Breaking the Cycle of Abandonment

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 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. (See my blog Your Intimacy Index)

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 to 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 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 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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15 thoughts on “Breaking the Cycle of Abandonment

  1. 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 and his outbursts got worse. He sees me as a perpetrator.

    • 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

  2. 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.

    • 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.

  3. Is it possible that the cycle of abandonment began with older siblings? Perhaps I am in denial but I don’t see it with my parents. However, I had an abusive and hurtful relationship with an older brother.

  4. 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

    • Don’t expect to change him, but work on yourself. His avoidant style triggers your pursuer. You can get more comfortable staying or the courage to leave. Learn if he is triggering old wounds for you, and heal them.

  5. I divorced my husband of 30 yrs, 4 yrs ago but can’t seem to move on. I have met the most wonderful man but often feel guilty and think of my ex. The other problem is my adult children don’t invite my new partner to family functions because my ex won’t go if my new partner is there. I have started putting my foot down and won’t go if my partner can’t, but I am missing out all the time because of my ex. This is when I start wondering if I shouldn’t just go back to my ex and everybody will be happy?

  6. 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 trauma that caused my codependency along with a lot of reading. I’m not sure what to do on the 27th when we meet. Any advice? Thanks!

    • Codependency doesn’t go away a couple of years. It’s a life journey that deepens over time, and you don’t really know the extent of it until you’re in an intimate relationship. Relationships provide opportunities to grow and learn – they’re life lessons. Healing from trauma is only one part, there’s also behavioral changes and learning self-care. Do the exercises in Codependency for Dummies and Conquering Shame and discuss your options with your therapist.

  7. Well, this gives a lot of insight for my fear of relationships, and indeed did have distant and crappy (only) long relationship. Dysfunctional with capital D. Thank you for great info. =)

  8. 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 he was the best man in the world when we were younger and I lied and cheated on him.

    • Once you heal your own shame and guilt, you won’t stay with someone who keeps punishing you. If he truly wants to get past the past, then you work together on it. It takes two. See my blog, Rebuilding Trust. If he just wants to punish you, perhaps you’ve been idealizing him all along.

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