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The Five Stages of Abandonment


S.W.I.R.L. is an acronym which stands for the five stages of abandonment: Shattering, Withdrawal, Internalizing, Rage, and Lifting – introduced in JOURNEY FROM ABANDONMENT.


1: SHATTERING – Your relationship is breaking apart. Your hopes and dreams are Shattered. You are devastated, bewildered. You Succumb to despair and panic. You feel hopeless and have Suicidal feelings. You feel Symbiotically attached to your lost love, mortally wounded, as if you’ll die without them. You are in Severe pain, Shock, Sorrow. You’ve been Severed from your primary attachment. You’re cut off from your emotional life-line.


2: WITHDRAWAL – painful Withdrawal from your lost love. The more time goes on, the more all of the needs your partner was meeting begin to impinge into your every Waking moment. You are in Writhing pain from being torn apart. You yearn, ache, and Wait for them to return. Love-withdrawal is just like Heroin withdrawal – – each involves the body’s opiate system and the same physical symptoms of intense craving. During Withdrawal, you are feeling the Wrenching pain of love-loss and separation – – the Wasting, Weight loss, Wakefulness, Wishful thinking, and Waiting for them to return. You crave a love-fix to put you out of the WITHDRAWAL symptoms.


3: INTERNALIZING – you Internalize the rejection and cause Injury to your self esteem. This is the most critical stage of the cycle when your wound becomes susceptible to Infection and can create permanent scarring. You are Isolated, riddled with Insecurity, self- Indictment and self-doubt. You are preoccupied with ‘If only regrets’ – – If only you had been more attentive, more sensitive, less demanding, etc. You beat yourself up with regrets over the relationship and Idealize your abandoner at the expense of your own self Image.


4: RAGE – the turning point in the grief process when you begin to fight back. You attempt to Reverse the Rejection by Refusing to accept all of the blame for the failed relationship, and feel surges of Rage against your abandoner. You Rail against the pain and isolation you’ve been in. Agitated depression and spurts of anger displaced on your friends and family are common during this turbulent time, as are Revenge and Retaliation fantasies toward your abandoner. Your Outer Child is spurred by abandonment rage and becomes very active and potentially destructive. New Outer Child patterns may set in.


5: LIFTING – your anger helped to externalize your pain. Gradually, as your energy spurts outward, it Lifts you back into Life. You begin to Let go. Life distracts you and gradually Lifts you out the grief cycle. You feel the emergence of strength, wiser for the painful Lessons you’ve Learned. And if you’re engaged in the process of recovery, you get ready to Love again.


A word of caution: When you Lift, it is important to take your feelings with you. Otherwise you Lose connection with yourself once again, creating an internal barrier to others.

You S.W.I.R.L. through the stages over and over within an hour, a day, a month, sometimes a period of years – – cycles within cycles – – until you emerge out the end of the funnel-shaped cloud, a changed person, better able to find love than before.

HELP is available. Each stage of the SWIRL process is explored in depth in JOURNEY FROM ABANDONMENT TO HEALING, and workbook exercises are provided for each stage in JOURNEY FROM HEARTBREAK TO CONNECTION.


In the early stages of abandonment, our clients are in an acute neuro-biological crisis. There is a rush of stress hormones: adrenaline (epinephrine) and norepinephrine (NE) surge, and a rise of glucocorticoids (as well as CRF and ACTH). Levels of serotonin and other brain chemistries shift in response to the body’s sustained perception of imminent danger. Our clients remain in a constant state of bio-chemical emergency – – hyper-vigilant, obsessively focused, and on edge, as if prepared to sustain a life and death battle.

It is interesting to note that dominant baboons that have experienced a loss, have elevated glucocorticoid levels. As a result, they cease to exhibit dominant behaviors. Imagine the defeat and low self esteem our clients are suffering during this sustained emotional crisis in which their stress hormones are surging for an extended period.


For most abandonment survivors, the issue is control. Thanks to the increase in stress hormones, they don’t have much: Nature has taken over. The life they want is not within their immediate power. Their primary connection has been severed; isolation has been foisted upon them by someone else’s choice. Abandonment is a state of INVOLUNTARY SEPARATION. They are shattered by an aloneness they did not choose. They feel deserted, dependent, and demoralized, having sustained a narcissistic injury. The lack of control makes them feel like a victim.


Emotionally, it feels like they’re in the recovery room having just had their Siamese twin severed from them. What makes the pain so unbearable for abandonment survivors, is that it wasn’t their idea to have the surgery; it was the OTHER person’s. Even worse, the OTHER person has (often) already re-attached to a new love-interest and doesn’t feel the intense pain of separation. The relationship is medicating the abandoner from feeling what the abandonee is faced with – – rejection, isolation, and a profound loss of love. In other words, the Abandoners aren’t suffering in the recovery room, because for THEM it wasn’t major surgery. They’re ‘out and about’ in a new life.


Both sides, however, are on an emotional roller coaster; both feel regret, confusion, remorse, and anger. But the one who was left behind bears the brunt of the tear. The fact that it is more painful to be the abandonee than the abandoner is rarely acknowledged by the latter, because both sides want to be considered ‘the injured party’ in Long Term Relationships: If the couple’s lives had been intertwined for a long time and they had grown to count on each other for security and support, the one choosing to end the relationship will struggle with the agony of guilt. Abandoners are often themselves survivors of childhood losses and separations, and have their own abandonment issues to deal with. This makes it particularly difficult for them to acknowledge the full extent of the pain that is caused by their decision to end the relationship. It threatens their idealized self images when they witness their former partners’ (understandable) reaction of anger and grief, and of not wanting to ‘let go.’ They feel they are being thwarted and mistreated by these reactions. They resent the ‘control.’ They feel ‘punished’ for trying to start a new life. They begin to perceive their former partners as ‘the bad mothers.’ This development suggests that rather than feel less about themselves, abandoners have attempted to project rather than internalize their negative feelings, They’ve exercised the ‘victor’s option’ to blame the victim. Many begin to rewrite the history of the relationship, distorting facts, blocking out emotional memories, negating the original basis of the connection — all in an effort to justify their decision to leave someone who still wants and needs them. This causes abandonees to feel completely erased and even more isolated. They don’t even have memories to hold onto; their entire emotional reality has been disqualified. They lose not only the future, but the past.

At this stage both sides stand on opposite sides of an emotional chasm. Attempts at communication usually misfire into painful misunderstandings and explosions (and where divorce is involved, costly attorney fees).


It helps both sides to learn about the abandonment cycle (S.W.I.R.L.). Abandonees get to see where they are in the grief process, where they are going, and where they have work to do. Understanding the universality of the process relieves them from adding insult to injury – – condemning themselves for feeling so much pain – – preventing them from further self-injury. Abandoners, for their part, gain understanding with which to better handle their side of the separation. They also gain perspective on their own abandonment issues – – connecting the dots between unfinished business from childhood and the issues of the relationship they are pulling away from. BLACK SWAN: The Twelve Lessons of Abandonment Recovery is a supplement to psychotherapy. It provides a clinically tested sequence of recovery tasks to promote spiritual and emotional healing. The five AKeRU mental exercises (one for each stage of the grief process) help abandonment survivors regain a sense of control by empowering them to take action to change their lives. The JOURNEY from Abandonment to Healing is a self-help and professional resource, helping clients and clinicians navigate the abandonment cycle, providing case examples and research information all along the way.


DEPRESSION: Being rejected by our primary love object causes tremendous rage which we turn against ourselves. This accounts for the intense depression that accompanies abandonment. Our clients are forced to go on with their lives with their wounds barely mended – – still tender, sore to the touch. As the abandonment grief progresses, their depression becomes agitated depression. They are ready to strike out at anything that threatens their injured sense of self. This constant state of woundedness sometimes results in a chemical imbalance significant enough to warrant a trial on psychotherapeutic medication.

Some of our clients are more vulnerable to developing a clinical depression from abandonment than others. Research shows what we clinicians already know – that people who experienced traumatic separation in childhood are more prone to clinical states of anxiety and depression than those who did not. Information exploring the psycho-biology of abandonment is covered in JOURNEY.


Without professional help, many of our clients tend to suppress, deny, or displace the feelings that spill over the edge from abandonment. These defenses become entrenched in personality and lead to the conditions we so often treat – – chronic isolation, unsatisfying relationships ( many chose to stay with inappropriate partners), and other maladaptive behaviors. Abandonment can lead to a repetition compulsion in which our clients become ensnared in patterns of re-victimization.


Besides this tendency toward RE-TRAUMATIZATION, additional posttraumatic features of abandonment include intrusive fear, separation anxiety, childhood memory blocks, social phobia, panic, avoidance, volatility, self-sabotage and often reach the extreme of true borderline functioning in primary relationships. PTSD OF ABANDONMENT is a new diagnostic category introduced in JOURNEY.


Our client’s response to loss varies according the duration and intensity of the relationship, the circumstances of the break-up, their prior abandonment history, and their bio-physiological constitution.


Childhood precursors to emotional reactivity can be any loss or disconnection ranging from death of a parent, to replacement by a rival sibling, to having suffered learning disabilities in school, to having a neuro-biological sensitivity to rejection or separation.


Children experience all loss and disappointment as abandonment. They don’t have the ability to distinguish personal rejection from external circumstances. They feel diminished, undeserving, helpless as a result of any slight or disconnection – – the origins of self-depreciation. Children who have incurred intense, repetitive, or prolonged separations are particularly resonant to fears and self-injury in adult relationships, especially during the initial severing of a relationship. This explains why many cling to destructive relationships. They go to any extreme to avoid the agony of separation and being alone.


Adults who’ve had traumatic abandonments such as being left at the alter, fired from an important job, or where their rejections have been repetitive also need intensive support during the initial stages of abandonment grief.


These events comprise their ABANDONMENT PROFILES. Many clients benefit by ‘making a map’ of the events that helped to shape their current response. Making a connection between past and present helps them connect the emotional dots and regain a semblance of control during a turbulent time. Yet, insight and self awareness only go so far in getting underneath the problem of unresolved abandonment – – and doing something about it. Significant change and recovery can only begin when our clients are willing to question their values and beliefs, and to take positive action.


Learning about the stages of abandonment grief provides some support and helps focus a therapist’s time and effort on where clients may be stuck. S.W.I.R.L. lays out the stages of the abandonment cycle – – Shattering, Withdrawal, Internalizing, Rage, and Lifting. Those stuck in SHATTERING from earlier separation traumas tend to be chronically insecure, unstable, self-destructive, prone to addiction and borderline functioning in their object relationships, as well as other psychiatric conditions.


Those stuck in the WITHDRAWAL stage of earlier separations tend to suffer chronic feelings of emptiness and longing, exhibiting dependency and co-dependency disorders. Many seek mood altering experiences and substances. Palliatives range from food to people to drugs to self help books – – anything to medicate the emotional urgencies impinging from within. The need for quick-fixes sabotages our clients’ ability to delay gratification and achieve long range goals.


Those stuck in INTERNALIZING have low self worth, tend to turn anger toward themselves, are prone to self-doubt, self-depreciation, depression, dependency. They have feelings of worthlessness, difficulty making decisions, and a heightened need for immediate gratification. They have a constant need to assuage an emotional chasm of guilt and shame. They tend to idealize others (including the abandoner) at their own expense. This internal short-circuit causes them to underachieve, creating a vicious cycle of self-depreciation and unfulfilled life.


Those stuck in RAGE are plagued with emotional reactivity. They exhibit Outer child behaviors that sabotage primary relationships. Outer child, a new concept introduced in JOURNEY, represents the part of personality that acts out the fear and anger of the INNER CHILD. Outer child goes on the warpath for all of the cumulative losses and rejections going all the way back to childhood. Outer acts out against innocent bystanders — their significant other and sometimes, even against their own inner child. Outer child tends to take emotional hostages rather than form healthy relationships. Outer child is the self-centered nine year old in all of us. (A 100 item Outer Child inventory is included in JOURNEY.)

Those stuck in LIFTING have lifted above their feelings from previous losses. They’ve disengaged from their most vulnerable feelings, creating a barrier between their internal and external selves. They’ve formed emotional calluses over their wounds and suffer problems of dys-intimacy, displaced emotional center, and feelings of detached isolation. They’re hard to reach emotionally. ‘Lifters’ sometimes cause their partners to feel isolated, unloved, or emotionally frustrated.


When our clients go through a current abandonment, they tend to have most difficulty with the stage in which they were stuck from previous losses. Helping them understand where their emotional ‘hot spots’ are empowers them to focus their recovery effort where it is most needed. There is an AKeRU exercise that corresponds to each stage that helps them work through their unfinished business.


I encourage you to call us to help you work through these challenges! Together with God, we can surmount anything!


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