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What is Emotional Abandonment?

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.

Emotional Needs

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
  • Illness
  • 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.

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

By: admin

  1. I found your site searching “Children emotionally abandoned from birth” because I believe that is at the core of my life challenges. I had some understanding of the developmental process of a child transition to separatness and the negative emotion of being abandoned. However, I had the question.. ” What if the child was abandoned from birth?” which was my situation. Your thoughts I found “Spot on” The one thing me and my two siblings can agree upon today is that “We knew we were not wanted and lived in Fear of more rejection from our parents.

    Yes, I have accepted them as they were. A big step for me. It is not for me to forgive them that is for them to ask God for. I survived that childhood with isolation where I felt safe and my fantasies of a family I might have had. The sad thing is that all I got out of it was What a healthy family LOOKED like. Not an experience. No warmth, tenderness, unconditional love. I have lived my life executing the fantasies and that has helped me maintain boundaries that did not fit with the exception of dragging alone my sexual addictive behaviors as a failed coping tool.

    Comment by Ron Seattle — March 21, 2013 @ 3:59 pm

  2. Thank you Ron for sharing your tragic story. I hope “executing your fantasies” means you’ve found love and connection – the yearning of every soul. Don’t underestimate that that is a major accomplishment, even for those born into healthier families. Many who were abandoned so young have attachment disorders and cannot connect with others. Your addiction may have to do with anxiety about intimacy. There are therapists and 12-step groups – SAA – that specialize in sexual addiction. Darlene

    Comment by admin — March 21, 2013 @ 4:45 pm

  3. I just read yur reply to my comment posted 3/21. In answer to you suggestion I am 10 years participating the 12 step SexAholics Anonymous local meeting. Actually, I am again the current meeting leader… It is odd I think that the SA “White Book” only uses the word intimacy 4 times and two of those are in the same sentence. The book was written in the late 70’s early 80’s. I will also be running a “breakout” topic meeting at our retreat this coming weekend.. Topic Fear of Intimacy”

    For me I have taken on a bit of self learning on this aspect. First coming across Doug Weiss’s book Sexual Anorexia which how this expands fear to withholding.

    I am growing to think that at the root of most addictive behaviors may well be intimacy issues and that two many recovering addicts return to their addictive behavior when they do not receive the promises. To work on any improvement we need to first identify and understand the issue…Fear in order to create and action step to correct or face the fear.? I have printed and shared this one page of your article with a few friends and I will take it upon myself to express our appreciation for your have collected your thoughts and put them into print.

    Comment by Ron Seattle — April 8, 2013 @ 10:45 pm

  4. Thank you Ron. You may also enjoy my article on Your Intimacy Index on this blog and also here: Yes, intimacy issues go with codependency and addiction. The underlying problem is the lack of wholeness (which creates boundary issues) and shame. I’m writing a book on shame and codependency that will be out next year.

    Comment by admin — April 9, 2013 @ 1:00 am

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