Feeling abandoned can be as painful as a physical wound. But there’s a way to cope when your emotional needs have gone unmet.
Emotional abandonment is fairly nuanced and complex. When it happens, many things may be going on — on both sides of the relationship.
Identifying the layers underlying emotional abandonment can help you cope when you feel discarded and unsupported.
Kibby McMahon, PhD, a clinical psychologist and co-host of the podcast “A Little Help for Our Friends,” defines emotional abandonment as “other people not meeting your emotional needs, leaving you feeling rejected, unloved, or painfully lonely.”
“Other people recognizing and responding to our emotional needs — such as comforting us when we’re sad — is essential to our well-being,” McMahon says.
So, when loved ones don’t meet those needs, it’s natural to feel abandoned, upset, or scared.
Like most mental health-related things in life, though, emotional abandonment is more than meets the eye. It can be messy and multilayered.
Sometimes, what might look and feel like emotional abandonment to you is actually your loved one needing space or not knowing how to help.
Sometimes, our perception might also be skewed, making us extra sensitive to feeling emotionally abandoned, even though this isn’t the case.
Maybe you misinterpret boundary setting as rejection, or expect people to be emotionally available all the time.
This may happen for many reasons. For example, maybe you have:
Many things can lead to emotional abandonment.
For example, people might be unable to meet your emotional needs because they’re busy with work or other responsibilities, says McMahon.
Everyone has a different tolerance level to what they can handle at a time. Emotional availability may feel costly to some people.
There are also multiple internal factors that may cause emotional abandonment.
We are complex human beings with different personality traits, tendencies, and histories.
According to McMahon and psychotherapist Joyce Marter, a person may be:
- uncomfortable in emotional situations
- processing their own feelings around a similar experience
- facing fears your relationship will change negatively
- unsure about how to show love in the way you need
- not equipped to provide the support you need
Mental health conditions can also lead someone to be unavailable. This could be because they’re dealing with difficult symptoms, or they inherently have low empathy and can’t put themselves in your position.
Some examples, according to Marter, include:
- substance use disorder
- anxiety disorders
- a personality disorder, such as narcissistic personality disorder or borderline personality disorder
Your loved one might be going through a hard time for other reasons, says Marter. For example:
- financial challenges
- job insecurity
- relationship conflicts with someone else
- fear of commitment
Lastly, keep in mind that “staying emotionally connected is a two-way street,” says McMahon.
Although you’re not responsible for someone else’s emotional health, it’s possible that some of your actions can explain what you perceive as emotional unavailability. For example:
- not openly expressing your emotions, and assuming your loved one should just know what you feel or need
- dismissing genuine attempts to connect by pushing the person away or criticizing them
- having a hard time understanding relationship boundaries
One of the first steps to exploring emotional abandonment in your relationship can be a conversation.
If you’d like to talk with your loved one about them not meeting your emotional needs, it may help to plan what you’d like to say and wait until you’re feeling calm.
It may also be a good idea to have no expectations and be ready to accept any outcome. If the person really is emotionally unavailable, they may dismiss what you say.
Here are a few pointers:
Pinpoint your objective
Both McMahon and Marter emphasize the importance of identifying something specific and concrete you’d like the person to do differently. This way, they’re not trying to guess your needs, and you’re on the same page.
For example, you might say:
- “I’d like us to check in with each other every day.”
- “I need you to respond when I’m speaking to you, even if it’s to say you’re not sure what to say.”
- “When I’m crying, I’d like a hug.”
Be a team player
Think of your loved one as a teammate you’re collaborating with, says McMahon.
As such, try to express empathy and be compassionate. Doing so decreases the chances of the other person being defensive, and promotes a more productive conversation.
For example, if your partner is currently stressed out, you might say, “I realize this is a difficult time for you, and you’re probably feeling pulled in many different directions.”
Or, if they’re uncomfortable with big emotions, you might try, “I know this is overwhelming for you, and you don’t mean to hurt me. But when you walk out of the room, it makes me feel alone. Can you give me a hug instead?”
Make sure you’re calm
It’s hard to be thoughtful and compassionate when you’re fuming. To have a productive talk, it’s best to be calm and collected. If you’re not, try:
- closing your eyes
- taking deep breaths
- giving yourself 10 to 20 minutes of quiet time
- practicing some grounding exercises
Express softer emotions
“[E]xpress your more vulnerable, ‘softer’ emotions, such as hurt, fear, and sadness instead of anger or disgust,” McMahon recommends.
When you express your emotional pain, you’re not only being honest and authentic, you’re encouraging the other person to share their vulnerability, too.
Use ‘I’ versus ‘you’
This is another way to approach your conversation with compassion and honesty. While it might seem obvious that offending your loved one isn’t helpful, it’s easier said than done.
So, try to lead with your feelings versus assumptions about the other person’s thoughts, feelings, or behavior.
As Marter says, try “I’m feeling sad that we haven’t spoken, and I miss you.”
Welcome their perspective
Remember that this is a back-and-forth conversation. Consider letting your loved one share their thoughts and feelings, and listen intently to what they have to say.
Maybe they’ll mention that when you’re upset, you give off signs that you’d like to be alone. So, in their mind, they’re giving you the space you’re needing.
Before rejecting what they say, try to pause and consider that one situation can be perceived many ways by different people.
Get out of the weeds
“When in conflict, many of us get caught up in the tiny details of what was said or how it was said, or of a certain behavior or action,” Marter says.
But focusing on the minutia can prevent you from seeing the bigger picture.
If issues keep arising, consider them as symptoms of a larger relationship challenge, Marter says, such as:
- a breakdown of trust
- emotional or spiritual disconnection
There’s the possibility that the other person may not respond as you wish or need.
While facing emotional abandonment may be difficult, you can still cope by taking good care of yourself.
Consider these tips to emotionally and physically invest in yourself:
Engage in something deeply relaxing
Creating inner calm can help you feel better, which you can do with relatively simple practices.
For example, according to one 2018 research review, slowed breathing may trigger the parasympathetic nervous system and lead to increased relaxation, comfort, and positive energy. It may also help decrease anxiety and anger outbursts.
You can try these deep breathing practices.
According to Marter, other soothing options include:
In sum, anything you enjoy can become a relaxing experience that may help you reset emotionally.
Consider acknowledging and accepting how you’re feeling. Even if there’s plenty of valid reasons your loved one didn’t meet your emotional needs, it’s still upsetting. And you’re allowed to feel hurt and frustrated.
Try to give yourself the same empathy and kindness you’d give to someone you love very much, says Marter.
“Choose to be your most compassionate friend, rather than your worst critic,” she says.
Research has found that self-compassion is associated with many benefits, including:
It may also be a good idea to remember that someone’s emotional abandonment doesn’t say anything about you.
Ask someone else to meet your needs
If you’re in need of some support, turn to someone else who’s demonstrated they’re capable of providing it.
The key is to be clear with them about those needs. According to Marter, this can be as simple as asking someone to listen to you vent.
Explore unhealthy patterns
If you feel emotionally abandoned in a lot of your relationships, take a deeper dive into what else could be going on.
You might explore these questions on your own or, ideally, with a trained therapist, says McMahon:
- Are you surrounding yourself with emotionally unavailable people?
- Are you acting in ways that push people away?
- Are you assuming that everyone emotionally abandons you because of a previous trauma?
- Do you face the same types of challenges in all of your relationships?
Assess the future of your relationship
In some cases, the best way to handle emotional abandonment is to step away from that person.
If you realize that, despite your attempts, they’re still not responding emotionally to you, it may be a good idea to part ways.
Feeling abandoned by someone you care about may lead you to feel overwhelmed, confused, and devastated.
In some cases, someone may temporarily not be available to you because they’re dealing with their own emotions. In other instances, emotional abandonment may be caused by more complex processes.
In either case, you deserve to be loved and supported. If you express how you feel but get no response, it may be time to move to a more fulfilling relationship.
If you’re having a hard time dealing with someone’s emotional distance, consider finding professional help.