The Toll Of Abandonment

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We’ve written a lot about the severe psychological toll of abandonment. From our psychoanalytic point of view, the developmental outcome of being abandoned by a primary caregiver in childhood is the deep seated feeling of being unlovable in adulthood. This deep seated feeling usually manifests as the conscious or unconscious decision to keep others at emotional arm’s length, a decision backed up by the unconscious reasoning that it’s impossible to get abandoned if you’re the one doing the abandoning.

Another common strategy, also largely unconscious, is to let others in emotionally but then conspire to make them break off the relationship, thereby repeating the primary abandonment situation over and over again throughout the course of adult intimate romantic relationships, friendships and professional relationships. We can understand this behavior as the response to a still open gestalt. It’s a psychological strategy meant to try to make sense of what happened in childhood without having to face the abandonment or the painful emotions associated with it directly.

For those who grew up in safe, loving family environments it’s hard to comprehend the above feelings, thought processes and behaviors but that’s only because they center their own deep seated feelings of being worthy and lovable entirely within themselves, as their own individual achievements, rather than as the predictable developmental outcome of the specific contingencies of reinforcement that occurred in their family environments.

The psychoanalytic insight needed to see why abandonment by a primary caregiver takes such a tremendous psychological and emotional toll, a toll that ends up echoing throughout the lifespan unless it’s dealt with directly, is that to the child the primary caregiver is God. And what abandonment really means to someone is that they’re not good enough, that they’re not worthy, that they’re not deserving of love and attention. When it’s a human being who does this to us we can fight back, we can say “You’re the one who’s mistaken.” But when it’s God who does this to us there’s no fighting back.

Therefore the best way to get the ball rolling in order to let go of that painful past, to close that open gestalt so that space can be made for the possibility of healthy intimate relationships, is to fully realize that the primary caregiver who did the abandoning never was God but just a fallible, flawed human being. The act of abandonment says nothing about the child and everything about the primary caregiver. All children are lovable and all children are deserving of love and attention.