What to Do When You've Been Jilted

Tips for a smooth recovery

Posted Jun 05, 2013

The typical young person nowadays is likely to enter into four or five serious relationships before settling down.  All those earlier relationships have come to an end, one way or the other. Sometimes, (uncommonly in my experience) a couple who were very close drift slowly and painlessly apart, both people losing interest around the same time. More typically, one person leaves the other, usually causing considerable upset. I think most people have had the experience of being the one walking out the door, and, on other occasions, being the one who is left behind. If you are the one being “dumped” or “ditched,” it is little satisfaction to know that you may at some future time be standing in the other person’s place. Most people do not want to be in that position either. In fact, many young people (very nice people) are afraid of getting into relationships precisely because they might hurt the other person if that other person gets too attached.

Since we have all had the experience of being jilted, I will not describe these breakups in a lot of detail—except to say that when they happen, even if they have happened before, it feels awful. The longer the relationship has gone on, the worse it is likely to feel. I suppose the very worst is when someone is left standing at the altar. (Such things happen) These are the usual range of feelings:

  1. You feel sad. Someone you care for very much--someone you thought cared for you very much—has gone away. The feeling of love, like any other very strong feeling, seems as if it will go on forever. You will love that person forever, it seems; and you will feel sad forever.
  2. You feel angry. Just yesterday, or last week, that special person professed love for you—maybe not in so many words, but that was what was said. Plans were made for next summer, and next Christmas. You were misled. Maybe you were taken advantage of. You have thoughts of revenge. Someday—maybe a month from now—that person will see you out with someone who is really desirable—good-looking and rich—and then he/she will be sorry.
  3. You feel lonely. You can be with other people—but you are not so inclined. You want to be near the telephone in case that other person calls. If you go out, you have to fight the urge to drive by that place where you spent so much time together. You think you might find that person somewhere, at least you hope so. Otherwise, you are home alone.
  4. You feel remorseful. If only you had not done or said the thing that led to that person going away. You rehearse all the mistakes you might have made, not just recently, but in the past.
  5. Putting this all together, what you feel is chagrin. According to Webster’s dictionary, “chagrin is disquietude of mind caused by humiliation, disappointment or failure.”

Then again, maybe you’re better off starting over with someone new, you tell yourself—but you don’t really think so.

I think a reasonable thing to do first, if you find yourself in this situation, is to try to figure out what happened. This is never easy, and it is sometimes impossible.

In the process of doing psychotherapy, I found myself at one time looking over the shoulder of one woman when she met and then developed a close relationship with a man—so close that within a few months they announced a formal engagement. As far as I could see, everything was going fine; and she certainly thought so. Then, without warning, he left a message on her answering machine that he no longer wanted to have anything to do with her. When he did not answer her frantic phone calls, she went to the place where he lived and pounded on the door. He refused to answer—and that was that. She never found out why he disappeared. And had she caught up to him, somehow, and throttled him, and squeezed some sort of explanation out of him, he might not have told her the truth; In fact, he might not have known the truth.

Most of the time, the people I see in my office are those that have been jilted. They can become clinically depressed, even suicidal. The reason for these suicidal thoughts may not be depression. I just this morning heard about a young man who was told by his girlfriend never to come around again. When she refused to speak to him, he wrote out a suicide note saying why it was her fault that he was going to kill himself; and then he did. He shot himself. The police found the note in his pocket. He was not depressed. He was angry. It is as if he wanted, really, to kill his girlfriend but, somehow, got caught in the line of fire. Suicide is a rare, but real, consequence of being jilted. Homicide is even rarer, but not unknown.

Most of the time the people I see are those that have been jilted; but sometimes I have had the opportunity to talk to those individuals who are doing the jilting--those who have chosen , perhaps suddenly, perhaps not, to end a close relationship. I ask them why; and the answers they give me are vague:

“He was just annoying me a lot.”

“She was telling me what to do.”

“I found I was getting angry at her for little things.”

“I think she wanted to get married; and I’m not ready for that.”

“I couldn’t stand her thing with her parents.”

The real reasons they leave are surely more complex, but hidden from view, even from their own understanding.

So, if it is more or less impossible to figure out why, really, the relationship has broken up—what is the point of trying to figure it out? Because it is important, at least, to figure out who is really leaving whom.

I had a friend, a woman, who used to complain to me over lunch how men were always leaving her. They would start by coming late to a date. She would respond by not showing up altogether for the next date. The men would react badly. They would not make dates until the last minute. She would turn them down as a matter of principle. And so it went. She did something, then they would do something. They would decide on their own, without consulting her, what the two of them were going to do or where they were going to eat. So she would get into a fight in the restaurant. Listening to her, I realized that she was leaving them as much as they were leaving her—even though they might have been the ones who finally walked out the door.

She repeated variations on this story with every new man. I thought she needed to know what she was doing in order to find a better way to respond to the inevitable frustrations in any relationship.

I once saw a woman who sticks out in my mind because, first of all. she was smart and beautiful, and also because the men she met, one after the other, would never stick around for more than a few months. The reason was obvious. She saw more than one of them at a time.

“I get deserted so often, I have to protect myself by having someone who is a backup.”

No self-respecting man would put up with someone he really cared for seeing someone else at the same time; and none of the men she met did. They only deserted her, one after the other, after she gave them a good hard shove.

Sometimes I see patients who are in the middle of a prolonged break-up; and often I cannot tell who  started  it and who was making the situation worse. Sometimes both feel that they are the one being discarded.

 It is important to keep in mind that In order for two people to come together more or less permanently, they have to fit together in countless subtle ways. It is like trying to put an irregularly shaped peg into a similarly irregular hole. Most of the time, they just do not fit. Sometimes there is no good, discernible reason for the break-up. It may not be anyone’s fault. Sometimes, it is a matter of timing. A couple who bounce off each other at one time may very well come together a year later when they are both ready. So, it is true, that even though you have been jilted, that person may want to be with you again sometime in the future. Is this worth rooting for?

Perhaps, the first meaningful thing to do is to decide if you want that person to come back. (For purposes of simplicity, I will call that person Chris. Chris can be male or female. You, of course, are always you.)

I ask, “Do you really want Chris to come back? He/she forgets to call you from one week to the next. He/she cancels appointments at the last minute to see friends, or goes on vacation without you, or always lets you pay all the bills, or drinks too much, or uses drugs, or is unemployed!”

The answer is almost always “Yes”; so I don’t ask that question anymore—although I may point out these things anyway.

Sometimes I get an explanation, “I love Chris.” Being in love with someone is a terrible excuse for doing something that is not in your best interest. You know the way love is: if you are not with the person you love, you will fall out of love soon enough. Then, later on, you will be in love with someone else.

The most dramatic example of this was a woman in her thirties with two children who came to see me because she was suicidal. She had just been jilted by a man she had been seeing for two years, the father of her second child. When she called me after the first session to tell me she had made up her mind to kill herself, I believed her. I went to her apartment to see if there was anything I could say that would deter her. I do not remember our conversation, but the whole incident sticks in my mind because she told me the following week that she was in love with someone else.

This probably sounds wacky to most people, but, except for the very short duration between people she loved, what she experienced  is the rule rather than the exception. People fall in love again and again. But no one wants to hear that when they have just been jilted.

Luckily, you do not have to decide once and for all whether or not you want Chris back. What you need to decide is what to do now, that is, how to behave—and the proper way to behave is the same whether or not you want to encourage Chris to come back or not.

Let us imagine:  Chris has been acting funny for a while, and you’ve been wondering what’s going on. Finally, he/she calls you up and says, “I think we ought to take a break for a while.” You say any of a variety of things, “Why?” or “I don’t think that’s a good idea,” or just “Okay.” And then you start ruminating and feeling all the things people feel in this situation. You want Chris to come back, but you do not want to seem desperate.

You want to present yourself as an independent and self-confident person—as someone who is worthwhile and desirable. And you want to think of yourself that way. You want to be encouraging to Chris, but you do not want to seem clinging, or demanding, or just plain pathetic.  Certainly, you do not want to come across as a stalker.

Keep in mind, you are likely to hear from Chris down the road. Couples typically break apart two or three times before they break apart once and for all. When Chris speaks to you finally, be friendly and seem interested. If Chris has not called for a few weeks, I think it is okay to text or call and ask how he/she  is, or wish him/her a happy birthday, if, indeed, it is his/her birthday. If Chris makes no response, I think it is okay to make another welcoming gesture a month or two later on, without coming across as desperate.  Do not make any further gestures. Once you have encouraged Chris, there is nothing further you can do. If you have been together for a while, Chris knows you more or less, and there is nothing you can say that will change his/her impression of you. Either Chris wants to come back, or he/she doesn’t. And it is true, of course, that some people do come back.

When you do speak to Chris, do not get into a fight, make sarcastic remarks, blame him/her for everything that has gone wrong—or, on the other hand, apologize when you do not really think you did anything wrong, Do not beg to get together. Such behavior is unseemly and does not portray you in the light in which you wish to be seen.

Of course, what you do the rest of the time is of greater importance. In order not to feel undesirable, you have to have other experiences in which the people around you obviously value you. This includes friends and family at first, but should include others too. You almost certainly do not feel like dating all over again, but that is what you should do. Do not wait until you “come to terms with yourself” or for any other reason. These are excuses for not engaging in the threatening business of dating. You feel vulnerable now, and you do not want to be rejected again. Also you do not want to have to put up with all the undesirable people you are likely to find yourself meeting. You should date anyway. Everyone will tell you that.  These are things you ought to do withether or not Chris comes back.

Stages of recovery

Let’s imagine further that Chris has vanished once and for all. If you are like most people, you will feel miserable for a while.  But you will get over it in time. If you do the right things, you will probably be over Chris in six months or so. If you mope around at home, it may take a year.

Initially, you will be preoccupied with Chris. Then you will date other people and think to yourself most of the time that you would rather have been out with Chris. If you persist, you will find yourself, after the third or fourth person you date, suddenly laughing at something or other. Then you will meet someone you like. Chris will recede into the background. Your recovery will be very much like the course of grief after a loved one dies. After a while, it will be all right.

I do not think you will get over Chris completely until you find yourself in love with someone else. Then, not uncommonly, people tell me they ran into their Chris in the street and could not understand why they ever cared for him/her in the first place. And every once in a while, someone actually has the experience they fantasize about so much of the time: they run I into Chris, and Chris really wants to get back together, and you tell him/her, “Thanks, but I’ve moved on.”  (c) Fredric Neuman 2013  Follow Dr. Neuman's blog at fredricneumanmd.com/blog