Holistic Divorce Counseling

Holistic Divorce Counseling Nicole S. Urdang, M.S., NCC, DHM. Free support, resources, and comfort for all life's issues and transitions.

Effects of Abandonment on Adult Relationships: Ambivalence and Attachment Issues August 11, 2014


There must be something in the human brain that makes it enjoy playing with different, often opposite, ideas simultaneously. Ambivalence is incredibly helpful when we are brainstorming or problem-solving, less so when assessing the value of relationships. Fortunately, this natural proclivity to complicate our lives is beneficial. Unfortunately, it can also be time consuming and draining.

When it comes to relationships, if you have a history of abandonment in childhood (not only obvious neglect or abuse, but emotional unavailability, or over-controlling parents) you might feel predisposed to staying in a relationship that no longer works for you; or, embark on one unlikely to satisfy your emotional desires. (I know some might call those needs, but I subscribe to the idea you have only a handful of true needs and the rest of your longings are actually desires. Why? Because by calling wishes needs you ratchet up how crucial something is to you. If you think you desire something and you don’t get it you are disappointed. If you think you need something and don’t get it you can feel devastated.)

Looking back on your childhood, if you regularly experienced any form of abandonment, you are most likely seeking what you didn’t get from your parents: consistency, reliability, and attention. It can be difficult to see over-controlling parents as abandoning, but they are. Their invalidating behavior implied you were not able to make decisions for yourself, thereby leading you to believe you needed them for everything and couldn’t cope. This is just as damaging as neglect in that both sets of parenting behaviors create a sense of insecurity and anxiety.

In addition, over-controlling parents are often co-dependent and live their lives vicariously through their child. This puts enormous pressure on the child, as all children are born with the desire to please as a way of insuring their health and safety. If this type of parenting is successful for the needy parent, the child ends up either achieving what the parent pushes, or rebelling against it. Either way, as an adult, that person is often unaware of what he or she really wants. This encourages ambivalence and difficulty making decisions.

Since no relationship is perfect, it is natural to have moments when you question why you are with someone and other times when they seem like the sun, moon, and stars. Those are normal fluctuations of intimacy, the waxing and waning of interest in any long-term relationship. Natural ups and downs are nothing to be concerned about, as everyone has them. However, if the legacy of your childhood has you continually swinging from one extreme to the other, you might want to pay attention.

If you had controlling parents it is easy to see how you might equate controlling behaviors with love and care. Yet, another part of you, a more independent part, could crave autonomy. That part might easily rebel against anyone’s attempts to mold or control you. In general, while people do like a bit of nurturing from their partners, they do not want so much that it seems oppressive or stifling. If you grew up in a home with over-controlling parents you might feel as if your approach towards adult love relationships teeters from one end of the spectrum (loving the attention) to the other (resisting anything that even remotely looks like control). Naturally, this back and forth can feel like ambivalence. If you experience that in your relationship you may want to seek out a qualified therapist, as childhood issues are difficult to work out on one’s own.

To make things even more complicated, if you grew up with controlling parents you may have lived with anxiety about not pleasing them, or feeling as if they would not love you should you not follow their plans. This also makes adult relationships challenging, as you can be extremely sensitive to the slightest hint of a loved one’s rejection or disappointment. Once again, playing to your audience and not being true to your own wishes and desires.

Everyone has issues and triggers, and there’s some co-dependency in almost all relationships. The only time to be concerned is if they are getting in the way of your goals, whether at work, with your health, finances, social or love life.

What looks like ambivalence may really be fueled by deep-seated fears of abandonment. The ego loves to feel as if it’s running the show and can be very sneaky in its methods. It also likes black and white answers. For instance, it may seem as if you are choosing to end a relationship when, in fact, the ego just wants you to feel as if you are in the driver’s seat. You leave before someone someone might leave you. Yet another reason why it is so important to examine your history in relationships and your current motivation to stay or go.

Ambivalence is pretty easy to assess; but, how do you know if you have abandonment issues?
Reflect back on your childhood:

Were you cared for in predictable, loving ways?

Were your physical needs attended to in a timely manner?

Were your ways of being, your thoughts and feelings, respected and valued?

Were you heard?

Were you seen?

Did you feel as if your parents reliably had your back?

Were you encouraged to pursue your interests?

Were your successes celebrated?

Did you feel loved, cherished?

Of course, not even the best parents are always loving, aware of their child’s needs and desires, and attentive. It is what happened to you and what you felt most of the time that is important, as that is what shapes your view of others. Your childhood experiences with people, whether are they are trustworthy, for example, has direct bearing on what kinds of adult relationships your will forge.

Luckily, none of this is set in stone. With therapy it is possible to overcome many of the influences of the past. Internal Family Systems therapy, Object Relations Therapy, psychodynamic psychotherapy, Cognitive-Behavior Therapy, Rational-Emotive Behavior Therapy, yoga, meditation, yoga nidra, and many of the body oriented therapies can all be extremely helpful in creating the relationship with yourself you wish you had had with your parents. As you find within what you have been seeking outside yourself you become more and more capable of the true depth and intimacy you seek in relationships. It may be enough to create it with yourself. For many who have felt abandoned as children, it feels quite nourishing to connect to people platonically and/or romantically. To others, it feels most soothing and fulfilling to seek union with a higher power. Whatever your path, it takes great courage to explore your inner landscape and commit to personal evolution and self-compassion.

Copyright Nicole S. Urdang

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