When to Fold ’Em?

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Lots of people have asked me this over the past year.  “If my partner is moving away, is leaving me, when should I give up?  How do I make that decision?”   I did write one article on how to get ‘em to make a decision about joining you in a relationship.  This article is based on the same principle involving a person who maybe acting passively at a time when you want some decision.  And remember this is all based on your continued wish to reconnect.

The decision you want is a) that your partner decides to come back toward you or b) that you reasonably get to stop waiting for them. 

Here is the setup.  They have moved out, either physically or emotionally or both.  Their actions have led you to understand that the previous relationship you had with them somehow “sucked” – enough for them to leave.  So now you don’t want the old relationship back, but do want to make a new and better relationship with them.  You have read my article on What to do when he/she leaves and are trying to follow the four steps. 

So the question is, “How long do you wait?”  The current wisdom out on the internet seems to be to not contact them at all.  I do not think that a wise course.  No contact may make them become aware of their “loneliness,” but also may communicate that you don’t care – that you want them to go away.

So here is my suggestion.  Modify this as you chose.  In its pure form it takes 5 months.

  1. Establish a contact channel: email, or cards are ideal.  It should be cheap and easily permit the sending of a very limited amount of information.  I find text messaging is not very suited to this, nor is voice mail, but you choose.  You want them to receive your contact and have perfect freedom about what they do with it: read it, trash it, etc. 
  2. Plan a message that you are going to send.  You may have to send as many as 10, so make this simple.  The message should contain a “greeting,” an optional bit of news, a clue to your work on yourself, a gentle invitation for more contact.
  • The greeting can be nothing more complex than “Hi,” or “Dear Mike,” etc.  Keep this light. 
  • Optional newsy bit is just something like “It’s raining hard,”  “The lilacs are out,”  “Broke my leg the other day.  Doing ok, tho.”   Don’t mention anything awful that they might feel obliged to fix.  Don’t ever say, “I’m miserable without you,” or the like.
  • The clue to your work on yourself is part of my instruction to “3: Work on yourself visibly.”   This should be different in each note, and I think these should be pretty abstract.  You want your partner to be curious for more.  Some examples are, “Seeing my counselor weekly and I am sure learning a lot,”  “Wow am I learning about how pushy I used to be.”   “Boy, I am getting it that I have been asleep for years.”  Etc.  Anything you are learning that might involve some subject of their past “complaints” might be good.  An example could be that if they complained about your temper, you say, “I am working really hard on getting rid of my anger.  I realized it’s been a problem to me for years.”
  • Lastly you include a gentle invitation (not a push) to more contact.  “Love to hear from you any time you feel like it,”  “It’d be fun to hear your voice.”  “If you ever feel like contacting me, feel free.” 
  • Then sign it, bluntly or not at all.  “Dave,”  “Yours,” etc.  Do not say, “Your most obedient and humble servant, begging for your orders, please, please.”   J
  1. Send one message only, once a week for one month. (4 messages)  Send one message, once every other week for two months. (4 messages)  Send one message, once a month for two months. (2 messages)  STOP.

That’s it. 

If at any time he/she re-contacts you, follow my rule #4 and respond minimally.  Oh, if their contact is neutral or simply newsy, read it and ignore it.  The contact you are looking for is some request to connect to you coming from them.  Example: if they say, “Life is crazy here,” you might feel an impulse to write back something like, “What’s going on?”   Don’t do it!  It’s a trap.  If they say, “Tell me more about what you are learning,” that’s a move to reconnect.  Respond minimally to that.  Wait for them to be explicit. 

Do not be surprised too much if he/she contacts you after the five months of this process.  Your partner is leaving that period with a memory of your wanting them, but not pushing.  That, I think, is the best you can do.
Good luck. 


When to Fold ’Em? — 243 Comments

  1. Hi, Al.
    I imagine that much of your “what to do when he/she leaves” and “when to fold ’em” articles (and others) can be applied to friends/romantic interests but I’m curious to hear your thoughts on that. I’m currently in a bit of a situation here. A gal and I have recently started to hang out after being relegated to only phone conversations for quite some time. I really enjoyed spending time with her on both occasions we met up. She seemed to enjoy it as well and told me as much, saying how she wanted to do something again. However, since that last hangout, she seems to have gone radio silent. Normally, she would text me on a regular basis (nearly every day) and tell me about her day, but that abruptly stopped. I didn’t think much of it at first because 1.) She has chronic back pain that sidelines her at times and 2.) She is currently taking classes that seems to be in a time squeeze there. If I would text her, she’d get back to me right away, but her responses are terse and close-ended. I told her that I would like yo do something with her whenever she isn’t so busy and she said she’d let me know. I backed off as I feared I would only be an irritant if I continued to contact her and thought it best to allow her to contact me when she wanted. It’s been two weeks and I’ve still heard nothing from her. I can gave clinging tendences when I think someone is drifting away and needless to say, my lizard feels more like a dinosaur at the moment. I am trying very hard not to slip into my bad habits of the past and I am trying not to push. I’m actually following your “what to do when she leaves” steps although this perhaps isn’t exactly the intended situation for which to use it. I dunno. My guess is yes. Anyway, I have backed off, given no signs of pushing and intend to message her something completely unrelated to her back or schoolwork–maybe just something to make her smile/laugh. My thought is that even asking her how the classes are going could be construed as pushing, since I asked her to meet up when that dies down. Honestly, this has been harder on me than perhaps it would be on most others since I have a pattern of being abandoned in the past. I have been brushing up on your articles and praying for patience. I’d like to hear your thoughts and I hope you did/are enjoying Mexico.


    • I think you are doing fine, Eric. The principles in my two “what to do” papers seem to work in any kind of relationship. Romantically driven ones just seem to be more extreme -in the intensity of the underlying and emerging abandonment issues and the power of the feelings of overwhelmed. Keep a going.

      • Thanks for the response. My current plan is to message her very sparingly (perhaps once a week) with something interesting going on in my life (rather than the basic “hello” conversation starters). Furthermore, I plan to reply to her only if she seems to be making an actual attempt of further or deeper conversation. I am currently struggling to not second-guess everything since I am not receiving much information from her at the moment.

  2. Hi Al. I’ve read articles all around your site and am on the right track personally in growth. My bipolar II, recently changed to bipolar 1 partner of almost 8 years left 3 months ago in the middle of a full manic attack that she said she was having. She was self-medicating with extra adderall, binge drinking, smoking cigarettes and weed in abnormal [for her] amounts, and started hanging with an old friend of hers who is into drugs, being a social justice warrior, and who is an unmedicated bipolar. My partner moved in with this friend. I was worn down from dealing with not being a good caretaker by not bringing in enough money and not wanting to push her in a cycle which, ended up making me feel unsure when and sometimes scared to be intimate with her. She was stressed from being fired from a large financial firm that she’d put her life into right after coming off another year of medical leave, having to adjust to a small local firm, and with me being angry and frustrated from not making enough money, and not being intimate with her.

    My partner left when I was at my lowest, with no money, all the bills, no talk of ever splitting or warning, and acted like I was going to hurt her. We had a fight the week before she left, discussed everything and apologized to each other, then initiated intimacy that we hadn’t had in over a year. [she clung on to me while sleeping all night]. Then she left a week later. She refused to talk to me except though a mutual friend in text. I left her alone to show her respect, though it killed me. After 6 weeks, I texted her to make sure she would be ok for Hurricane Irma that was coming. She said yes, asked if I was ok, I said yes and not more. The day after the hurricane passed, she texted me at 1:30am [very late for her on a work night] asking if our pet rats needed ice since she was in the area and saw we had no power. I asked if it was another ambush, she said no and she wouldn’t come if I didn’t want. I texted it would be ok and that she could see our pets if she didn’t bring another stranger into the house. [When she left, she brought a girl that no one seems to know, who screamed at me and started hitting me, while my partner was paralyzed watching it happen.] My partner texted back that she would leave ice at the door before work and couldn’t “muster” interaction. I haven’t heard from her since in 3 weeks.

    My question is, it has been three months now, and I’ve not followed your 5 month rules correctly since I just found this site, but do I still have a chance? Almost all of her things are with me in our place, and some bills still in each other’s names, and she still won’t talk to me. I haven’t initiated contact to respect her, and get myself together before I do. I’ve only seen a therapist, researched and been working on how to be better, but haven’t made enough money yet. I found out that she moved into a new house with the friend who was giving her drugs. [My partner and I are female, and her longtime friend is female, with no attraction between them] Is this completely ruined? If not, what is the best thing to do besides continuing work on myself?

    Thanks for your time.


    • Hello and welcome, Jen. I’ve been carrying your “Comment” around for several days cuz I see so much there and wasn’t sure where to start giving a response. First thought is that I love what you are doing and think you are on the right track. Sure you will stumble as you get better, but take my encouragement with you as you climb back up each time.

      Making Amends has several parts that are quite helpful for you. First is it is an exercise in boundaries – speaking of yourself and not even coming close to blaming or projecting on the “other.” Secondly it separates and focuses on what you did and not what the other “thought” you did. It optimistically focuses on what delimiting what you can do in the direction of healing your wounding. It lastly shifts to the “listening” mode for the “other’s” sharing their experience. Finally it models what the other can do in a positive way when they find they have “done something they now wish they had not done” – i.e. when they want to Make Amends. A whole good bunch of stuff.

      I think everyone can use this skill of Making Amends in lots of situations. As I read it you’re in a very tough growth process. Interacting with people labeled Bi-polar can be frightfully difficult. While my experience of those problems is limited, I tend to see it as a functional problem (cognitive processing speed) which shows most of it’s troubles in relating to others. My current guess is that finding the optimal medication or physical intervention is only a starting place. The roll out of those problems into the areas I would call boundaries makes the solutions an application of “industrial strength” Boundary Skills. Learning your skills of powerfully maintaining self-esteem while modeling and teaching them to others – wow!

      I send you all the encouragement I can.

  3. Dear al

    Your website has been a source of relief and sanity in a confusing work- and for that I thank you.

    For background- she has short relationships where she has been cheated on. All under 1 year. Hadn’t dated for a year before me.

    Me- was with ex for 7 years since hs. We split one year ago after she stated she was no longer in love and has no desire to continue a relationship. I met current girl shortly after.

    I (25) am currently struggling to win back my (24) gf who left me a week ago. We have dated for nearly a year, and from the start had a very healthy dynamic. We took a spontaneous 3 week road trip and did surprisingly well. we truly have the makings of vintage love. We shared a desire to spend the rest of our lives together. She was reluctant to get serious but after the trip began staying with me full time (lives 2 hours away with parents)

    things were going well until recently, we had our first real argument and she broke up with me during the fight. I asked her to think on her decision and she did. She decided days later she wanted to move in with me and work on things. I had to take her back home, and just 3 days later I had a strange occurrence. It led to a confusing night that worried her and when I was finally able to speak a few hours later she explained she wanted to break up again. For good. She said it was in best health for us as she believed if we continued it would only get worse.

    She said she was not doing well and flew to LA for the weekend, in which time we barely spoke and she seemed cold. She got back yesterday and immediately began speaking with me regularly, but admitted she stayed and slept with an ex in LA and did not have much alone time but is now positive of her decision.

    She stated her reason as – I am happier alone, I do not believe our relationship had the qualities I was looking for. Before she left for LA she said she was still in love with me, due to her confusing actions now I am not sure. She leaves for Korea in 2 days and will be gone until mid oct. I was supposed to meet with her in person (she said she did not care either way) but she cancelled due to getting in late from her flight and being tired.

    I plan to continue to speak on her terms and wait for her to invite a deeper conversation, and possibly a chance to speak in person when she returns from Korea next month. I am worried about betraying my intentions. She has stated she has made her choice and it is disrespectful for me to convince her otherwise or not accept her choice.

    Do you believe that with some time and continued positive contact I may have a chance to get her back? I realize now that I drove her away with my insecurities and doubts in the relationship and my inability to truly listen to her wishes and feelings.

    • Hello Syd, Gosh this sounds confusing for you. I bet it’s confusing for her, too.

      The first part of relationships these days often seem to be more and more chaotic. I guess that it is a combination of the usual pulls toward Vintage Love combined with increasing skepticism about the existence of Vintage Love. So more and more people seem lost in liking Romantic Love (which never lasts) and trying to work out relationships shallowly. “First sign of trouble and I’m out of here.” Well, how is that working for people? Not.

      Thanks for the story of your experience. Not surprising that a “big argument” might be a breaking point. I’m used to the idea that “argument” is a signal that hard and thorough learning about Diversity and Autonomy is awaiting you both. But if one runs away from argument one will never learn the lessons.

      Do you have a chance to get her back? Will those tactics (time and positive contact) work? Well, firstly I’m thinking you never “had” her and so can’t get her back. People don’t possess people. Not anymore. This is more a “talk the deer out of the forest to eat out of your hand” situation. But those ideas you have are good. Giving her time and not panicking your self is always good. It sounds like learning to not push her. That’s always good. I don’t know what you think “positive contact” is, but it sounds like a good idea.

      I guess I’d suggest you keep trying and keep reading.

      • Thank you so much for your prompt reply and insight, it is much appreciated. I meant ‘positive contact’ as keeping the conversation light and not about us or the relationship. I made that mistake last night and spooked her- haven’t heard from her since so I’ll be here patiently waiting to see if she returns.

        I have heard that the person who leaves often has an opposite reaction to a break up – initially feeling relief, then perhaps guilt, mourning, or regret over the loss- while the person who was left feels initial sadness that fades over time. What do you think? I wonder if I need to wait and see if perhaps her feelings may be different over time. I find it hard to believe she could be pushed away so easily after being so in love that very day, but I guess that surprise means I just wasn’t listening to her.

        I’ll return next month with an update in the situation-perhaps others will find it useful.

        • Ah, Syd, I think you’ve got some clues. Think of conversation with numbers of words or sentences, and who is “sending” and who is “listening.” So think of words you sent to her and the words she sent to you. Plan on shifting to 5 to 1, five words from her or sentences and one from you. I think you want to learn to encourage her to share mostly and you share just a little bit and then what you share is short and condensed. That leaves you “listening” a lot. That is, to me, a light conversation. Anyway, it’s a clue

        • Hi Al,

          I didn’t hear from her at all once she left for Korea. A week before her return she texted me asking if I wanted to meet up and we made plans. I drove to meet her last night and we caught up and chatted for a few hours but didn’t discuss the relationship. She asked if I had anything to say and I told her not really but but we discussed being friends and I affirmed that I’m still in love with her. She said she hadn’t changed her mind.

          Her ex is coming into town this week to visit and she has expressed a desire to move back to LA sometime in the future so I assume that she is starting things back up with him. I don’t see much of a chance considering this new information, although I do think we both left the meeting with a positive feeling.

          As of now we are still in contact, so I’m not sure how to proceed. Am I right that starting something new takes time and I need to be patient? I truly feel we had something special.

        • Hello Sydney, I think there are various stages of this situation, beginning with one partner leaving. I recall that there were reasons why she was attracted to be with you. Those reasons are not gone, but overlayed with reasons she has for getting away. As long as she is moving away you probably want to focus on turning her around – to reconsidering you. Best plan I know at this stage is to a) not do anything negative such as pushing things, b) take care of yourself so that your emotions are expressed but don’t become a negative to her, c) learn more and more about what negative things you’ve done, who taught you to do them, how to replace them with better behaviors, d) be very gentle if she appears to turn toward you – don’t go back to the old way. Now that means you keep in contact with her but not pushily. For many people this becomes a bit like a very short email once-a-week. I don’t like “no contact”. I don’t want her to think you don’t care at all. But you don’t have to do much to remind her that you are here, wanting to connect with her and do better, but are being patient.

          Of course you want her to change her mind, but don’t want her to lie about changing her mind. Her telling her truth is something I think you want to reward even if you don’t like her “truth”. Keep a going. Good luck.

  4. Hi Al, I’m only young but my partner of five years left me about six weeks ago. We have not had the easiest relationship with various stints of long distance due to study and work with the final long distance period leading to my partner being emotionally exhausted and telling me he did not have the strength to go on. For me it was out of the blue. I’ve tried to look back over it read the signs but I haven’t got much. I can’t even work out who is the clinger and who is the avoider though it is abundantly clear to me that right now I’m the clinger.
    At first he said nothing had changed between us, he just didn’t want to move from our hometown and his family and the life he had built there (which was the plan due to my profession required me to move from my hometown), and couldn’t keep doing long distance. In coming conversations this has evolved to I don’t know if I see a future with you anymore and I don’t love you the way you love me. I know he’s scared about moving but I think a future without him scares me more than almost anything else, so his sense isn’t the same as mine. Having said that I am still trying to work my sense out.
    We were planning on buying a house (in our new city), getting married and having kids together mere weeks before this. I had never doubted that I was with the person I would grow old with. I’m a quirky partner for sure but I felt safe and loved in my relationship, and my partner made me very happy. It seemed I also made him very happy though being apart was hard. Though I am sorry as I must not have been making him happy of late.
    We have grown up together and he feels like family. I am struggling to cope with the grief of losing my best friend and a whole future I had hoped to share with them. He has just had some tragic news in his family and says he is struggling to work out who he is and where he is going and where I fit into it, if I fit into it at all. He says he doesn’t want me to reguret waiting around for him, when he doesn’t know if he wants me anymore. He is relieved to not have to face moving and to not have to miss me all the time.
    At first he didn’t want to talk to me at all. I was pathetic. I felt lost and scared and worthless. And I was all alone. Unfortunately, he had to deal with some of that largely because I didn’t have anyone else. Since then I’ve been trying to be kinder and stronger and be the friend he needs and allow him to reach out as he likes. Mostly he doesn’t reach out, which hurts but I gather it must make sense to him in a way it does not to me. We have seen each other once since the break up and it was such a relief to see one another. It was like coming home. But then he was so upset and I was pushy and tried to make him laugh and pretend it was all ok. I know he knows I’m hurting and that hurts him but he can’t see a way forward, he just can’t.
    I understand that it is likely I have missed many signs due to not listening to my partner or making him feel like he couldn’t talk to me. I also understand that missing each other was a kind of burden which we both dealt with differently. He tried to distract himself with sport and friends, but I didn’t make enough effort and was living my life waiting to see him, talk to him, waiting for him to move to me. And that made him feel scared and pressured and threatened. But I don’t know how learning about these problems can help me fix them based in the nature of the situation.
    I try to trust what I thought was a relationship on its way to achieving the biological dream, and be patient and wait for my partner to work things out and in the mean time try to better myself and learn and become stronger. Other times I wonder if that is unfair on he and I, and I should just love him from afar and allow all parties to move on in their own direction. I mean sometimes the love just isn’t right, right? It feels right, but maybe it just isn’t. Or maybe I’m not even ready to be a good partner. Maybe I have to do other things first. Maybe I’m not enough yet. I just want to do the right thing by this guy. I want to behave in a way that I can be proud of, and not diminish he or I or the love we share. Sorry this is an enormous comment, and sorry for my lack of maturity and self awareness (I’m trying). Any thoughts or just about anything would be appreciated. However, please don’t feel like you must respond.

  5. Hello, so I been a relationship with my girlfriend for 5 years we just broke up about 2 weeks ago. I had the power in the relationship and would always be the one to leave and her come callin me back but after this fight and putting in a 30 day notice. this time around she said she was fed up and needed space and been thinking about the relationship. And now she has the power and I’m here trying to get her back. So for the past two weeks I been trying to get her back and begging the whole 9 yards but obviously that’s not the answer.shes telling me to just give her space and if and when she wants me back she’ll let me know she turned really cold on me the tables have really turned. I understand and learned my lesson she has deserced much more outnif me then and now..really want her back and she tells me she loves me and misses me but we can’t be together right now. What do i do just leave her alone and just wait and see if she comes back to me?
    Lost and confused -bill

    • Hello Bill, and welcome to the world of lots of new discoveries – about relationships. Most of us “students” started this journey by panicking when our partner broke up with us in some way. So my first suggestion is to breathe.

      As far as “power” goes, a) “the one who can leave has all the power”, b) and solving the issue of making both partners feel powerful, but not more powerful is central to a successful relationship. I often call this “the who is the boss” problem, and until you two solve this, I fear there will be troubles.

      I’ve faced this, too, and I think your idea of wait and see is not a good idea. I’ve written a lot on this. If you want her back, then don’t give up. Get to work learning. A whole bunch of to do things are around this website. Your question reminds me of an answer I once gave was in the radical paper “It takes one to make a marriage, two to make a split.”

      You’d better check out my Map of Relationships, too.

      Good luck.

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