Breaking the Cycle of Abandonment

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ISlide47f you’re discontented in a relationship or go from one to another or even remain unhappily alone, you may be caught in a worsening cycle of abandonment.

People tend to think of abandonment as something physical, like neglect. Loss of physical closeness due to death, divorce, and illness is also an emotional abandonment. It also happens when our emotional needs aren’t being met in the relationship – including in our relationship with ourselves.

And although the loss of physical closeness can lead to emotional abandonment, the reverse isn’t true. Physical closeness doesn’t mean our emotional needs will be met. Emotional abandonment may happen when the other person is right beside us.

Our Emotional Needs

If we’re not aware of our emotional needs, we won’t understand what’s missing in our relationship with ourselves and with others. We may just feel, blue, lonely, apathetic, irritable, angry, or tired. We have many emotional needs in intimate relationships. They include the following:

  • For affection
  • For love
  • For companionship
  • To be listened to and understood.
  • To be nurtured
  • To be appreciated
  • To be valued

In order to get them met, not only do we need to know what they are, but we must value them and often actually ask for them to be met. Most people think they shouldn’t have to ask, but after the first rush of romance when strong hormones drive behavior, many couples get into routines that lack intimacy. They may even say loving things to each other or “act” romantic, but there’s no intimacy and closeness. As soon as the “act” is over, they return to their disconnected, lonely state.

Of course, when there is high conflict, abuse, addiction, or infidelity, these emotional needs go unmet. When one partner is addicted, the other may feel neglected, because the addiction comes first. Also, without recovery, codependents, which include all addicts, have difficulty in sustaining intimacy.

The Cause

Often people are in emotionally abandoning relationships that replicate the emotional abandonment they experienced in childhood from one or both of their parents. Children need to feel loved and accepted by both parents. It’s not enough for a parent to say, “I love you.” Parents need to show by their words and actions that they want a relationship with their child for who he or she is, respecting his or her individuality. That includes empathy and respect for their child’s personality, feelings, and needs – in other words, not merely loving a child as an extension of the parent.

When parents are critical, dismissive, invasive, or preoccupied, they’re unable to empathize with their child’s feelings and needs. The child will feel misunderstood, alone, hurt or angry, rejected, or deflated. Children are vulnerable, and it doesn’t take much for a child to feel hurt, abandoned, and ashamed. A parent who gives a child a lot of attention, but isn’t attuned to his or her child’s needs, which hence go unmet, is emotionally abandoning the child. Abandonment can also occur when a parent confides in his or her child or expects a child to take on age-inappropriate responsibilities. Abandonment happens when children are unfairly treated or in some way given a message that they or their experience is unimportant or wrong.

The Cycle

As adults, we become afraid of intimacy. We either avoid closeness ourselves or become attached to someone who avoids intimacy, providing the distance that we need to feel safe. (See The Dance of Intimacy) It can work if there’s enough closeness to satisfy our need for connection, but often the distance is painful and may be created by constant fighting, addiction, infidelity, or abuse. Problematic relationships then confirm feelings of unlovability and hopelessness and negative perceptions about the opposite sex.

If the relationship ends, even more fears of abandonment and intimacy can be created. Some people avoid relationships altogether, are more guarded, or enter another abandoning relationship. Fearing rejection, we may be on the lookout for negative signs, even misinterpret events, and believe it’s hopeless to talk about our needs and feelings. Instead, we may break-up or engage in distancing behavior, such as criticism or spending more time with others. When the relationship ends, we again feel more alone, rejected, and hopeless.

Abandonment in Childhood → Fear of Intimacy →Abandoning Relationships →

Greater Fear of Intimacy →Loneliness and/or more Abandoning Relationships

Breaking the Cycle

Reversing this trend is possible. It requires either the good fortune to be in a loving relationship, or more often, therapy is required to heal the wounds of childhood. Much of this is done through the relationship with a trusted, empathic therapist over time. It also entails an examination of the past and both feeling and understanding the impact of the parenting we received. Goals include not only accepting the past, which doesn’t necessarily mean approving it, but more importantly separating out our self-concept from the actions of our parents. See Conquering Shame and Codependency: 8 Steps to Freeing the True You.

Feeling worthy of love is essential to attracting and maintaining it. In the same way that we might shun a compliment we don’t feel we deserve, we will not be interested and able to sustain a relationship with someone who is generous in loving us. Feeling unworthy originated in our early relationship with our parents. Many people have no negative feelings toward their parents and may in fact have a close and loving adult relationship with them. However, it’s not enough that we forgive our parents. Healing includes rehabilitating the beliefs and inner voices of our parents that live in our minds and run our lives. 10 Steps to Self-Esteem and Conquering Shame provide steps to do this.

Finally, breaking the cycle means being a good parent to ourselves – loving ourselves in all ways. See my blogs about self-love and my Youtube self-love exercise. If this last step isn’t included, we will still be looking outside ourselves to someone else to make us happy. Although a good relationship can improve our sense of well-being, there are always times when partners need space or are needy and unavailable. Being able to care for ourselves allows us to hold the space for our partner and to take care of ourselves. Whether or not in a relationship, that’s the ultimate remedy against spiraling into an abandonment depression.

©Darlene Lancer 2015

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Jairo
Jairo
5 years ago

Hi Darlene,
So when I am single I am happy go lucky and pretty much ready to conquer life. However every time I get into a relationship old feelings of emotional abandonment from childhood come up. I get this anxiety when my partner is not around me. I feel as if I am not worthy and my partner is going to leave. It is a vicious cycle. Some have been understanding while with others it tends to be the cause of the break up. I am just at a loss and wonder what steps I could take.

Mike
Mike
6 years ago

Hi Darlene, I am in need of some advice. The short of my story is that I was dating this girl for 9 months and we broke up 6 weeks ago. We decided to take a break of no contact and talk on March 27th. I did about 18 months of healing from codependency before I started dating her but about 4 months into the relationship, when things started to get serious, it reared its ugly head again and I fell back into old patterns. The last 6 weeks, I have been doing intensive EMDR therapy to heal from the… Read more »

Stacy Johnson
Stacy Johnson
2 years ago

Darlene, this article answers so many questions! I was raised by an emotionally-abusive, narcissistic father and a codependent mother. I didn’t realize it until now, but I am married to a man who is uncomfortable with my emotions and deals with his own feelings of insecurity (incidentally, he is an INTP personality). At this point, I feel so lonely, disconnected, and undervalued. I recently learned that my core issues are due to abandonment but I don’t know if my current feelings are due to my emotional needs truly not being met in my marriage or if it is a self-fulfilling… Read more »

Darlene Lancer, LMFT
2 years ago
Reply to  Stacy Johnson

It might be a good time to start therapy. Also CoDA meetings. Meanwhile, do the exercises in my book, Conquering Shame.

Jen
Jen
2 years ago

Hi. I was never actually abandoned by my parents, but my mother was critical and my dad did everything for her. He was a good father. However, i experienced 2 divorces and now two relationships after my divorce ended, or one is on the verge of ending. I fair abandonment in each relationship and seem to subconsciously do the exact actions that push the person away to abandon me. I am trying to understand how to heal and stop this cycle. Thank you

Darlene Lancer, LMFT
2 years ago
Reply to  Jen

I suggest you read “What is Emotional Abandonment,” and Conquering Shame. A critical parent can be damaging to our self-esteem and emotional abandoning.

Grace
Grace
2 years ago

I’m a 50yo old woman currently in a lot of pain. The theme of choosing emotionally unavailable men over and over and being abondoned I. Many ways I relationship has come to an intense head recently. I know I have issues with codependency stemming from childhood and a history of avoidant and abandoning partners including a narcissistic man. Please help!!!
I’ve beentotalk therapy and found it a waste of time. Thank you so much!

Darlene Lancer, LMFT
2 years ago
Reply to  Grace

It sounds very painful, but for some reason you haven’t in therapy healed your codependency or learned to recognized the signs and why you’re attracted to them. Talking about problems doesn’t solve them, so I don’t know what kind of therapy you’ve received. You may consider trauma therapy if that feels appropriate and work on healing deep shame that may be playing a part in not letting in love you deserve. Read my books and attend CoDA meetings.

Maria
Maria
4 years ago

I dated a 38yo & there was always some struggle. He honored loyalty out of fear of abandonment. Afraid of closeness. His curiosity of me was replaced w/his dedication to work fof validation. He eventually interpreted my words as negative or threat. Blamed me. And each time he responded w/affirmation of love. After the last episode, in anger, he shared he suffered from complex PTSD. I want to know…does my walking away ignite complete abandonment or self preservation?. He wasn’t always like this, but I can’t soften his hyper vigilance. Lack of empathy. He’s been in therapy a few months… Read more »

Darlene Lancer, LMFT
4 years ago
Reply to  Maria

Sometimes, leaving a conversation or silence is experienced as abandonment to an aggressor. It’s best to say you want to discuss issue at a later time when you can both be calm and respectful. See How to Speak Your Mind – Become Assertive and Set Limits and my seminar, How to Be Assertive

Jairo
Jairo
5 years ago

Hi Darlene,
So when I am single I am happy go lucky and pretty much ready to conquer life. However every time I get into a relationship old feelings of emotional abandonment from childhood come up. I get this anxiety when my partner is not around me. I feel as if I am not worthy and my partner is going to leave. It is a vicious cycle. Some have been understanding while with others it tends to be the cause of the break up. I am just at a loss and wonder what steps I could take.

Darlene Lancer, LMFT
5 years ago
Reply to  Jairo

It would help to do the exercises in my book, go to CoDA meetings and get therapy to heal your past. You’ll need to heal your shame and develop friends, work, and your passions, not to be so focused on your partner for your self-esteem and security.

Carrie
Carrie
6 years ago

Hi
I love and am inspired by your work. I have been in a relationship with someone who has a low testerone issue and we fought over unmet needs…he wanted companship and me affection. I’m thinking that the medical issue amplified all of the fears of distance/purseur. (Me being anxious and him being avoidant). I am wondering how does begin after 7 years to rebuild the breakdown. We both cannot agree how to fix it and he does not seem to want to do therapy. Please help me

Mike
Mike
6 years ago

Hi Darlene, I am in need of some advice. The short of my story is that I was dating this girl for 9 months and we broke up 6 weeks ago. We decided to take a break of no contact and talk on March 27th. I did about 18 months of healing from codependency before I started dating her but about 4 months into the relationship, when things started to get serious, it reared its ugly head again and I fell back into old patterns. The last 6 weeks, I have been doing intensive EMDR therapy to heal from the… Read more »

Melissa Standpoint
Melissa Standpoint
6 years ago

I totally agree with this I’m dating a guy that I’ve been knowing since I was a child and I totally broke his heart when we were in a relationship. He just won’t forgive me and I keep wishing and praying that we work things out I’m very guilty and ashamed for what I did but I want to prove to him that I love him and I’m a mature adult now I’m starting to feel abandoned and only a sex slave he isn’t affectionate nor does he tell me he loves me. and I feel like its my fault… Read more »

Nathan
Nathan
3 years ago

My mother left my father when I was 1.5 years old. I have never had much of a relationship with him. I was hospitalized a lot in my early childhood years due to asthma. By age 7 I had been hospitalized 35 times. My mother was depressed and lacks empathy and has a severe victim complex. She might even have Narcissistic Personality Disorder. I am a 48yo male and have never really dated, although I seriously want to, but attractive women trigger my depression and I get severely depressed just thinking about dating and want to just shut down. I… Read more »

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