No Contact: Searching and the 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 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.
NC originated here 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:
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.
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. It’s 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:
grief is a natural and normal response to loss;
part of that response is searching; and
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.