed in other aspects of life as well?

It all gets to be too much, too loud, overwhelming. A child can run for the solace of the woods behind the house, literally. And continues to try to find that later, in other forms. And indeed it is called the DP, disappearing act. Or as my mother said, "she's gone deep underground."

The people doing this aren't all evil or conscious of what they are doing in the moment. They just can't think when they haven't learned how to process certain intense emotions. So they run.
Seren Dippity said…
I copied this from an advice column a very long time ago... (sorry, I didn't write down the source). But it seems so spot on.

Why do men hound you down, then disappear — poof! What do they get scared of, when you're smart, sexy and very attractive?

They disappear because the grass is always greener on the other side: they worry about what they're missing. Because they don't want to belong to a club that would have them as members. Because when the chase is over, there is no challenge, and when there is no challenge, there is no point. Because it's exhausting to worry — and care — about someone else all the time. Because commitment and intimacy can feel like the death of independence and freedom. Because there are things they give up in order to gain a relationship, and sometimes they think they're giving up more than they're getting. Because you've got issues they don't want to deal with. Because you've got issues even you don't want to deal with. Because they've got issues. Period. Because sometimes the expectation exceeds the reality. Because they've told all their good stories and have nothing interesting left to say. Because you fart in your sleep, chew with your mouth open or like the band that sings the theme song to "Friends." Because they don't know what they've got till it's gone. Because love is scary.
     The same goes for women.
therapydoc said…
Thanks LOU,
and what's crazy, JACK, is that they probably never spent a day in therapy.
JIM, probably the problem is (and I'm sure someone will tell me) that most of us really don't want to share, but we want the physical intimacy anyway.
AMANDA, I'll try to do it
DR. STEPH, LOVE the bear analogy,
GLIMMER, you're right, it's endemic,
SEREN DIPP Fantastic!
Rachie317 said…
I've been trying to explain this to my "chronic dater" friends who constantly try to figure out why the guy they've been seeing for 3 months suddenly stops returning their calls or resists making plans... they of course want to make it all about how THEY(the girl) did something wrong that drove the man away... and I keep banging my head into a wall.
Rachie317 said…
I've been trying to explain this to my "chronic dater" friends who constantly try to figure out why the guy they've been seeing for 3 months suddenly stops returning their calls or resists making plans... they of course want to make it all about how THEY(the girl) did something wrong that drove the man away... and I keep banging my head into a wall.
Syd said…
It sounds like commitment phobia to me. "Commitment phobia has its roots in the belief that when we love someone, we are responsible for their feelings rather than for our own."
And, also, sometimes people just have differing needs for "space". I think you've maybe touched on that, if I remember correctly. Personally, I need some alone time, and if I don't get it, I tend to withdrawl a little bit, turn off the phone, whatever, until I'm back on an even keel. I guess this falls under "g"?
porcini66 said…
For a very long time, I tried to force people in my life to maintain connection by "pathological caring". I would make sure that I told them that I cared, over and over again, until I got a response. And it was genuine caring, of a sort, or I thought it was. Someone died, I would make sure I was RIGHT there, being supportive. Someone sad?? Same thing. Someone needed to share their hurt - ohhhhh, I could help them with THAT! See, I couldn't feel my OWN grief or sadness or hurt, so I made sure to feel THEIRS - felt it for them, shouldered it for them, carried it as far as they let me. That was the right thing to do, right? That's what GOOD people did. Wasn't I so very strong?? Wasn't I such a good friend??

What I learned, over time (and with a really great TD) is that this REALLY was my way of making sure that they still loved MEEEEE...

It was my way of keeping my distance, too. By only dealing with THEIR emotions. By only concentrating on their hurts (and sometimes the joys, but I did better with hurts...), and never on mine, I never had to share what I thought, what I felt, what I wanted. I didn't even know HOW to do that. Am still working on it.

Boundaries vs. distancing....very intertwined, very hard to sort out sometimes. I like what the poster said above about healthy space to regain that even keel. I'm learning that it is indeed about balance. And that I count too.
Retriever said…
Other reasons why people vanish: assortative mating (we are attracted to people equally screwed up)
--they go home and visit a messed up family of origin and remember that they swore they would never marry, don't want to risk bringing more people like their relatives into the world
--they are becoming depressed
--they go off on a bender or are drug seeking
--they lose their job and are mortified and don't want to tell you
--they realize they love you and are terrified you will not love them if you really know them, so better to vanish than be rejected
--they're just not that interested in you
--the hot nurse on their clinical rotation put the moves on them and she is better in bed than you are
--somebody told them you have a fat mom and they are terrified you might end up like her
--somebody told them you two make a great couple
--their best friend hates you
--they saw your credit card bill and they don't want to be involved with a chronic overspender


As far as people vanishing, it happened to me several times in my youth, and I was devastated worse each time it did. Now, 22 years married, I am aware that I am the one who emotionally distances. Vanishes. I am physically present, but mentally far away. I find real life relationships of any kind so unnerving and stressful that I am more comfortable talking to my dog or my cats than to anyone. I have joked to my one remaining friend of 22 years(with whom I have a very superficial relationship these days because of different politics and views of religion and childrearing) that my marriage has lasted so long because my husband has to keep struggling to get my attention. Mostly, I have that Woody Allen view of love (any club that would have me, I don't want to belong to).

But I'm probably just jaded because my college aged kids are driving me buggy and my spouse just gave himself a new TV for our anniversary...sigh
Glimmer said…
Honestly, there are people who have no earthly idea why he (or she) pulls a D.P. And are embarrassed by the behavior.

The truth is I am married today because my husband refused to be D.P.-ed on. I do not recommend it for anyone, frankly. But it is what it is.
Karen Zgoda said…
I'm not sure how else to reach you so hopefully you'll see this! I'm currently writing an article for the New Social Worker magazine on social workers who blog and would love to ask you a few questions about you and your blog. I can refer to you as your Twitter name, therapydoc if you like. You can read my most recent column here:

Please email me at karen[at] if you are interested. Thanks!
Wondering Soul said…
At some point, my boundaries turned into bloody 50 foot walls and a part of me is always behind them.
I never mean to disappear. I think a part of me doesn't really appear in the first place.
Thanks for your post. It rreally mae me think!
Ella said…
Every guy, I wanted him to fill up that empty space, the room left in my heart that should have been filled with love by my parents. I am sure that scared the frak out them! They all had some sensible reason why it wouldn't work out....

My husband was apparently undaunted by such a challenge. Luckily he has great parents (part of the package) who love us all. We both went for love and acceptance vs. perfection (sorry Mom!).
Anonymous said…
The timing of your post (in relation to my life) is unbelievable! I am a female, late 40's, who has the disappearing act perfected. There are so many reasons I do this, one of them is fear. Fear of being left first, the pain of rejection - if I don't leave him, then eventually he will leave me, so I will leave first and he'll be left wondering what happened because he thought things were great.

At the moment I am attempting another relationship. I have disappeared twice and come back, but could sense that he would not put up with that again. So here I am. Wondering what a healthy relationshiop feels like. Wondering if I should make a commitment this time and actually try to work things out.

My friends tell me I am too picky. But with this guy they say I am settling for someone and that we make a ridiculous looking couple, that he's not smart enough, cute enough....etc.

I am somewhere in the middle wondering why I can't just be happy for once. Of course I could blame it all on childhood sexual abuse and rape, the early death of my father, the suicide of my best friend...the list goes on. It boils down to me. I'm just messed up.

I like what Glimmer said.
therapydoc said…
i love you people. These comments are fantastic.
therapydoc said…
SOC WK 24/7, best not to bang head against wall.

SYD, this whole responsible for the other's feelings is so unconscious for most people. Thanks for bringing it up.

MIDWIFE, g, no question.

PORCINI, it's nice that you figured all that out. feels better, right?

RETRIEVER, thanks, and that Woody Allen line has always been a favorite of mine, too.

GLIM, I guess that's one way to get the girl.

WONDERING, don't you also wonder how much people can actually see anyway?

ELLA, how lucky you got the right guy, and that he found you, and this is obviously what he needed, too.

ANON, it takes years to figure all this stuff out. Take your time.
Awesome Blog. Great title.

Keep up the great work. I refer nearly everybody who comes to see me for therapy. Unfortunatly as a psychiatrist I don't get to do much psychotherapy myself. Although about 90% of the work I do is psychotherapeutic and has little to do with the biological effects of the meds. When pts come to see me for "med managment", sometimes the metaphor of the med and the transferance and acting out around the med are more significant than the neurochemistry.
Sadly it is hard for many family doctors (practicing a lot of psychiatry) and a lot of psychotherapists (giving a lot of para-communication and mixed advice on psychopharmacology) to understand that.
Great Blog

Joseph J. Sivak MD
Kellen said…
People who are in love with love do this as well. I hate to use the addiction ideology, but they are addicted to the "high" of being in love and when the hormones burn off, they move to the next one. We are a short-attention-span culture, full of very needy people, often looking to others to fill them up - preferably without any time or effort or there part. We want drive through relationships - quick and cheap. But relationships of any value don't work that way.
therapydoc said…
Really good point. Thanks.
Anonymous said…
i stumbled upon your post, it caught my attention so i started reading. i am on the other side of this equation: i am one of those who have mastered the art of the disappearing act. i'm someone whose longest relationship to date lasted 3 months. and i don't leave because we had a fight, or because we're having problems. i leave when things are great, when we're having a blast and i'm sure when the other person starts to feel that our relationship evolved to a higher level. i'm a very open and friendly person. yes, i do have my bad days but i am general happy and easy going. i've had my share of lemons in my life some harsher than others but i've always been able to be happy again. i am a cliche in some ways, i do stop to smell the roses, take off my shoes at random so i can feel the grass beneath my feet ... i do carry a deep sadness inside of me but it doesn't affect my day to day life any longer, i've grieved and a few times a year i grieve again then let go. but i do leave with no explanation, no follow up, nothing. when i leave, i leave and i don't look back. i know my actions are hurtful to someone i care about, and i do care about the guys i date and have been in love with someone once. but still i leave. my friends call it a detachment problem, i don't really know what it is. i'm great at being friends with people, i have many friends with whom i have shared a long lasting friendship with but when it comes to relationships i've never been able to provide the commitment that so many seek. to clarify, i've two timed someone or cheated on someone. when i'm dating somebody, they are the only person and i truly enjoy getting to know them and growing in our relationship - somehow, i'm just not able to be in it for the long haul. i know it's not them or anything against them. and the trigger to leave starts subconsciously i don't plan on it however once the decision to leave is reached, it's final and i disappear.
oddly enough, right now, i'm growing to really care about someone. i've known him for a while he is one of my friends best friends and the majority of the time we are getting to know each other, he is out there hoping countries on a great adventure. i wouldn't call what we have a relationship since we are geographically apart right now but he is the first guy that has hold my attention past my 3 months threshold. and i can't help but wonder if my pathology will also translate to him if he was always present in my daily life. and may be i'm also one of those who wants what they can't have, i don't know. but for the first time ever, i'm actually afraid that i would mess things up with him too with my little pattern of just moving on. bc, this once i want to fight that urge if it does come.
so we'll see.

thank you for your post, it gave me the voice to the other side of the story. the thoughts that i've never allowed the guys i've been involved with to share with me because i didn't give them a chance to have an explanation as why it is that i've just suddenly up and left in the middle of a great relationship.
thanks again,
therapydoc said…
Well, no wonder he (they) love you, ANON. Thanks for sharing that. I think it's very helpful.
Glimmer said…
Ex-runner here, I understand, Anon. I ran when I felt completely overwhelmed. I didn't plan it, this was not a reasoned, manipulative thing, but an overpowering emotional response, run or drown. And the money was on me not staying in my current relationship. But 17 years later, I'm seriously dug in. As I said, my husband would not be DP'ed on, in a persistently friendly way. But I have no idea what happened. I got tired maybe. Or just one of life's mysteries.
Anonymous said…
@therapydoc - what do you mean by "no wonder he (they) love you"? if you ask any of them what they feel for me, i'm pretty sure it wouldn't be in any endearing terms :) - resentment and anger comes to mind

@glimmer - so now that you have been married for 17 years how do you feel about your husband? do you still feel the same way you did before you had the urges to run or differently? and do you still have those urges now even though you are married? you make me hopeful that may be someday i will be able to get past my pattern. the funny part about the whole thing is my guy friends always say "you're such a guy when it comes to relationships and yet you are a very girly girl" and even though they say it jokingly, it does hit home. all i can say is that even though it doesn't justify the act of hurting someone, my disappearing act is not a manipulative or malicious thing that i do on purpose - it's like you said, it's an overpowering decision that doesn't leave much room for other options so i leave.
Glimmer said…
Like you said, we were friends first, which helped. The urge to run was very powerful for years, I admit. We had a child, though, and that grounded me. I do NOT recommend that as a device to keep the runner homebound. It could backfire disastrously. I kept my attention on my child, I admit, during the worst times. My husband was frustrated but patient with this, out of love for us both. And part of him, I think, knew not to push too much.

Recently we went on a trip to the ocean, just the two of us. And I found myself breathing a sigh of relief. In an odd way I felt like I had grown comfortable finally with staying, that it is a habit I have finally learned. And of course this obviously was the right man for me and he came along at the right time. That may not sound romantic. But it has freed me, finally. He is my family and so much more. I can't even begin to put it into words. It took work. He still drives me nuts. But we are seeing the payoff of that work, of the constancy.
Mmoore said…
The last post was from 2009.
And yet.
This post still beckons.
Because it's true.
And to be honest,
If I could make money finding magicians,
I'd be a millionaire.
Forgive me for calling those unconsciously aware
Of the Damage they are doing by disappearing "magicians".

Forgive me for not meaning that apology.

At least not today.
I don't want to be helpful or courteous or the bigger person at the moment.

I want to scream.
I want to scream at a real life magician after he reappears, "You're only fooling people! In real life people don't come back!"

But I won't.

I may however start applying to be a "magicians assistant".
At least then I'll get something out of a relationship ...

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