I once had a client who struggled in every relationship he had. Falling in love was easy — maybe too easy. John would open himself up to his new love, he would give her everything she wanted, but inevitably the romance would wear off, and the deeper relationships issues would show up. John would start imagining his new partner was uninterested or worse, interested in another man.
At first, his partner would at right off his anxiety as him loving her. As he persisted, she became impatient with him not believing her. Her impatience evolved into anger, then when his behavior worsened, she’dd finally leave.
Every time John’s partner left, it proved to him again that most women are not to be trusted.. He reassured himself that next time he would find a woman who was trustworthy.
John friends saw the pattern: John would get overly attached to his new partner; she would want some space; he would feel he was losing her; so he became too clingy and needy; she would get angry and leave..
John joined one of our groups. The group helped him to see his pattern, and he was motivated to change. He wanted a real relationship, and he began to see he was the consistent variable in his failed experiment.
But even with all the understanding and support of the group, John found himself back into his old pattern, albeit at a lesser extent. With his new awareness, though, he was able to slow down his behavior pattern — but it was still playing out. Now knowing what he was doing and seeing how he kept doing it, John was scared. He didn’t want to lose Emily, his new girlfriend.
It was as if there was a computer virus that had corrupted John’s operating system. His unconscious pattern to create relationships where women continually abandoned him was his survival strategy playing out.
It turns out John was given up for adoption as a baby. He never met his parents. He grew up in a loving family who taught him how to love. In spite of a beautiful childhood, it was as if John never got to breathe a relaxed breath. Some part of him was always holding, on guard waiting for the person to leave. His computer virus was the unconscious belief that people leave. The closer they are, the more assured he was they will leave.
John’s a smart man. He got the connection. That helped take the shame away. He realized he wasn’t a bad man; he was just a man trapped in this old behavior.
[ctt template=”7″ link=”wO407″ via=”no” ]We all experienced abandonment. When it was traumatic, its power can haunt us for our entire lives as an unconscious relationship saboteur and inner terror.[/ctt]
Certainly, as a baby we can’t run or fight. We are fully dependent on our parents. When those that protect you perpetuate the trauma, even without malicious intent, you are stuck.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) comes from trauma or serial stress AND your inability to respond. When you can’t run or fight that charge or need to act stays in your body. The nervous and endocrine systems stay revved up.
John appeared to be no more stressed than the next guy. But under the stress of a successful relationship where he built a bond with his partner, his dormant PTSD became activated. Some part of him is taken back to being a powerless baby, unable to effect change.
One night we did one of our Healing Journeys with John. Simply and gently we took John into feeling the physical experience of his PTSD feelings of abandonment. We encouraged him to let his subtle shaking increase. Within a few minutes, this big guy was shaking as if he were standing on one of those vibration platforms.
Through the next 30 minutes, we took John in and out of cycles of literally shaking off the held energy. We finished with him lying on the floor. As the group talked, John relaxed. Ten minutes later John shared how he felt the most relaxed he had ever been.
Over the course of the next few months, John was able to take that experience of releasing his unconscious fears into his relationship with Emily. When they came up, he knew what to do: rather than ignore or repressed them, he felt them. Emily, feeling John’s courage to allow his fears to run through his body,loved him more. They grew closer.
Over the next year John’s fear of Emily leaving melted away. It was replaced with a deep love that he trusted and received from Emily.
How Abandonment Had Me
Most of us were abandoned in some way. For some like John, it’s life defining. We all have fears that someone we care about will leave us. As men, we might discount our fears by saying we don’t need people. That was my coping mechanism for years. No matter how stoic I was, though, I always felt the need for a partner. Then when I had a partner, either it was hard for me to connect or, like John, I would become too attached.
I never had got to experience an unwinding experience like John had. I did what I needed to do to release the stress from my body. I learned to allow myself to feel what was going on, even at the risk of making a fool of myself. I also learned to speak what I felt and wanted. Sure, in the beginning, it was a little rough. After a few decades of attempting to perfect my stoic mask, I stumbled at communicating.
I began to notice when I was pushing my edge in communicating; people were always patient. Slowly I let go of my self-judgments and my awkwardness. I started to build connections with others that weren’t just in my head; they were ones I felt and trusted.
A New Frame
First, accept that abandonment happens. As kids, we don’t have the tools or power to deal with that loss. We do the best we can, and we survive. It’s when our survival is no longer an issue we get to heal a survival pattern that sabotages our relationships.
The research on our need for attachment shows us that we need to be connected to others. When we lose that connection, it’s painful.
Abandonment comes in many forms. Maybe your parents got divorced, or should have. Or maybe a close relative died when you were a kid. Many years ago I had a client who experienced nagging nightmares and unsuccessful relationships. In the course of a session, it came out she never went to her mother’s funeral. I turned the session into her mother’s burial. At the end of the service, the woman put her imaginary dirt on her mother’s casket before she was lowered into the grave.
Next week my client came back excited—no more nightmares. I don’t know how her relationships changed, but I could tell they began to change throughout her sessions.
Your abandonment might have been subtle. Possibly your emotional expression was shut down or ridiculed. Or you were held to unreasonably high standards. Having your parents see their self-worth through you or treat you as an adult or friend more than their child would set you up for abandonment. Being expected to be perfect, not being allowed to express feelings, or that feelings are not real, not allowed to have or express needs or having other’s needs being more important, can equally set up abandonment.
[ctt template=”7″ link=”eLU4b” via=”no” ]Abandonment occurs when parents cannot honor the boundaries between themselves and their child.[/ctt] Maybe your parents were unwilling to take any responsibility for their feelings, behaviors, or thoughts. When this occurs, it’s natural for you to take responsibility as a kid for what they are taking responsibility for.
In all these scenarios your parents were there. What was abandoned was the innocence of childhood. You lost your connection to being a kid. You also lost your ability to connect to others in an authentic manner.
A little rejection can set off set of irrational behaviors, such as: mood swings, anxiety, codependence, fear of being alone, and bouts of depression or anger.. We all know people who react disportionately to a situation. As with John, any of these can lead to a self-fulfilling prophesy.
You can see how love becomes defined by fear and anxiety, rather than safety and security. Even the best relationship can be sabotaged. We get good at hiding our abandonment through not forgiving, being mean, checking out, avoiding discussing problems, or denying anything is wrong. Then there is a favorite for us men—over work. It’s as if we abandon the relationship before it abandons us.
A Path to Healing
Abandonment is laid out like the stages of grief. S.W.I.R.L. is an acronym that stands for the five stages of abandonment:
- Shattering: The intense fear and shock of loss after a severed relationship.
- Withdrawal: The pulling away, while feeling yearning, obsession, and longing.
- Internalizing: The other person is idolized while you take all the responsibly for what occurred.
- Rage: Anger and a desire for retaliation at those who did not protect you, or left you.
- Lifting: Normal life begins to distract you, where love becomes a possibility.
These stages may not occur as laid out, but in some form, you will go through them as you heal your abandonment. What is important is you keep the energy moving, meaning you keep feeling and expressing your emotion and wants.
All these stages set you back up to reconnect first to your own experience than to others. Abandonment severed your connection. You heal the hold your past abandonment has on you, will at some point need to risk. You will need to be vulnerable. That doesn’t mean passive. I mean Assertive Vulnerability, one of the five MQ traits.
In one moment you may feel needy. That’s OK. In the next moment, while feeling needy, take action. It is possible your need will not be met. You may still feel abandoned. But you broke out of the freeze stage of PTSD. That pattern of being stuck breaks when you act while feeling.
Each time you go through this cycle mindfully accepting your experience, you release the hold old abandonment had on you. You release the tension in your body, much like John did in his Healing Journey. In doing that, you free yourself from the hold of your PTSD. You liberate yourself from the unconscious and physiological bond of past trauma.
In doing this, you are doing what John did and what my old friend Peter Levine, PhD, discovered. You take the charge away through slowly and mindfully stepping forward while feeling the emotions of abandonment. Be vulnerable in the face of loss, build a sense of trust in others. Distance is something you will need to learn to tolerate so you can overcome the anxiety of separation.
As you do this, you stop being a victim and simply become someone who experienced abandonment. In connecting up to the parts of yourself that were abandoned, you have become more powerful and responsive. Learning to successfully communicate needs in intimate relationships becomes easy.
Accelerated Healing with a Group
We saw all iterations of abandonment in our groups. We also saw the power that a good men’s group has to help a man heal his abandonment. If that is an issue for the man, it will show up in the group. There is no better way to heal it than in the present moment while in a safe environment, like a men’s group. Often from just watching another man work with his abandonment, a man can begin to heal his own.
When you can show up as who you are and are accepted, abandonment melts away. Filling in the gaps of abandonment that are left with connecting to your community transforms your old abandonment. You learn to risk loss of connection to discover that courage to risk brings others closer to you.
Accelerated Healing with Your Partner
There is no better place to heal your abandonment and attachment challenges than with your partner. You can do it. Many others have, including me. I created a straight-forward mini course you can get by signing up for our Toolbox of Change Communiqué.
[ctt template=”7″ link=”C7_c5″ via=”no” ]Healing your abandonment sets you up to connect, allowing you to have amazing relationships. A key to unlocking the trauma of abandonment is vulnerability.[/ctt] The greater the vulnerability, the greater the healing. Sure, there is more risk, but feeling the vulnerability as you risk dissolves the abandonment. Try it. You will see it work.
You are welcome to attend one of our Hold Me Tight couples weekends I co-lead with Dalia Anderman.
Whatever you do, move into your abandonment andown it. Use the tools in this post to move through it.
What is your commitment to be free of abandonment?