Breaking the Cycle of Emotional 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:
- To be listened to and understood
- To be nurtured
- To be appreciated
- To be valued
In order to get our emotional needs 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.)
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 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.
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.