For adults, abandonment occurs when an important relationship ends without shared grieving and without mutuality in the decision to split. If someone you love has left you with little or no warning, it can open wounds that reach back to childhood. If you have abandonment in your past, your current experience can bring up feelings you may have buried long ago, or thought you had already worked through. This can be a frightening, painful experience that cuts to your core.
Susan Anderson, LCSW, has done significant research and writing on the topic of abandonment. If you are struggling with the painful and unexpected loss of your relationship I encourage you to read her book, The Journey from Abandonment to Healing, and to visit Susan Anderson’s website here. The information you gather will help you to cope and to know that what you are going through is real and you are not alone.
Ms. Anderson conceptualizes recovery from abandonment as occurring in five non-linear stages, which I briefly summarize here:
The extreme pain of separateness. In the first stage your worst fears have been realized—someone has chosen to leave you behind. Often, people shut down somewhat during the shock of shattering and a few minutes may drag on to feel like an hour. Shattering is a time of intense pain and introspection. Your primary work in this stage is to recognize that you are a competent adult and that no one else can be responsible to meet your emotional needs—only you can do that.
The agonized longing for your lost love. Abruptly losing love can be like going cold-turkey off heroin. It hurts and it can feel unbearable. Many people are so afraid to confront their withdrawal and work through their pain that they numb themselves with substances or with work. They may jump headlong into another relationship without doing the personal growth that will lead to positive changes. Your primary work in this stage is to face your pain, develop a new and supportive connection with your individual self, and work toward accepting the loss of your relationship.
Internalizing the Rejection
What could I have done differently to save my relationship? What is it about me that makes me expendable? Am I worthless? As people grapple with the this stage of abandonment they often take a hit to their self-esteem and internalize the rejection. They may aggrandize their abandoner and beat themselves up for not being able to maintain the relationship. Your work in this stage is to build your own sense of self and recognize that your worth is unrelated to the choices of your abandoner. They made their choices based on their own issues, and this has nothing to do with your goodness.
Getting in touch with your anger helps you to know that something inappropriate and wrong happened to you. You are entitled to your anger and it will help you to transition out of feeling hurt and vulnerable. It will help you to become active in your own life again and pursue your own needs. Your work in this stage is to acknowledge and experience your anger and practice channeling it constructively rather than destructively.
In the last stage of recovery you will begin to experience relief from insecurity, longing, and grief. This is a time to honor your feelings and the knowledge you have gained, and put it to good use. There is a danger of moving on too quickly from your feelings as you experience well-deserved relief—and falling back into old patterns. Your work in this stage is to preserve the effort you have made by incorporating your insight into a more grounded, open, resilient, and honest sense of self.
One of the most important things you can do if you are experiencing abandonment is recognize the different sources of your pain.
Some people make the mistake of attributing all their pain to the loss of their loved one. The process can look like this: “I hurt so terribly, I must have lost something really, really good. If it was so good, I want it back at all costs.” Only part of your pain is coming from the loss of the person you loved. Consider these other sources of your pain:
- The pain of a reopened wound from the past or from childhood. Have you ever been abandoned before—by a parent, sibling, or partner? Do you remember what you felt like at the time and what you did to protect yourself? These past events create deep tears in attachment that can be reopened by present events.
- The loss of your dream of the future. Your dream about your relationship and where it was heading has been lost. A dream is like a comforting prediction about the future—it keeps us safe in the warm feeling that we know what is happening next. Losing this dream is a rude, frightening awakening.
- Remember that the pain of withdrawal is a real chemical process in the brain. The attachments we form with others are reinforced by this process just as surely as an alcohol or drug addiction. Have you ever felt “high” on love or during sex? That is your brain secreting endogenous opiates. The pain of withdrawal is the wrenching absence of these pleasure-inducing chemicals. Remember that even if you succeed in corralling your lost love for “one last time” you are setting yourself up to start from the beginning again with excruciating withdrawal pain.
- The pain of narcissistic injury. “How could they do this to me?” Remember that people make decisions based on their own hopes and fears. Your abandoner leaving you had more to do with them and their issues than it did with you. Someone who leaves a relationship with no warning and no shared grieving has profound issues of their own. Still, it hurts to be left and it helps to recognize when you are beating yourself up for something that isn’t about you.
- The pain of non-acceptance. When bad things happen, people often fight the reality of it being so. This takes a lot of energy and results in a lot of pain. This energy and suffering is in vain because we can never escape what has already happened. This is not to suggest that no one ever reconciles in a healthy way, but a healthy closure or rekindled relationship must develop out of both people doing serious personal introspection and growth. This process, almost by definition, involves first accepting what has happened and letting go.
I can help you through your recovery from abandonment. I will encourage you to gather as much information as you can about the recovery process and we will work together to explore your present situation, your pain, and your history. I can help you get perspective on your circumstances, give you the support you need to make it through tough days, and work with you to develop a plan that helps you feel more grounded and capable. Abandonment recovery takes hard work, but if you turn toward your pain with compassion and honesty you will find yourself engaged in an incredible growth process. This process will ultimately free you to be your real self and allow you to choose better relationships in the future.
If you’d like to work together in therapy to overcome the pain of abandonment, please contact me:
Phone: (503) 757-6259
3050 SE Division, Suite 260, Portland, OR (In the ‘D Street’ building.)