"The propensity to make strong emotional bonds to particular individuals [is] a basic component of human nature." - John Bowlby
In modern life it is very common to become disconnected from the ones around us. When this disconnection is the result of being excluded by others, the effect on our mental health can be very serious. We may have experienced abandonment as children, with ghosts of our experience still haunting us. We may also be (or feel) abandoned as adults by our loved ones, whether that be by friends, family or romantic partners. In any of these cases, it is best to think of abandonment as a type of trauma.
Note: Here we use a broad definition of abandonment. It is not limited to when a parent leaves never to be seen again — this feeling can show up with divorce or careless/distant parenting.
We need to talk about abandonment because it is one of our most primal fears. When humans were hunters and gatherers living in a state of nature, the threat of being outcast from the tribe was hanging over our head at all times. If you offended the tribe too much, you would be exiled to fend for yourself (usually not for long). Such a sentence would be fatal and obviously anxiety provoking. Still, it remains a basic need for us to be connected in our relationships and not to be abandoned.
Similar experiences can happen in modern times. If we were dependent on our family for basic needs as a child, but through abandonment some of these needs were not met, the situation can have lasting consequences. Similarly, if we become dependent on a partner for some of our needs, when these are taken away suddenly we can be left grasping for straws to rebuild our lives.
Abandonment Trauma During Childhood
When we experience abandonment in our childhood, or formative years, the effects can be long lasting. That is, children first start being able to bond and attach to a parent at 7 months. Thus, loss of a parent during childhood (through death, divorce, etc.) can make us more sensitive to the stability of our other relationships, carrying on into adulthood.
Many children go through some type of grieving process, and often blame themselves for the situation. It’s common for children in this situation to attribute the loss of a parent to their actions, and change their behavior as a result. Thus, in many cases, children who feel responsible start to think of themselves as unloveable. For this reason, low self esteem is a common result of abandonment trauma. Further, depression and other mental health conditions can become more pronounced.
Abandonment Trauma in Adulthood
After we experience abandonment, the way that we socialize can change dramatically. For instance, it can become difficult to form satisfying and meaningful relationships, and may lead to poor coping mechanisms for stress and conflict. Often unknowingly, people experience the world through their trauma. This can become more apparent during the dating and marriage years, when we realize that we are more anxious in our relationship than at peace.
Having trauma in your life or past does not make you bad or broken (familiar ideas that many of us who have been through some shit experience). However, while it can be challenging to recognize yourself as a person affected by trauma, accepting this is the first step to finding freedom from its effects — this is where therapy can be very helpful.
Abandonment Trauma in Relationships
Abandonment affects our closest relationships, perhaps none so much as our romantic ones. For example, some people in their dating years may realize that they have fallen into a pattern of being attracted to partners that are distant or neglectful to re-enact their past abandonment. At the core of such problematic actions are some possible negative relationship attachment styles that may be at play. Common styles include: secure attachment, ambivalent attachment, avoidant attachment, and disorganized attachment.
Illustration by Jessica Olah, Verywell
Secure attachment - A securely attached child is upset when a parent leaves and is happy when they return. Such children seek comfort from parents over strangers. Typically parents of securely attached children are quick to respond to the needs of their child and when they respond they do so in a consistent manner. Children raised to be securely attached tend to have the most secure and stable relationships.
Ambivalent attachment - An ambivalently attached child is upset when a parent leaves, and remains upset when they return. Children often reject comforting or may become aggressive and anxious in response to their parent’s love. As adults, these children keep great distances between their partners to the point where frequent breakups become the norm. These adults also tend to become more distraught than usual when a relationship ends.
Avoidant attachment - An avoidantly attached child will be unphased by a parent leaving, and would not seek comfort or contact with a parent. As adults, avoidant partners tend to avoid displays of emotion and conflict at any cost.
Disorganized attachment - A child with disorganized attachment doesn’t respond consistently when a parent leaves or returns, and generally remains dazed. You can think about this style as a situation where the child is equally comforted and frightened by the parent. As an adult, such a person may become equally confused and distraught by simple relationship actions.
If you feel that your attachment style is hindering your life or relationships, therapy may help. Similarly if you feel that you have experienced an abandonment trauma that is hindering your quality of life, therapy may help you unpack your past experiences. Contact us to get started with trauma therapy today.