Healing Talks Back

Five Stages of Abandonment Grief: Healing for Survivors of Sexual Betrayal

Have you ever wondered why sexual betrayal feels keenly similar—yet remarkably different—to losing a loved one who’s physically died? In my work with women healing from sexual betrayal, I’ve identified two words that completely reframe the experience of loss and trauma we so poignantly share.

Those two words are… abandonment grief.

How do I define sexual abandonment? Abandonment happens when one party seeks satisfaction outside of one’s committed, intimate relationship—at the expense of one’s partner’s physical, emotional, mental and spiritual wellbeing.

As survivors of sexual betrayal, we’ve all been abandoned in some way or another, to varying degrees and in different ways. Spouses who commit adultery abandon us by choosing other women for sexual satisfaction. Partners who are addicted to internet porn abandon us as their preferred and primary sexual connection, choosing “sex with self” (and onscreen images) instead of sex with us in our own bedrooms. Those who have emotional affairs seek relational intimacy with alternative third parties, diverting emotional resources away from us and our children.

Your Own Kind of Grief
In other words, sexual betrayal doesn’t result in the same kind of grief that’s triggered by other losses. Betrayal trauma creates its own kind of grief, one that’s reflected well in this quote by author and psychologist Susan Anderson: “Shattering is not unique to abandonment. It is the initial stage of all types of grief where significant loss is involved. But the shattering of abandonment is special. Your loss was not due to a death, but because someone acted on free will not to be with you.” Inspired by Susan Anderson’s book, Journey from Abandonment to Healing, I’ve begun to employ her unique and effective model for abandonment grief recovery with the women I’m privileged to know and coach. I love this abandonment grief recovery model SO MUCH, I recently spent one whole week training directly with Susan Anderson, to expand my collection of tools and techniques to help clients heal and grow through grief. Today I’m proud to utilize this training throughout my coaching practice.

Following are some excerpts from Susan Anderson’s 5 stage model for abandonment grief, paired with coaching questions I ask my clients to explore for each one. Check it out and see if you don’t love it as much as I do:

S.W.I.R.L. = An acronym which stands for the five stages of abandonment:
S = Shattering
W = Withdrawal
I = Internalizing
R = Rage
L = Lifting

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 may 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. What has shattering been like for you? Can you identify at least one specific incident when you encountered shattering as a grief response to sexual and/or relational abandonment?

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 may crave a love-fix to put you out of the withdrawal  symptoms. What has withdrawal been like for you? Can you identify at least one specific incident when you experienced withdrawal as a grief response to sexual and/or relational abandonment?

You internalize the rejection and experience 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 may be isolated, riddled with insecurity, self-indictment and self-doubt… preoccupied with ‘if only” regrets. “If only” you had been more attentive, more sensitive, less demanding, etc. You may beat yourself up with regrets over the relationship and idealize your abandoner at the expense of your own self-image. What has internalizing been like for you? Can you identify at least one specific incident when you experienced internalizing as a grief response to sexual and/or relational abandonment?

Rage is a 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 you may 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. What has rage been like for you? Can you identify at least one specific incident when you encountered rage as a grief response to sexual and/or relational abandonment?

Your anger likely helped to externalize your pain. Gradually, as your energy shifts 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 may find yourself ready to love again. When you Lift, it is important to take your feelings with you. Otherwise you risk losing connection with yourself once again. What has lifting been like for you? Can you identify at least one specific incident when you encountered lifting as a grief response to sexual and/or relational abandonment?

So, What Do YOU Think?

Does SWIRL validate your experience of abandonment grief and sexual betrayal trauma? If so, I’d love to hear from you! Email me at gaelynrae@womeneverafter.com.

©2017–2019 | All Rights Reserved

FIVE STAGES OF ABANDONMENT GRIEF was written by Gaelyn Rae Emerson. Originally published in October 2018, with special thanks to Anne Blythe at Betrayal Trauma Recovery. Republished by Women Ever After in February 2019, with minor biographical edits. 

For more writings by Gaelyn Rae Emerson, click here or email gaelynrae@womeneverafter.com.

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