Many people don’t realize that they’re feeling emotionally abandoned or that they did as a child. They may be unhappy, but can’t put their finger on what it is. People tend to think of abandonment as something physical, like neglect. They also may not realize that loss of physical closeness due to death, divorce, and illness is often felt as an emotional abandonment. However, emotional abandonment has nothing to do with proximity. It can happen when the other person is lying right beside you – when you can’t connect and your emotional needs aren’t being met in the relationship.
Often people aren’t aware of their emotional needs and just feel that something’s missing. But people have many emotional needs in intimate relationships. They include the following needs:
- To be listened to and understood.
- To be nurtured
- To be appreciated
- To be valued
- To be accepted
- For affection
- For love
- For companionship
Consequently, if there is high conflict, abuse, or infidelity, these emotional needs go unmet. Sometimes, infidelity is a symptom of emotional abandonment in the relationship – by one or both partners. Additionally, if one partner is addicted, the other may feel neglected, because the addiction comes first and consumes the addict’s attention, preventing him or her from being present.
Causes of Emotional Abandonment
Yet even in a healthy relationship, there are periods, days, and even moments of emotional abandonment that may be intentional or unconscious. They can be caused by:
- Intentionally withholding communication or affection
- External stressors, including the demands of parenting
- Conflicting work schedules
- Lack of mutual interests and time spent together
- Preoccupation and self-centeredness
- Lack of healthy communication
- Unresolved resentment
- Fear of intimacy
When couples don’t share common interests or work/sleep schedules, one or both may feel abandoned. You have to make an extra effort to spend time talking about your experiences and intimate feelings with each other to keep the relationship fresh and alive.
More harmful are unhealthy communication patterns that may have developed, where one or both partners doesn’t share openly, listen with respect, and respond with interest to the other. If you feel ignored or that your partner doesn’t understand or care about what you’re communicating, then there’s a chance that eventually you may stop talking to him or her. Walls begin to build and you find yourself living separate lives emotionally. One sign may be that you talk more to your friends than to your partner or are disinterested in sex or spending time together.
Resentments easily develop in relationships when your feelings, especially hurt or anger, aren’t expressed. When they go underground, you may either pull away emotionally or push your partner away with criticism or undermining comments. If you have expectations that you don’t communicate, but instead believe your partner should be able to guess or intuit them, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment and resentment.
When or your partner fear intimacy may pull away, put up walls, or push one another away. Usually, this fear isn’t conscious. In fact, as odd as it may seem, one partner may act out the other’s fears. For example, one woman unaware of her intimacy fears complained that her boyfriend ignored her and spent all his time on the Internet. Only in counseling were they both able to talk about their ambivalence, which allowed them to get closer. Other examples of abandoning behavior are after a period of closeness or sex, one person may physically withdraw or create distance by not talking or even by talking too much. Either way, it may leave the other person feeling alone and abandoned. Fears of being smothered, rejected, or losing autonomy usually underlie fear of intimacy, the seeds of which stem from emotional abandonment in childhood.
Emotional abandonment usually begins early in childhood if the primary caretaker, usually the mother, is unable to be present emotionally for her baby. It’s often because she’s replicating her experience as an infant, but may also be due to an external stressor. It’s important for a baby’s emotional development that the mother attune to her child’s feelings and needs and reflect them back. She may be cold and unable to empathize with her child. If she’s preoccupied when her child wants to share a success or is crying over a broken toy, he or she may feel all alone, rejected, or deflated. The reverse is also true – where a parent gives a child a lot of attention, but isn’t attuned to what the child actually needs. The child’s needs hence go unmet, which is a form of abandonment.
Abandonment also happens later, when children’s feelings and thoughts aren’t supported or they’re criticized, controlled, unfairly treated, or otherwise given a message that they or their experience is unimportant or wrong. Children are vulnerable, and it doesn’t take much for a child to feel hurt and “abandoned.” Abandonment also occurs when a parent confides in his or her child or expects a child to take on age-inappropriate responsibilities. At those times, the child must suppress his or her feelings and needs in order to meet the needs of the adult.
A few incidents of emotional abandonment don’t harm a child’s healthy development, but when they’re common occurrences, they reflect deficits in the parent, which affect the child’s sense of self and security that often lead to intimacy issues and codependency in adult relationships.
Couples counseling can bring couples together to enjoy more closeness, heal from abandonment, and change their behavior.
© Darlene Lancer, 2012