When They Bolt Out of the Blue: How to Survive the “Houdini Phenomenon”

When They Bolt Out of the Blue: How to Survive the “Houdini Phenomenon”

If someone disappears on you, it really is on them.

As a psychotherapist, I hear countless dating stories and associated experiences of excitement, fear, anxiety, and rejection. It is natural that this topic would occupy a lot of space; after all, opening ourselves to love is one of the most vulnerable experiences in the world.

But something I hear about regularly—which particularly saddens me, because it causes an unnecessary layer of anguish beyond the inevitable hurts of dating—is what I call the Houdini Phenomenon: when the person you have been dating disappears without an explanation.

I cannot tell you how many times a client comes into my office in hysterics, wondering how this could have happened. The contrast between the initial proactive interest and the sudden disappearance is shocking; the ambiguity and lack of closure are crushing. What is worse, people tend to wonder what is wrong with themselves. They think, “If only I had done something different, he or she would have stuck around.”

It is heart-wrenching to watch people take someone else’s issue and turn it against themselves. This is one of those cases wherein the cliché “It’s not you, it’s me” is actually true! If someone disappears on you, it really is on them.

Why in the world would someone prefer to disappear than to have closure? Simply put, the Houdini Phenomenon is characteristic of a high level of avoidance.

Here is an anecdote that might give you a window into this type of psyche:

I was buying a gift for someone on behalf of her close friends, emailing to ask who wanted to participate. Multiple people went silent. I followed up and got a response from only one brave soul who felt bold enough to tell me that his answer was “no.” I thanked him and asked why he had not said so earlier. He said that it was hard for him to say “no.”

If it is this hard to say “no” to a gift, imagine how difficult it would be to say “no” to a relationship!

When you partner with someone who is avoidant, it is crucial to understand that you did not make him or her this way. Avoidant behavior stems from developmental factors that most likely got constellated in childhood. In other words, this person is wired to act in a particular way in relationship—having nothing to do with you—wherein he or she tends to insulate against the threat of separation (which, ironically, can be triggered by steps toward closeness) by adopting a defensive stance and suppressing vulnerability. Behaviors associated with this structure are the propensity to detach easily, a tendency towards defensiveness, and a preference to avoid conflict.

So when you agonize over what you could have said or done to prevent this person from disappearing, I hope you will realize that the answer is “nothing.” This is not to say that you should not examine your role in whatever overarching dynamic got created—it always takes two to tango, and it would be useful for you to understand why you were attracted to such avoidant patterning. Nonetheless, whether this person did or did not want to be in a relationship with you (in some cases, people with avoidant tendencies run because they do like you and are overwhelmed by their feelings), the fact that he or she could not talk to you about it indicates a level of avoidance that likely would have caused you grief if you would have continued the relationship. Frankly, you may have dodged a bullet.

For the Houdini sufferer:

  1. If someone chooses to handle something in a way that is not loving and respectful, that is about him or her, not you.
  2. You could not have done anything different to make this person behave differently. These are deeply rooted patterns that would inevitably reveal themselves in one way or another.
  3. The one piece of work you could do is to look inward to understand what pattern you may be repeating by engaging with someone so avoidant. By making unconscious patterns conscious, you are less likely to repeat them.

And for those of you who tend to avoid difficult conversations:

  1. If you need to end a relationship, it will be more painful for the other person if you avoid talking to them about it. Not only will they endure the separation that they would have had to suffer if you had faced them directly, but they will feel poorly treated and disrespected on top of it.
  2. Although you think you detach easily, these experiences get stored in your unconscious. You will have a clear mind and clean conscience if you face difficult situations, which will leave you feeling better about yourself overall.
  3. When you do find that right person, it will be crucial for you to be able to face challenging situations and conversations. This is good practice!

It is inevitable that people who are close will hurt each other, whether in a new relationship or a longstanding one. How could we possibly dance together without stepping on one another’s toes from time to time? But why make it more painful than it already is?

I say we should live by the Golden Rule—treat each other with as much kindness and compassion as possible, and minimize damage beyond the inevitable. After all, while I may be the injurer now, I may just as easily be the injured later.

Yael Melamed, couples therapist in San Francisco, CA
Yael Melamed, MFT

Yael believes that difficult times are part of the natural life cycle of relationships, and are in fact a gift if you are able to grow from them. She is dedicated to helping people repair their relationships—both with themselves and others—and thinks that one of the biggest factors determining the outcome of your relationship is whether you have the right tools to navigate the challenges that arise.

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