What is Emotional Abandonment?

distancingWe may not realize that we’re feeling emotionally abandoned or that we did as a child. We may be unhappy, but can’t put our 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 us – when we can’t connect, and our emotional needs aren’t being met in the relationship.


Emotional Needs

Often we aren’t aware of our emotional needs and just feel that something’s missing. But we 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 conflictabuse, addiction, or infidelity, these emotional needs go unmet. Sometimes, infidelity is a symptom of emotional abandonment in the relationship – by one or both partners. Additionally, addiction may be used to avoid closeness. 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 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. They have to make an extra effort to spend time talking about their 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. When we feel ignored or that our partner doesn’t understand or care about what we’re communicating, then there’s a chance that eventually we stop talking to him or her. Walls begin to build and we can begin living separate lives emotionally. Signs are if we talk more to our friends or a relative than to our partner or are disinterested in sex or spending time together.

Resentments easily develop in relationships especially when hurt or anger isn’t expressed. As a result, we may either pull away emotionally, put up walls, or push our partner away with criticism or undermining comments. Unexpressed hurt and needs lead to more disappointment and resentment.

Denial or shame about our feelings and needs usually stems from emotional abandonment in childhood and can cause communication and intimacy problems.  Usually, this fear isn’t conscious. In counseling, couples are able to talk about their ambivalence, which allows them to grow closer. Sometimes, abandoning behavior occurs after a period of closeness or sex. One partner 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.

In Childhood

Good parenting provides children security that they’re loved and accepted for their unique self by both parents and that both parents want a relationship with them. Parental failure to validate their feelings and needs is a trauma of emotional abandonment. Often clients tell me that they felt that their family didn’t understand them, that they felt different from the rest of the family or like an outsider. What is being described is the trauma of invisibility. This can also happen when parent-child interactions revolve around the parent, the child is serving the parent’s needs, instead of the other way around, which is a form of abandonment. Even if a parent says, “I love you,” the child may still not feel close and accepted for who he or she is as a separate individual, apart from the parent.

Emotional abandonment childhood can happen in infancy if the primary caretaker, usually the mother, is unable to be present emotionally for her baby. It’s often because she’s replicating her own childhood experience, but it may also be due to stress or depression. It’s important for a baby’s emotional development that the mother attunes to her child’s feelings and needs and reflects them back. She may be preoccupied, cold, or unable to empathize with her baby’s success or upsetting emotions. He or she then ends up feeling 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.

In addition to situations where a parent is physical absent or doesn’t share in parenting, abandonment happens later, too, when children are 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 can also occur when a parent confides in a child or expects him or her to take on age-inappropriate responsibilities. At those moments, the children must suppress their feelings and needs in order to meet the needs of the adult.

A few incidents of emotional abandonment don’t harm children’s healthy development, but when they’re common occurrences, they affect children’s sense of self and security and can cause internalized shame that leads to intimacy issues and codependency in adult relationships. As adults, we may be emotionally unavailable or attracted to someone who is. We risk continuing a cycle of abandonment that replicates our abandoning relationships and be easily triggered to feel abandoned. For an in-depth examination of this process and how to heal, see Conquering Shame and Codependency: 8 Steps to Freeing the True You.

Couples counseling can bring couples together to enjoy more closeness, heal from abandonment, and change their behavior.

© Darlene Lancer, 2012, 2014

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20 thoughts on “What is Emotional Abandonment?

  1. Difficult reading this as it highlights some deep seated truths of my own emotional abandonment as a child…(on top of childhood s.abuse). I came across this web site for insight to my mother’s codependency with her adult sons…and realize now that I carry many of these patterns. I am frightened I have already hurt my almost 6 yo daughter with many of the same broken patterns of the poor way I was parented… and now everything is compounded with conflict in our 20 year marriage due to extreme financial stress over the past 5 years of our business loss due to the economy…causing me to scramble for off-farm work,etc..what to do?!

    • The most effective way to be a better parent is to heal yourself, raise your self-esteem, and learn to be assertive, nonreactive, and to self-nurture. All the keys and steps are set forth in my books, but to progress, join CoDA and get counseling.

      • Thanks for your reply. I have contacted my counselor and will check out the CoDA – hopefully consider going with my husband. I am wondering how to determine/know whether it would be helpful for our daughter to have some type of evaluation for play therapy? I would rather have her work through any hurts/confusion, etc..considering the circumstances rather than sweep them under the rug…to pop out when she is 13 or 14! How does one determine whether a child needs help and if so – what type and where to find it? Thanks!

        • Symptoms in children usually reflect dysfunction in the marital relationship or poor parenting. Work on yourself and your marriage, and see if she doesn’t improve. Also go to CoDA meetings. Once-a-week child counseling doesn’t help if a child returns to conflict at home.

  2. I am just coming out of a marriage which lasted 17 years. Let me just say that there is a new kind of addiction that is taking away our loved ones and leading to abandonment, and that is computer/gaming addiction.

    My husband played computer games when we met in college and I always thought he would outgrow it, but sadly he did not. His gaming was so important to him that he would become abusive whenever he lost or something happened in his game which angered him. He frequently yelled at the kids for “distracting” him from his games and making his player die. Sometimes he would play until 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning. 🙁

    • This is so true…my first husband had this problem. He was absent from our lives even though he was right there in our homes. I needed him, I missed him, my kids missed him. But, his games were more important than any of his responsibilities.

  3. I am always amazed that people actually have relationships. I was clearly abandoned/ignored as a kid. I learned not to have needs, to never ask for anything. I have no idea what my needs are. I’ve never dated. If someone’s not expressing interest, I don’t think I have a right to bother them. I spent thousands on therapists trying to find a way to feel like I matter. Some of the work helped me understand, but nothing changed. I’ve carved out a place for myself in the world by being able to fix/build anything electrical or mechanical. I’m not depressed or sad. I’m just different. I’ve grown comfortable with a spartan existence.

    • If you spent so much on therapy, you must have felt something was missing. Even if not in a relationship with another person, healing the shame of abandonment can improve your relationship with yourself and others. Try working the steps in Conquering Shame. It’s a small investment that many say has yielded them results.

      • So the thought process is that society demands that men be “all knowing , all powerful, all the time.” We are never allowed to appear weak (according to Brene’ Brown). Having needs or having to ask for something, is weak. To me it’s just proof that I need to work harder at having more to offer, then maybe I’ll be worthy of the connection that other people have. It just seems like logical cause and effect to me. I can tell myself I’m worthy all I want, but I don’t get to decide. My mom decided very early on that I wasn’t enough. The rest of the world, particularly women, have read her report.

        • I know where you’re coming from on society saying men can’t be weak – I also find similar things at times, especially reinforced by when I make a mistake or fail at something I often pay a heavier price than others seem to.

          That being said I’ve been reading a lot and am trying to learn not to put so much stock in what others think of me and to be easier on myself … I think until you give yourself a fair valuation it encourages others to discount your value also.

          PS – I also lived a ‘muted’ existence for many years, but have found in the last year or so I feel I’m actually living again … its a much better place ..

    • Nobiwan, I can very much understand, my childhood experience was VERY much the same. It’s taken me a long time to understand that I have any needs at all, as my needs growing up were to please everyone else and be there for them, while they weren’t always there for ME. I am married, which was made this more difficult in some ways and better in others, it’s opened a whole can of worms, as I was quite oblivious to my family’s dynamics until I met my now husband. Doing something you enjoy is so beneficial. There’s nothing wrong with being different.

  4. Darlene,
    Bless you for your work and especially for this article! This blog PERFECTLY explains and expresses my dating experiences throughout my entire adult life. I was emotionally abandoned by my mother as a child and esp as a young teen, and, despite my awareness and years of inner work, I STILL end up subconsciously picking partners who leave me feeling like she did. I’m exhausted. 8 years devoted to intense inner work and healing, only to keep ending up in the same spot again and again. I plan to purchase your book in the hopes that something will finally free me of this painful cycle. THANK YOU from the bottom of my heart!!!!!

  5. My husband of 36 yrs. appears to be Mr. Nice Guy, but when we’re out of eye/ear-shot, look out. In his own quiet, selfish way, he has managed to kill our relationship. Case in point: We’re at Knott’s Berry Farm & he decides he wants an ice cream cone. I seek out various employees to point us to the concession stand, but when I turn around, he’s walking away into the crowd, leaving me standing in Camp Snoopy until he returns 20 – 30 minutes later licking HIS ice cream cone. A cone for me wasn’t part of the bargain. I could go on and on giving such examples, but our trip to Disneyland 2 days ago was the icing on the cake. He knows I have a fear of heights, so when getting from the parking structure to the Park, I wanted to take the elevator vs. the escalator. He stood for a few minutes waiting for the next available elevator when he became frustrated and informed me he was going to meet our kids (ages 29 and 17) who had already taken the escalator. Once inside the Park, we went to get a locker for our jackets. Apparently, I wasn’t entering my secret password fast enough for him, so he publicly chastised me for doing it ‘wrong’, which by the way wasn’t even an issue. He was simply frustrated, hence my feelings didn’t matter. These ‘little’ things have been the death of our relationship. I no longer trust him to be my protector, my confidant, nor even my friend far less the ‘love’ of my life. Fortunately, I do have a wonderful relationship with my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, who fills in the gaps for the wishy-washy sometimes ‘believer’ I’m married to. God is helping me with the anger and frustration I feel on the days when I’ve been recently hurt by my husband and the Holy Spirit is doing great things through me for other people. It’s the electrifying experience of walking hand in hand with the Lord that keeps me sane. Love and prayers to anyone reading this. Do know there is hope in the Lord God Almighty. He is REAL. Take my word for it!

    • My question is
      is, how do u stay with a person like that. I feel emotionally abandoned and I am sick that I am still here.

  6. Yes I have just discovered (7/14/2014 6:20 PM EDT) that what I’m dealing with here is emotional abandonment from a Spouse of nearly 20-years. This puts the hammer squarely on the head of the nail. Its gone on long enough and I can’t stand it any longer. She is 45, I’m 61 and after her surgery of an ovarian cyst in November 2013 that resulted in a full hysterectomy due to the doctor making a very big mistake she has not been anywhere at all the same person.right down to recent infidelity with two very young men! To saying things off the wall, to even more. I’ve been the receiver of the this in a hateful way. Its really bad and I just can’t believe it. Don’t know what else to say, it is what it is.

  7. aythatyouhavereallygoodadvice.Ivebeenwithmyboyfriendfor11/2yearsandweareboth50yearsold,actuallyImalmost50yearsold.Wedontlivetogetherabothhaveteenagerslivingathome.Ineverhearhimsayhowhefeelsaboutmebutheistotallyaffectionatewithhis17yearoldson.WearentveryintimateandIdontseehimalotbutImreadytoenditcausemyneedsarebeingmet.IhaveachronicillnessandImsickallthetime.Hetendstoblamethelackofclosenessonmyillness.ImworkingoncuringandhealingmyselfbutImnotevensurewherethisrelationshipisgoing.IdontlikeNOTKNOWING!Thanks.

    • I understand how difficult it is not to know. That’s where letting go can be helpful. Look at it this way: You’re working to heal yourself and you will reap the rewards whether you’re in the relationship or not – you will be stronger.

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