There is possibly nothing more heart wrenching, anxiety provoking and painful than when someone you are dating begins to take a step back with no explanation. I have personally been on both ends of this phenomenon and am often asked countless questions of what to do when this begins to happen.
Recently, I had a client who was dating a guy who seemed wonderful in the first few weeks but she stated that she saw a pattern in his behavior after each date. While they spent a great deal of time together on the weekend, he seemed to need space following the date – except he didn’t seem to recognize this pattern. While conventional dating advice would tell this client to ignore her anxiety and needs and let him be, I encouraged her to reach out and ask for what she needed and to check in as soon as possible. After all, dating is supposed to be about whether someone can meet our needs and if we do not explore this, then we do not obtain the information we need to make a thoughtful decision about this person.
So my client took my advice and rather than acting out (e.g. go on other dates, ignore his phone calls, pretend to be busy), she wrote a thoughtful email and asked for more consistent communication – like they used to have. Guess what? He responded instantly and rectified the situation and stated that he did not need space. Things were back on track. Fast forward a couple more weeks and she continued to report that his behavior was a little all over the place and that he seemed unusually stressed but wouldn’t really tell her why. He left for a trip to visit family, something happened to cause a family member to land in the hospital, and poof – he simply vanished into thin air.
While many men and women pull back for less serious reasons, the lack of communication is always unsettling. We can get angry pretty quickly by thinking, “How freaking hard is it to send a text message saying you are going to go MIA for a couple of weeks?!” It is easy to start to fall into the trap of reaching out excessively trying to get an answer. I worked with my client on a plan of how to cope with the uncertainty without getting any further information from this person seeing as she had sent a text message that has not gotten a response. Her plan consisted as follows:
- Cultivate some gratitude for the situation: I know what you are thinking – you want me to say thank you for treating me this way?! Yes. I do. More times than not this behavior is not causing your reaction but is triggering a previous hurt or trauma from another relationship. It is an opportunity to explore this past hurt in the moment and practice taking care of yourself. The shift in mindset will help you better prepare a more thoughtful response to the situation. This was a challenge for my client, but after a couple of days forcing herself to write in a journal about why this was an opportunity rather than a tragedy, she reported she was actually relieved to have some time to take care of herself like she used to on the weekends. It also helped her clarify her own relationship goals and get her to stop thinking about his needs over her own needs.
- Understand that all good men and women sometimes take a step back in a relationship: If things are going well or there are other stressors, it can cause someone to feel like they are unable to attend to a relationship. If you become passive aggressive, act out or in any other way protest the separation, you are telling the other person that you are not an emotionally capable adult. Effective communication is different than telling him what a jerk he is being. I once dated a man who seemed too immediately available when my work became challenging and I needed to focus. I was also very scared about the relationship as something simply felt off. I clearly asked for some space. Rather than giving it to me, he ignored me and was completely passive aggressive over the next few days. He reached out incessantly even though I was 6500 miles away and called me “rude” for asking for space. Needless to say, this relationship did not last long. Had he simply said, “No problem. Take the time you need and I’ll be here when you’re ready” and actually followed through, things would have been very different. If he had also stated that he was scared and asked for what he needed (without anger or passive aggressive behavior), an open conversation may have also resulted in a better outcome as well.
- Use this as an opportunity for self-care: Learning to take care of yourself is a lifelong journey. If the other person can see that you are out and about taking care of yourself and not sitting home waiting for a phone call or text message, they may be able to reengage with you when they are ready and appreciate the gift of space you have given them. By doing so you will also be allowing yourself to be open to other opportunities and keeping your own emotional health on track. Men, more so than women, worry that women are going to be an emotional rollercoaster and are too reliant on them for their needs to be met. While these men need to learn some better skills at being a secure base for a partner, it important to recognize this as a fear and to show that you are emotionally healthy enough to care for yourself.
- Cultivate a supportive and loving response with appropriate boundaries: No one says that you have to like the situation or put up with it if it is causing too much stress. Dating someone insecure is exhausting and frustrating. However, if you have followed the steps above, you may realize that you are looking for this person to fill your needs rather than giving them what they may need. If something has truly happened in someone’s life, like my client above, the appropriate response would be to leave a phone message or send a short email expressing your support during a difficult time, letting him know that you are there if he needs something and expressing that you are going to respect his need for space. That’s it. Sending this type of message demonstrates your ability to be compassionate and loving (because contrary to popular belief, this is what we ALL want) but it also sends the message that you are not going to fret and allow the uncertainty to take over your life. It is a model of good communication.
- When he or she does reach out, welcome him or her back. If things have been going well and there is a shift, chances are that he or she will come back and reengage when he or she is ready. It is important to not criticize or be angry with him or her. Other times, you may be able to tell that they may be about to ghost you. The good news is if you have followed these steps, there is nothing for you to do at this point other than live your life. If they come back, welcome them. At a later point ask to have a conversation about how this went for both of you at a mutually convenient time. If you are being ghosted, you are with someone who is not emotionally developed and there is nothing for you to do. You have already said your peace and it is okay to simply move on.
- Practice giving space to other important relationships in your life. It is important for you to become comfortable with the thought that someone may not always be immediately available. If you are capable of not taking this behavior personally with other people and it only surfaces when you are dating, then you can be sure that it is triggering past negative experiences. The more that you can rely on your other experiences, say a friend who didn’t call for two weeks because of work, the more likely you will be able to not take this behavior personally. Easier sad than done but thoughtful practice can help you learn this skill.
Remember that the first 6 – 8 weeks is the time period that an emotionally avoidant individual’s behavior may completely flip 180 degrees. These individuals are more likely to ghost and to ignore your emotional needs. It is why I advocate asking for what you need early on in a relationship so you can ascertain the data needed to decide if this person is a good fit for you or not. My client did that early on and received a positive response prior to unforeseen circumstances taking place. Had she not done this, his disappearance would have felt more personal and it would have been too difficult to maintain her emotional well-being during the time she was giving him space. As of now, she is still waiting to see if he will reappear when he is not feeling so overwhelmed and stressed. Until then, she is leading her life, going out and being open to any and all possibilities that may come her way. She is also working in her coaching on whether she can be with someone who handles stress in this manner. It may not be an overall good long-term fit but she is grateful that this happened early on and not months or years into her relationship.