How to gain closure from ambiguous loss/break up
May 2, 2022 8:43 AM   Subscribe

My (43, F) (now ex) boyfriend (43, m) of 8 months has gone no contact with me and without warning. I'm in therapy (originally for abandonment issues), things are slowly getting better, but I feel like I'm still waiting for him to reach out to me. From my perspective, we had a really great relationship. Communication seemed to be open, we had a lot of fun, had a deep connection, and were making plans for the summer. In mid-March, he encountered multiple stressors within a few days of each other and from what I could tell, spiraled into a depressive episode. I only know this from the VERY minimal contact I've had with him from that time.

He has not once asked for space or for anything. I've asked him what he needs from me, I've let him know I'm here for him, I've told him what I need from him, etc. It has now been 5 weeks since I've heard from him in any form. It has been nightmarish, heart breaking, and just absolutely awful to deal with. I'm wondering if anyone who has dealt with this kind of situation or ambiguous loss has any tips, wisdom, recommendations on healing and moving forward?
posted by retrofitted to Human Relations (23 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
If he's genuinely your ex-boyfriend, which isn't completely clear to me from what you've written here, then no-contact is common and to be expected.

Please leave him alone. Stop reaching out. Block all communications channels. That's the first step toward healing for you, too.
posted by humbug at 8:45 AM on May 2 [10 favorites]

Response by poster: For clarity, I'm considering us broken up because I have not heard from him (we haven't had any kind of conversation about our relationship since this happened). I care about him very deeply as someone I had a strong connection with, but can't consider him a partner if he isn't communicating with me.
posted by retrofitted at 8:50 AM on May 2 [2 favorites]

Did you definitively have the talk about being official? I ask because I do know a few people who were in similar situations and in at least one case it turned out they had been thinking of themselves as in a relationship and was absolutely devastated at being ghosted instead of dumped properly, and the other person had been assuming it was fwb/just a casual fling. And this was after a year.

I'm wondering if anyone who has dealt with this kind of situation or ambiguous loss has any tips, wisdom, recommendations on healing and moving forward?

Continue therapy. It's good that you're already doing that. It sucks to have your existing abandonment issues compounded like this, but lean on this support structure as much as you can.

Accept, in your mind, that you might never get closure on this. Life isn't perfect and it sounds as though this is messy enough that you might be waiting forever for answers that will never come. Move on romantically and emotionally. Going on a few light-hearted dates might help you realise that there are plenty of other people out there who will have deep connections with you, who won't just drop you because they have a stressful time.
posted by fight or flight at 8:58 AM on May 2 [3 favorites]

It sounds like he's trying to ghost you. I say "trying" because he hasn't contacted you except for minimally for just over a month, but you keep reaching out. You also mention that you're in therapy and that it was originally for abandonment issues.

Based on his behavior over the past month-plus, I would say that you've been abandoned again. (Yes, I'm using that word deliberately.) His leaving the relationship may or may not have anything to do with you. His method seems a little immature/rude, but that isn't the issue at this point - the relationship is no more. Mark this particular relationship as "DONE, OVER" in your mind and heart, and move on.

If it makes you feel better, draft up a message to him telling him that, while you enjoyed your time with him, you need something different now and, based on his sudden lack of communication, you think that he does too. Wish him well, and actually mean it. DON'T send this email unless / until he reaches out to you again asking for (or seeming to ask for) a resumption of contact. (You might even want to write this message out on paper, then burn it. Whatever will help you close this chapter in your life and move forward with a whole heart.)
posted by Tailkinker to-Ennien at 9:00 AM on May 2 [5 favorites]

Best answer: For clarity, I'm considering us broken up because I have not heard from him

A healthy way to reframe this might be to say "I'm considering us broken up because not hearing from someone for an extended period even after reaching out is a dealbreaker for me."

Abandonment issues go hand-in-hand with feeling powerless, but in truth you have the power to choose the treatment you'll put up with or walk away from. Reclaiming that agency leaves no room for ambiguity and no need for closure.
posted by headnsouth at 9:03 AM on May 2 [97 favorites]

Best answer: To let you know that you're not alone, yes, someone I was happily dating for a long time, left very suddenly without explanation. Words can't describe how devastated I was at the time. After a few years, I reached closure. When something like this question brings him to mind, I picture how my life would be with him still in it, and I'm so grateful for the life I actually have.

The main thing that helped me was journaling (a lot of of stuff came up in the journaling process that I was able to bring to therapy). Sometimes I let my imagination go wild, and I journaled about what I dreamed that relationship could lead to. Other times I disciplined myself to be clear-eyed and honest about facts and timelines, long lists of pros and cons, what was actually said and done to the best of my memory, how I actually felt from day to day. No idea if this will be the case for you, but I gradually realized that his leaving wasn't such a mystery after all. I had a lot of clues in front of me that I hadn't taken time to mull over and piece together.
posted by Former Congressional Representative Lenny Lemming at 9:11 AM on May 2 [3 favorites]

I would send a final text saying, haven't heard from you, so am moving on, good luck and goodbye.

I did this is a not quite similar situation and it gave me some feeling of control.
posted by rhonzo at 9:33 AM on May 2 [17 favorites]

As FCRLL suggests, what you need at this point is processing. Get it out, do it over and over if you need to (this is a common way that trauma is processed), write out the hopes you had that are now disappointments. Do be a little bit mindful of the story you're telling yourself - avoid narratives in which you caused this or deserved this unless you can truly and objectively point to some kind of abuse you were instigating - but otherwise get the feelings out.

Really the only way this behavior is NOT a dealbreaker (and even then the decision is still yours to make for yourself even if it seems unsupportive, as you have to take care of yourself first and it is often inadvisable to try to sustain a short-term relationship in the face of serious medical/mental health recovery) is if he is in custody, hospitalized, or experiencing a psychotic or delusional episode. I personally suffer from occasional serious but (so far) not inpatient/intensive-grade depression and anxiety, and I don't think a weeks-long depressive no-contact withdrawal at that level is compatible with being healthy enough to maintain a relatively new relationship; it's hard enough with a cohabiting marriage/LTR though it is also significantly more difficult to disappear off the radar like that.

It's really not ambiguous. What he's done - it doesn't matter why - is not compatible with a healthy relationship. It is sad for him if he is unwell right now, and you can hope that he gets whatever it is he needs and be worried about him, but he absolutely is an ex at this point and that is a decision you can make all on your own. Otherwise if he's just too immature to handle breaking up with you like a grownup or thinks this is a way to see if he can do better before officially calling it off, you also should decide it's over unilaterally. Move on to the processing stage, and if at some point he comes back around it would be best if you just remain decided that being with him is not in the cards anymore.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:46 AM on May 2 [7 favorites]

I'm really sorry. Regardless of what kind of understanding you had, it's not OK for someone to just ghost a person they've been seeing romantically for 8 months. You actually sound like you've been handling this with a lot of grace and maturity, but it's also ok to be pissed off about it, and that can be an important part of the closure process. You deserve at least a breakup conversation (or even, like, a text).

I like rhonzo's advice, I bet it would help, for you, to put a cap on the relationship. Then go get a drink with a friend and vent and let them tell you he doesn't deserve you.
posted by lunasol at 9:48 AM on May 2 [11 favorites]

When I was young and callow I was on the other side of this. Life events hit, I underwent a major shift in priorities, and the other person just wasn’t relevant anymore. Rather than deal with it maturely I ghosted them.

Over time I realized what a prick I had been and when I ran into them at a mutual friend’s wedding years later I apologized. But when I originally ghosted them I was too wrapped up in my personal changes, as well as being too clueless, to do the right thing.

I would expect more maturity from a man that age, but I have to say that when you have a sudden change in perspective you’re far more interested in the new than the old. From what you’re describing it sounds like he’s moved on. The door is shut and it’s time to walk away.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 10:48 AM on May 2 [3 favorites]

Best answer: This sounds really awful, and I'm very sorry this is happening to you. It sounds incredibly confusing, hurtful, and stressful. Ugh.

I have a few suggestions for you from a bunch of reading I did about break-ups a few years ago. I also used a break up app once, and it was helpful. I used one called Mend, though I think the pricing structure is different now. That article lists a few and what they offer. I might try that first one they list. Probably can't hurt!

The other thing I read was about endings and closures and how helpful rituals can be to help us move forward (think of the formality we have around graduations and funerals, for example). You don't have that, or even any sense of a proper break up, so that's something you can try to give yourself. So I'd encourage you to do some sort of break up ritual or ceremony, by yourself or with a friend, if that feels right.

For example: hand write a letter (that you will never ever mail or share! this is important!) to your ex saying all the things you wish you could say, how you're angry and hurt and confused and what you miss and what you don't miss. Write by hand so you're away from devices and also so you're not tempted to email all this. Write whatever it feels like you need to say. Then you can do a few things, like burn or bury the letter. But make a THING of it. If you tear the letter into a million pieces and bury it into the ground, also say, "Goodbye [ex's name]" when you do it.

Or, take a nice walk to a lovely and isolated place, and, when you get there, just absolutely scream out your anger and say goodbye.

I'm sure there are other things you could do, but what I mean to suggest is that the way to make this break up less ambiguous is to create an ending ritual or activity or ceremony for yourself, to help you draw an end line and move forward. That won't mean you won't need to do other things like people are mentioning here, but formally acknowledging a loss and this grief to yourself, and helping to meet your own needs, might be one way to start resetting.

Again, I have a lot of compassion for you. For someone to be making summer plans with you and then just stop communicating -- that's just terrible, unkind and so thoughtless.
posted by bluedaisy at 11:10 AM on May 2 [7 favorites]

Wait! Someone you had a great relationship with suddenly disappeared? And they are 40+ years old?! And they were in the midst of a depressive episode?! And you're not even entertaining a thought that something actually happened to this person?!

One of the most comforting thoughts about being in a relationship is that someone is actually going to come looking if I don't turn up one day. Are you keeping your end of the relationship bargain? (I apologize, if I misread the amount of contact you had/didn't have and if this comes across as too harsh.)
posted by Dotty at 11:21 AM on May 2 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Dotty, thank you for making sure. Yes, he's still alive, working, living in his house a mile from me.
posted by retrofitted at 11:37 AM on May 2 [4 favorites]

Turn that sadness into anger. What a dick!!
posted by St. Peepsburg at 11:43 AM on May 2 [7 favorites]

Best answer: I feel like I'm still waiting for him to reach out to me

Here's a kind of off-the-wall suggestion that really helped me.

I wanted a conversation in which I could express my hurt, feel heard, hear his perspective, and then wrap things up with some kind of apology and parting words. Writing things down wasn't helping much. Talking to friends wasn't helping much. I really wanted to have this conversation with him but he wasn't there. So I created a... surrogate him.

In my case it was literally a stack of plastic bins outside on my back porch, approximately the same size as a sitting person might be, and the handle of the top one was a bit curved which made it look like a mouth, and I anthropomorphized this stack of bins into being the person who ghosted me. When I wanted to talk to him, I would go on the back porch and... talk to him. Or yell, scream, cry, hug, sit next to, whatever. And the stack of bins would always hear me out. Sometimes I would imagine "him" saying things back. Sometimes "he" would just listen. It was shockingly effective to act out, in real life, using my body, what I wanted to get from him. It took a few sessions to feel like I had said everything I wanted. If I found I had more to say, "he" was always there. And when I was ready, I also got to physically and metaphorically experience myself moving on, by using my legs to walk away from "him."

Acting it out with my body was what finally convinced my nervous system to let go of replaying the "I'm still waiting for him to respond" loop.

A few weeks later, the wind knocked over the stack of plastic bins, and the surrogate was no more.
posted by danceswithlight at 11:57 AM on May 2 [46 favorites]

So I created a... surrogate him.

I love this idea. I think this kind of thing aligns really well with what I'm talking about, about having some kind of closure that you create for yourself.
posted by bluedaisy at 12:10 PM on May 2 [1 favorite]

Wish him well, and actually mean it

This is an absurd statement. You can’t make yourself feel a certain way.
posted by Violet Hour at 2:07 PM on May 2 [13 favorites]

Yeah, a 43-year old who does something like this is a dick, no matter what kind of sad story he's got going on. If he's going to work and otherwise keeping the basics of his life going, he can send you a text, even if he can't handle a conversation. Depression etc is serious, but it is not a license to treat other people like crap. You get to be angry and are under no obligation to wish somebody like that well, at least not for now. But think about the giant selfish-prick-sized bullet you've dodged here. You deserve so much better than a guy whose head is so far up his own rear end.

I went through something like this myself a few years ago, and it helped me to take a modicum of control by sending a text saying "I haven't heard from you so I assume your priorities have changed. Your handling of the situation has made it clear that we are not compatible and should have no further contact." Then I blocked him on all platforms, journaled, yelled at a stuffed toy that looked like him, and did a whole bunch of the things that he never wanted to do with me. I gave myself permission to grieve. After a few weeks I felt nothing but relief when I looked back at that time in my life.

I did not add the "you will need all the luck you can get because you are such a jerk" to my text but when he tried to grovelingly apologize years later, I learned that he got that part of the message anyway. I forgave him in the sense that I no longer think about what happened on the rare occasions we run into each other, but I will always know who he is. You know who this guy is, and the good part is that you are no longer trying to build your life on sand.
posted by rpfields at 3:24 PM on May 2 [11 favorites]

Best answer: So, I had this happen to me when I was about your age: I was ghosted - and it started a week before my birthday - by a man with whom I was discussing marriage. It was a long distance relationship of about a year, but we had known each other a long time; it was a rekindled relationship from college, some 20 years earlier. When I say serious, I mean I was looking for jobs in his city (my hometown) with his full encouragement and support. I mean I kind of thought that the engagement ring was coming on my birthday. I mean we were looking at houses together. Then, out of the blue, he just . . . vanished. No responses to phone calls, letters or texts. I was beside myself. I thought he died. I got a mutual friend to go to his apartment to see if he was alive.

Yeah, he was fine. He just wasn't feeling it, I guess.

This was over a decade ago and it still hurts, to be honest. How did I cope with it? I had great friends and family who were really supportive and helpful. Then my entire life fell completely apart a couple months later and by the time I recovered I wasn't the same person anymore. After living through my mother's death, caring for my aunt with dementia, a huge family feud, my teenage son getting into serious trouble, two moves and a few more things, I had gotten to the point where I didn't give a good goddamn about some loser who couldn't even be bothered to man up long enough to call me and say it was over. I do not recommend this method but I will say that it can help get your priorities straight.

Fast forward two years. He had the nerve to basically booty call me at the beginning of a holiday weekend. Seriously. Not a word, not a murmur, for two years and suddenly it's all, hey baby, what are you doing this weekend? I told him what I thought of him and what his ghosting had done to me and some of what I had been going through. In a story, this would mean I had closure and felt fine after that. Unfortunately, no, the whole conversation was miserable and I wish I hadn't answered the phone because UGH and then my brain decided we should relive the whole ghosting in full technicolor. It also gave him a chance to say some mean and stupid things I wish I hadn't heard (although they did make clear just what bad news he was.) But what it did do was remove the nagging doubt in my mind that this was in any way my fault. That was helpful.

Therefore I'm going to take that nagging doubt away from you. This is in no way your fault. Consider him a bullet, dodged. You are genuinely better off without him. With the benefit of time I have realized that he was a disaster - dating him in college was a mistake and then dating him again in my 40s was an even bigger mistake. I'm so much better off without him in my life, I can't even tell you. Who needs people like that? Nobody. Not me, and not you.

And if he calls in a few months or years? Don't answer the phone. He is not worth your precious time.
posted by mygothlaundry at 3:43 PM on May 2 [23 favorites]

I am sorry this happened to you. Getting completely ghosted after eight months of dating is big-F Fucked Up. It sounds like you’re feeling sort of frozen by everything, and I think that makes sense for a bunch of reasons, but…what do you think would happen if you got rip-roaring mad? I heard a therapist say recently that anger is (sometimes) healthy, because anger activates change. Part of moving on is having that anger burn bright enough to light the path forward.

Imagine you had a magic crystal ball right before you guys got together, and in it, you found out that THIS would be the way he’d break up with you. You’d never go out with him in the first place, right? Because someone who behaves that way is cruel. Well, I have good news and bad news: The bad news is that the ball isn’t magic. But the good news is that it is still showing the same image: THIS is how he’s breaking up with you. You can decide right now not to go out with him.
posted by Charity Garfein at 4:45 PM on May 2 [9 favorites]

I was introduced to the concept of ambiguous loss in a comment from a very helpful person responding to my Ask a few years ago. It turned out to be one of the touchstones of the recovery that followed, in part because I was able to bring up the concept with my (then very new to me) therapist.

I'm still amazed at how... I don't know, inaccurate? unconsidered? flimsy? my thoughts about "closure" had been until I was suddenly faced with a grave personal situation over which I had control of nothing other than how I directed my own focus. But, yes, like Charity Garfein says above, your experience is like a broken crystal ball that can only tell you what's happening right now, but you can reflect on how you would've dealt with this situation if you'd known the circumstances of his withdrawal some time before (or after) you'd invested so much attachment in your relationship with him. All of the perspective you can gain will come from yourself now, hopefully with the support and introspection that you can get from supportive family, trusted friends, and a knowledgable therapist. Heck I even got some stunningly insightful commentary from the occasional bus driver or other total stranger who encourntered me when I was falling apart in public and leant an understanding hand (and maybe a tissue or offer of a hug). Where I did not get any closure or valuable feedback: from my ex. That was a very sad realization, but a poignant one. Eventually that sadness was--I can say in hindsight--ultimately outweighed by the manifold joys of surviving an event like this. Realizing how close you are to your mom and sister and kids. Finding a deeper understanding of your own values. Maybe even meeting someone in the future with whom this experience resonates. And, bizarrely (for me), recognizing that your brain's physiology will transform the grief you're feeling now into something entirely different--wisdom, ease, dispassion, etc.--no matterwhat you do. I mean that is powerful stuff that is, in the moment, not always the stuff that feels good to here. But there it is. You will get there, too.

I found great focus and kindnes and growth in this workbook, as an adjunct to therapy.

Be well.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 4:31 AM on May 3 [8 favorites]

I don't know if you'd be comfortable doing this but I think it would improve the quality of the advice you're getting if you were willing to quote or just closely paraphrase the last 2-3 messages he sent you, even if they were months back.

IF the last things he said to you were normal-ish things for a boyfriend to say, I think that you should maybe break up with him. and don't be kind about it. I know you said you already consider him an ex because he's just gone, but he failed the basic human standard of telling you he was leaving you. since he did not give you that, you get to take it away from him; this will be your decision, not his. I'm sure it is wishful thinking to imagine that taking control in this manner will be significant help to your abandonment issues but I do think it wouldn't hurt.

If he is just in the grips of a miserable period and, if left alone, would eventually wander back into your life with the expectation of picking up where he left off, he can still try to do that after being dumped. it's just that he would have to apologize and confront what he's done to you, first, and that would be a good thing. I don't know whether it's realistic to imagine he might eventually reappear (hence the wish to know what exactly his final communications were) but I don't think it's a good thing to make him think that if he ever does, you'll be right there waiting and pining and ready to forgive. especially if he doesn't plan on coming back, he doesn't deserve to rest all his memories of you on the soft cushion of your final kind acceptance. you can't force anger before it's ready, but when it does come, I think that the memory of a series of unanswered pleas to know 'what he needs from you' will not be a pleasant one.

that doesn't mean you can't wait and pine and fantasize in the privacy of your own mind. some of that is inevitable. but at this point, if he is not actually incapacitated and hospitalized, he does not and did not deserve those assurances that you understand, are giving him space, etc etc. if he ever asked you to stop calling/writing him, you would have no right to give him a final fuck-off in the way I suggest. but as far as I understand it, he never did.
posted by queenofbithynia at 2:29 PM on May 3 [1 favorite]

I was introduced to the concept of ambiguous loss in a comment from a very helpful person responding to my Ask a few years ago. It turned out to be one of the touchstones of the recovery that followed, in part because I was able to bring up the concept with my (then very new to me) therapist.

That was me. Glad to know it’s resonated. I remember your heartbreaking situation and glad I could give you something in that moment.
posted by bluedaisy at 3:56 PM on May 3 [4 favorites]

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