As a therapist seeking to educate clients concerning a wide variety of issues, it has actually come in quite handy to have firsthand “experience” with more than my fair share of dysfunctional personality traits. When God gives you lemons I guess it’s time to make lemonade. Here is another case in point. Several years ago I came home from work one evening about 10:00 pm and I could not locate my lovely wife. I looked all over the house, I called her cell phone, I looked for a note, all to no avail; I was beginning to get extremely panicky. After about 45 minutes I began to imagine her dead on the side of the road somewhere, the victim of some deranged killer. When I heard the garage door I have to admit to you that I was not relieved as much as furiously angry. I would like to say that as a professional therapist I calmly confronted my wife by making non-reactive “I statements” concerning exactly how it felt to come home and not be able to find her. Well, it didn’t exactly go down that way. In fact, I’m sorry to report that I’d have to say that I really lost it. It was like atomic bombs were going off in my heart. I knew that I was overreacting, but I couldn’t stop myself. It felt to me as if she had deliberately set out to cruelly hurt me. I yelled, criticized, attacked, yelled some more, pouted and generally acted pretty much like a two-year-old having a tantrum. As some of you know, my wife is a runner and that particular night (before she got her cool GPS watch) she was out in her van mapping out her long run for the next morning. She had taken her cell phone with her, but its battery had died, as it tended to do quite a bit. She meant me no emotional harm. Her cell phone was old and it needed to be replaced. My overreaction is a great example not so much of immaturity or of me just by nature being a jerk, but rather of an abandonment issue coming up and causing a problem in a relationship. I’ll define an abandonment issue as having an oversensitivity and overreactions to loved ones when they back up or seem to back up for whatever reason. It is rooted in childhood abandonment by one or both parents. Fortunately my wife knew to not take the attack personally; she knew that I was basically temporarily insane and she didn’t bother to get reactive back; my behavior was so ludicrous that it really didn’t warrant a serious response. To guard against a replay of this painful experience I went out the next day and purchased her a new and more reliable cell phone. Does that type of behavior sound the least bit familiar to any of you? I know that for many of you it does.
We deal with this issue A LOT in our counseling office. It is the King Kong gorilla of couple issues. Frankly, although we do have several other articles already written concerning abandonment issues, due to the fact that it is such a HUGE issue for so many couples, I felt like I needed to give the subject some additional press time. It is not possible to gain too much awareness and insight regarding this subject if you happen to suffer from it.
There are so many different faces to abandonment issues and believe me they are all both ugly and potentially quite harmful to relationships; these faces include the victimy and pouty husband who silently sulks around for days because his wife wasn’t in the mood for sex when his neediness demanded it, the reactive wife who completely ruins a family get together because her husband was 10 minutes late, the boss who cannot fire an employee who should be fired due to his neurotic inability to let go, the depressed and raging husband who simply cannot forgive his wife for her affair after years of dialogue even though his lack of relationship with her was a major contributing factor in her behavior, the husband whose neediness makes his wife want to throw up, the therapist who clings on to her clients, the wife who weeps uncontrollably all throughout a therapy session due to her husband’s distancing, the girlfriend who has a complete meltdown due to her boyfriend hanging out with his buddies for an evening, the parent who can’t let go of their adult children, the husband who freaks out when his wife so much as jokes with another man, the wife who verbally abuses her stepchildren because she is profoundly jealous of having to share her husband with them, or the spouse who shuts down and can’t talk unless their mate gives them their 100% undivided attention. The main problem with abandonment is that when it comes up inside you, it is very much like becoming instantaneously drunk – impaired, reactive, defensive, out of control, non-objective, stubborn and absolutely impossible to speak rationally to. Abandonment issues cloud and distort reality. What you see seems so real, but it is actually a projection from within your own deeply wounded and abandoned soul.
Abandonment issues come from being abandoned by your parents when you were very young. You do not have to remember the parental abandonment, think it is important or give any credence to it at all for it still to dominate your life. Since I was never really connected to my father I never dreamed that his distancing and unavailability would affect me so strongly as an adult. Children are extremely needy little creatures but when those needs aren’t met during childhood then the core of the adult, years later, is basically an irrational infantile abandoned little kid. Obviously that will cause serious problems in an adult relationship. You cannot run from your wounded childhood, my friends. The more that you try to bury your wounds the more you attract significant others who treat you in very much the same way that your parents did. As Ann Fairbairn wrote in Five Smooth Stones, “A man cannot cast aside his childhood, though he run from it as he would the devil. He may make of it a burden under which to stumble and fall, or a shield to hide behind, or he may make of it a tool.”
Recovery from abandonment issues includes intensive work in group therapy focusing on childhood abandonment memories, the ability to learn to hear your significant other even while “under the influence” of abandonment, and the developing of the ability to observe situations much more objectively rather than having a knee jerk reaction to the misperceptions and distorted realities caused by your abandonment wounds. You have to learn to see the world as it is without your tinted lenses of insecurity, jealousy and childhood abandonment. Abandonment issues can get better, but they don’t get better quickly. It takes a lot of outside feedback and accountability.
Another absolutely brutal thing about abandonment issues is that as with all marriages, you will only be attracted to someone who basically has the very worst (disguised) qualities of your abandoning parents. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy. At your core you are utterly and completely terrified that your spouse will abandon you, then they eventually do, in some way shape or form because it is their nature to do so; then you spend the rest of the relationship unintentionally but quite obnoxiously chasing them away due to your insecurities. It is a vicious cycle that can easily continue to replay itself until it completely destroys the relationship.
If you and your significant other are suffering from abandonment issues you will need effective help immediately. This problem will not go away on its own. It will only get worse. It is high time for you to learn what is causing your pain and then get started on the process of fixing it. The very best thing that can happen to you is to develop a trusting relationship with an unbiased, insightful and courageous therapist. We have lots of those here at Family Tree. They can serve as your relationship referee until you both have enough recovery under your belts to communicate safely and effectively at home. If you and your spouse suffer from serious abandonment issues then you understand exactly what I mean by needing a referee. After serving as referee for several years for a couple with some pretty active abandonment issues, when they weren’t mad at me they began to refer to me as their “angel.” Naming the underlying abandonment issue, specifically naming its particular manifestation in that situation and providing a safe place in which to dialogue are all priceless gifts to couples suffering from abandonment issues.
Give us a call today at 317-844-2442. Let’s get started unmasking your particular troublesome green-eyed monster issues right away. No, your significant other actually isn’t crazy; they are just suffering from abandonment issues, which means that you too are suffering a great deal from their abandonment issues. Again, this problem will absolutely not get any better on its own. Serious issues call out for some serious help. While the therapeutic process will be painful and messy, with help you can inject hope, direction and positive energy into what might seem now to be a hopeless and irreconcilable relationship.
Mark E. Smith, LCSW