No Contact: Searching and the Rules of Disengagement

by | May 13, 2019 | featured, Getting Past Your Breakup, NC, no contact, obsession, Rules of Disengagement


Searching:  The Reason Why We Seek Contact

by Susan J. Elliott, J.D., M.Ed.

Pining is the subjective and emotional component of urge to search for the lost object. ~ Colin Murray Parkes.

Getting Past Your Breakup was the first program and the first book to suggest going “no contact” with your ex.  Since that time, legitimate therapists and authors have jumped aboard the No Contact train, but NC has also been “bastardized” into a manipulation strategy for getting your ex back.  That is  ludicrous and completely against the way a healthy person behaves.  DO NOT listen to anyone who suggests using No Contact as a way to get back at your ex. 

NC originated with GPYB and the GPYB program is ONLY about acting in a healthy way.  Using NC to manipulate or be spiteful is absolutely AGAINST the program which is widely credited with popularizing the NC concept. If ANYONE tells you to use it to get back at someone or to manipulate them into coming back, it is NOT how GPYB intended it to be used.

The NC suggestion worked for me back when the breakup of my marriage caused daily anxiety attacks and depression and reaching out to the ex was what I did. 

Over and over again. 

It was like putting my hand on a hot stove.

I was divorced in 1990 and from that point on, I have recommended to people that I worked with – usually women coming out of bad situations – that no contact was a key to healing.  I ran volunteer groups until I graduated, in January 1995, with a Masters in Counseling Psychology.  After that I recommended it to all my clients coming out of a bad situation. Even co-parents and co-workers can do it. It’s called “brief and business-like and only when absolutely necessary.”

Since then, everyone who is anyone suggests No Contact (let’s ignore the ones who want to manipulate people with it).  But many people who are just “echoing” what they’ve heard don’t understand the WHY.  

After I went NC and started back to school to finish my degree, I looked for the WHY NC  is so hard.  Of course, there was nothing in the literature that suggested NC so I had to piece it together myself.

This was part of my Master’s thesis in 1995, which was written as a Handbook for Mental Health Professionals (and I am considering publishing it). 

So here is the WHY it’s so difficult:

In my quest to understand No Contact, I started studying grief and attachment. I studied John Bowlby, Mary Ainsworth and Colin Murray Parkes.

In 1994, I was sitting in the library researching for my Master’s thesis on Grief.  I had been No Contact with my ex-husband and a few other exes for 4 years.  I was a PRO at No Contact, but I did not understand why it was hard.  In reading Murray Parkes, I discovered WHY.

Colin Murray Parkes was a grief expert who studied the phases of grief and the behavior of those who are grieving. Searching behavior often explains why people try to connect with those who have just died. But when the person is still out there, still “reachable,” it makes it difficult to suspend contact and simply let the searching compulsion pass without doing anything about it.  Suspending contact is hard, but absolutely necessary.

Parkes was one of the first to analogize human searching behaviors to that of animal species that mate for life.

Parkes quotes Konrad Lorenz who was one of the founders of the study of animal behaviors. Lorenz studied the “searching” behavior in the greylag goose.

Greylag geese mate for life and are inseparable. Lorenz documented that the goose would search for a mate who has died, even if the mate had been killed in plain sight. The goose will fly great distances, calling and wailing for the lost partner, often going such great distances as to get lost or injured in an accident, many times dying in their pursuit of the lost mate.

Lorenz found that the goose’s own well-being was put aside in an effort to find the lost mate. Their well-being was beside the point as they were driven to frantically find their lost mate. 

Like the goose, we push our own well-being aside to search for, and attempt to recover, the lost object of our affection.

Searching Behaviors

Parkes studied bereaved widows and found the searching behaviors to be similar. He observed their tendency to look for their husbands in a crowd or go to call their name or dial them on the phone…even though they were dead. When Michael died, I called his voice mail at least once a week. It was hard to not leave a message. Then I would crumple in a ball on the floor.

These behaviors happen in most bereaved people even though they know INTELLECTUALLY that their loved one is dead. The bereaved person KNOWS, intellectually, there is no point to look for the person, but they have a strong impulse to search, to put life back together the way they knew it, and they often will search in vain…just like the goose. (For over two years I also looked over at the spot where Michael fished even though intellectually I knew he wasn’t there. I was drawn to it and some days stared at it as if he was going to miraculously appear on the shore…so I know this behavior well.)  Though searching HURTS, it happens, usually without missing a beat.  

As Colin Murray Parkes studied Konrad Lorenz’s work to understand the searching behavior in widows, I studied Parkes’ work to understand the searching behavior after a breakup.

Without understanding what it’ s all about, it feels reckless. It feels as if we’re out of control. But we’re not. Searching is a normal and natural part of grief.  The problem comes when we allow it to overwhelm us and initiate contact or respond to an ex’s contact. That stalls the healing process.

This is a very distressing part of grief and EVERYONE experiences it to some degree, no matter what the loss. We pine and we search as a way to reattach to the lost loved one, as a way to make the pain and loneliness go away.  Our ex, though they may have toddled off with someone new, or bid us nothing but terrible things on the way out the door, feel the searching and that is when they reach out. They have an itch and they want to scratch it. 

Attachment makes us feel safe and secure in the world even if the attachment is unhealthy or destructive. Humans like a predictable world, and when our world is unpredictable because someone has left it, it takes our mind a while to catch up. It searches for “what is missing” to put things back the way they are known to be. When something is torn from our predictable life, our mind tends to reach back before it can go forward. It’s a normal and natural thing.  

Searching is part of grief. Grief is the reordering of the world. The mind feels scrambled. It’s why we are often forgetful and accident prone when we are grieving. The mind is racing forward and backwards.

As I explain in Getting Past Your Breakup: 

  1. grief is a natural and normal response to loss;

  2. part of that response is searching; and

  3. in an effort to “get right,” the mind searches for what was lost to see if it can put things together BEFORE it gets on with the arduous task of acclimating to a strange new world.

It is during the “searching” phase of grief when the person is alive and there was a breakup, when people will try to open up communications with the ex. The urge to “search” is part of the grieving process.  But when we open up contact…even passive contact like looking at the ex’s social media…we are going backwards.  The searching phenomenom is a normal and natural part of grief but every time you make contact, you tell your mind that you can and will put the world BACK the way it was.  You essentially damage your process. You engage in self-destructive behavior like the goose flying great distances at its own peril. DON’T DO IT.

Everyone who has had a loss goes through it. It’s part of grief. Even if your ex appears to be tra-la-laing along merrily, if they initiate contact, it could be part of their (unacknowledged but very real) own grieving process.  If your ex is personality disordered, contact is often the “hoovering” behavior of the narcissist.  They want attention…and they want it now.

Whether they contact you or you want to contact them, avoid getting in touch with your ex. Giving in to the urge to contact will stall your healing. No contact is necessary so that your mind can adjust to the new order of things and so that you have room to heal and you can get on with the business of healing. Contact just puts you back into the old world…and the mind slams on the brakes of grieving…and it feels good for a minute but it also slams on the brakes of healing.

To Heal You Must Go No Contact

Searching behaviors such as checking social media, texting, emailing, calling, writing, driving by, “bumping into” are all ways to TRY TO put back together what was lost…but it CANNOT be put back together. Just like the goose can fly hundreds of miles and never find its mate, you’re never going to put back what was lost. Just as the goose is engaging in self-destructive behavior, searching behaviors hurts YOU.

Understand – PLEASE – that the urge to search is a component of grief…it is a frustrating and uncomfortable part but the more you resist searching, the faster you heal. The difficulty will pass. The less you give into it, the easier it gets. The more you give into it, the harder it gets. Your well-being must come first.

In Getting Past Your Breakup, there is an entire chapter on No Contact. As the chapter suggests, make a list of about 10 things you will do BEFORE you make contact. Journal, call a friend, write a letter you don’t mail, take a shower, go to the gym, go for a walk (without the phone!), or call a friend. Go to the GPYB Facebook group and share!

But the most important thing to do is to tolerate the searching feelings without reaching back. Know that it’s part of the grief process; it’s normal and natural. Most of all, know that it gets better if you don’t give into the searching behavior. Sit with it and know that it passes.  If you give into it and initiate contact or respond to contact, it sets your healing back.  Don’t do it.  It will pass.

It really does. Be good to you. Stay No Contact. YOU CAN DO THIS!!!

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