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Source: Lopolo/Shutterstock

A relationship can be a lonely place, and that can be confusing because we're not alone; we may even spend a lot of time with our partner. We may not recognize the signs of emotional abandonment. 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. A loss of physical closeness due to death, divorce, or illness can be felt as an emotional abandonment as well. But 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 or when our emotional needs aren’t being met in our relationship. Studies show that as high as 40 percent of marrieds complain of feeling lonely sometimes or often.1

Emotional Needs

Often we aren’t aware of our emotional needs; we just feel that something’s missing. We may feel needy, insecure, or lonely. It's important to distinguish social and emotional loneliness. Despite our social life, we can still miss emotional closeness with a significant other. We have many emotional needs in intimate relationships, the intensity of which will vary with our attachment style. Here are some of our emotional needs:

1. To be listened to and understood.

2. To be nurtured.

3. To be appreciated.

4. To be valued.

5. To be accepted.

6. Affection.

7. Love.

8. Companionship.

When there is high conflict, abuse, addiction, or infidelity in a relationship, these emotional needs often go unmet. Sometimes, infidelity is a symptom of emotional abandonment in a 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. Addiction can include a compulsive activity, such as workaholism or shopping. It might be that what's missing is intimacy, but we don't realize what that really means.

Causes of Emotional Abandonment

Even in healthy relationships, there are periods, days, and even moments of emotional abandonment that may be caused by:

  • Intentional withholding of communication or affection.
  • External stressors, including the demands of parenting.
  • Conflicting work schedules.
  • Lack of mutual interests and time spent together.
  • Preoccupation and self-centeredness.
  • Dysfunctional communication.
  • Unresolved resentment.
  • Fear of intimacy.
  • Illness.

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 fail to share openly, listen with respect, or respond with interest to the other. When we feel ignored, or like our partner doesn’t understand or care about what we’re communicating, there’s a risk that eventually we stop talking to him or her. Walls begin to rise, and we can begin living emotionally separate lives. Signs are if we talk more to friends or relatives than to our partner, or when we are disinterested in sex or spending time together.

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

Denial or shame about our feelings and needs often stems from emotional abandonment in childhood and can cause communication and intimacy problems. Usually, this shame or 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 with the security of knowing 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 these feelings and needs is a trauma of emotional abandonment. We may not realize that we were emotionally abandoned as a child, particularly if our parents met our physical and material needs. However, clients often tell me that they felt 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 emerge 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 or accepted for who he or she is as a separate individual, apart from the parent. Love may be conditional and doled out only when a child complies or performs to a parent's liking.

Emotional abandonment childhood can happen in infancy if the primary caretaker, usually the mother, is unable to be present emotionally. This is 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. The baby then ends up feeling alone, rejected, or deflated. The reverse is also true: Sometimes a parent gives a child a lot of attention, but isn’t attuned to what the child actually needs.

Abandonment can happen 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 to make a child 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 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, they 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 we can be easily triggered to feel abandoned.

1Lars Tornstam. “Loneliness in marriage,” Journal of Relationships, 9, no. 2 (May, 1992): 197-217

© Darlene Lancer, 2012, 2014

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