What Does it Mean When You Have Abandonment Issues? Part 1

Many times, our clients feel confusion when the term “abandonment issues” comes up in therapy. After all, don’t we most commonly think of the literal term, “abandonment”, as being physically abandoned (like an infant who is left on a door step for someone to find) ?

So, what exactly are abandonment issues?  

Most commonly, abandonment issues come from any loss of significant relationship or the loss of a secure attachment to a caregiver in childhood. This could be from the death of a parent, divorce, frequent moves or relocations from parental job changes, separation from a parent or primary caregiver, being in multiple foster care placements, or anything that, through the eyes of the child, represent a loss of stability/security or secure attachment. 

Does it mean that abandonment issues stem primarily from having a parent or caregiver physically leave? Not necessarily. Many individuals who struggle with abandonment issues in their adult relationships had both parents physically present in their childhood, but recall a lack of emotional support and nurturing— feeling a lack of emotional or physical care from the people they needed it from the most, when they were growing up. 

When a child is not psychologically or physically protected as they need to be, it is a form of abandonment to the child.  

The message that a child receives in childhood abandonment is “You are not important. You are not worthy of my protection or my time”. This is a large burden that many people carry with them through childhood and beyond, especially when there is no adult outside of the family system to buffer the child’s lack of parental nurturing.  Many times, when we see clients in counseling as adults, they have carried this fear and shame with them into their adult relationships, not knowing what it is, or where it came from. 

We explain abandonment to our clients as a 3-pronged fear that has proven itself true in their lives:

The first is the fear of loss- any loss. This could be your dog dying, parents divorcing, chronic moving, or your favorite teacher leaving half way through the year on maternity leave. Reoccurring loss in younger ages will strengthen a person's fear that it has and will happen again.

The second prong is the fear of rejection. This can be from family, friends, boyfriends/ girlfriends, or any place you are searching for belonging. If and when these things happen, it can cause deep wounds that make you sensitive to any type of rejection and take it personally.

The third prong is the fear of physical and/ or emotional abandonment. The physical abandonment can be divorce, death, adoption, and literal abandoning. The emotional abandonment has to do with emotional needs not being met and a lack of attachment.

When these fears are validated a person may exhibit abandonment issues.

Susan Anderson, the leading expert in abandonment, and author of several ground breaking books on abandonment issues, as well as an incredible website full of information on healing abandonment, shares:

“Children experience all loss and disappointment as abandonment. They don’t have the ability to distinguish personal rejection from external circumstances. They feel diminished, undeserving, helpless as a result of any slight or disconnection – – the origins of self-depreciation. Children who have incurred intense, repetitive, or prolonged separations are particularly resonant to fears and self-injury in adult relationships, especially during the initial severing of a relationship. This explains why many cling to destructive relationships. They go to any extreme to avoid the agony of separation and being alone.”

Check back tomorrow and through the week, as we continue to discuss abandonment issues— further defining both physical and emotional abandonment; What it looks like & how it manifests as an adult. 

Joleen Watson, MS, LMFT, NCC, is a therapist at Imagine Hope Counseling Group. She enjoys doing marriage counseling, relationship counseling, couples counseling, and individual counseling.  Imagine Hope also specializes in family, child and adolescent counseling and serves Indianapolis area including the surrounding areas of Carmel, Noblesville, Zionsville, Westfield, and Fishers.