Experienced Heartbreak? The 5 Stages of Abandonment
One night Susan Anderson’s significant other, the love of her life, told her that he didn’t love her anymore — and he was leaving. “It came as a complete shock,” Anderson writes in The Abandonment Recovery Workbook. “We had been madly in love, deeply connected through our mutual love of nature, art, music, and so many immeasurable things. We’d led vital, interdependent lives, enhanced each other’s growth, traveled the world together, built a family, a home, and celebrated life together for nearly 20 years.”
Sometimes, we are abandoned suddenly. Out of nowhere. Other times, a relationship experiences years of unraveling.
Either way, it’s painful. It’s as though the pain reverberates throughout our bodies, the sound getting louder and louder, the ache getting deeper and deeper.
Abandonment demolishes our foundation. It colors the lenses through which we see ourselves, our relationships and our lives. According to Anderson, a psychotherapist who’s worked with clients dealing with trauma, grief and loss for 30 years, abandonment triggers feelings of unworthiness. It makes us feel like we don’t belong. It makes us feel like we have zero control.
We blame ourselves for losing such an amazing, loving partner. We think our lives will be meaningless without this person. We think we will be miserable and alone. Forever. We think we will never love anyone else.
Based on her work with clients and her own recovery from abandonment, Anderson realized that “abandonment has its own kind of grief — a powerful grief universal to human beings.” She separates this process into five stages that spell out the word SWIRL: shattering, withdrawal, internalizing, rage and lifting.
In The Abandonment Recovery Workbook, a compassionate and practical guide, Anderson lays out the process along with stories, tools and activities to help readers genuinely heal. She also shares suggestions on starting your own abandonment support group. Below, you’ll find more detail on each stage from Anderson’s book.
Shattering: You feel utterly devastated and confused. You’re in a state of shock and panic. “You feel symbiotically attached to your lost love — as if you couldn’t survive alone,” Anderson writes. At times, you feel sorrow and despair. And at times, you feel a flicker of hope.
Withdrawal: Whether your partner was actually amazing or a big jerk, you still experience withdrawal symptoms. “Abandonment arouses the most primal of instincts — namely, our powerful mammalian instinct to bond,” Anderson writes. Our bodies essentially declare a state of emergency, and our nervous system follows suit by releasing stress hormones. Which means you might be unable to sleep. You might lose your appetite and lose weight. You might listen for the sound of your ex’s car in the driveway. You might search for them in a sea of strangers.
In fact, love withdrawal is similar to heroin withdrawal, because our symptoms are just as intense. According to Anderson, “You are withdrawing from the companionship, security, and sense of belonging you have grown accustomed to. At the neurobiological level, relationships are addictions. When you’re bonded to someone, your body produces its own powerful opioid drugs, including endorphins, to which you become addicted — nature’s way of promoting procreation. When you are going through separation, your body’s production of these powerful, addictive drugs decreases, sending you into opioid withdrawal…”
Internalizing: You turn your anger at being abandoned and rejected against yourself. You start believing that your ex-partner’s rejection is clear-cut evidence of your unworthiness, of everything that’s wrong with you. You blame yourself for losing your ex. And you feel worse and worse about yourself.
Rage: You fantasize about getting revenge. You want to get your life back on track. Right now! “Your aggressive energy is like a pressure cooker,” Anderson writes. “You boil over easily, sometimes spewing anger onto innocent bystanders (like your friends when they fail to understand what you’re going through).” For people who have a hard time being assertive, this stage tends to turn into an agitated depression.
Lifting: You start feeling at peace and even confident. You are able to make meaning out of your abandonment. And you’re able to connect to all your feelings, including your vulnerable, painful feelings. You’re ready to love, again.
Anderson uses the metaphor of a wound to further describe the stages. Shattering is like a “knife wound to the heart”; withdrawal is “acute pain of the raw, open wound”; internalizing is when “the wound is most susceptible to infection” (and possibly leaving permanent scars on your self-esteem); rage is the pulling of tender, taut tissues as they try to mend; and lifting is your wound sealing. “The danger is that calluses form, causing numbing and sensitivity to the area, sealing in your self-doubt and sealing you off from your feelings once again.” Which is why recovering from your abandonment is important.
The acronym, SWIRL, signifies how individuals go through the process: They swirl through it. That is, individuals may swirl through all five stages within an hour, a day, a month or a year. They may experience two or more stages at once. Instead of being “discrete time packets,” these stages are part of a continuous process.
Some people even work through it backwards. For instance, one member of Anderson’s abandonment group started with stage 5, lifting. He was relieved that his relationship ended, and believed that his life would be much better. But then he started getting frustrated that life wasn’t going as well as he’d wanted (stage 4, rage). He began berating himself for letting his ex go (stage 3, internalizing). He also experienced severe withdrawal symptoms and felt shattered.
How we cycle through the stages also depends on our personalities and patterns from past losses. In other words, our process is very personal. After all, every loss is personal. The key is to explore your own trajectory and focus on healing.
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