In the natural way of things, a child learns to regulate his emotions through his attachment to his primary carer, usually his mother. When he experiences distress or pain, he runs to his mother, and in finding comfort, his distress will subside. Through this natural cycle, repeated over a period of time, a child learns that he can experience pain, but not be overwhelmed by it. He gains the tools to comfort himself and regain his equilibrium. Conversely, if the mother is for some reason not attuned to the child or is unavailable to meet his needs, the child experiences emotional abandonment. If this happens frequently, the child’s ability to regulate his emotions will be limited and this may lead to relationship difficulties later in life.
When needs are met
Children who get their dependency needs met fully, on a regular basis, will thrive, flourish, and grow at a healthy pace. Those who do not get their needs met at all will fail to thrive and may even die from emotional abandonment. The experience of most children falls somewhere on a continuum between these two extremes; however functional our families were, parents cannot always be fully available, perhaps because of life and work stresses, illness, or because of their own unresolved childhood abandonment pain.
When needs are not met
Children are vulnerable and do not have the tools to cope effectively with emotional pain. It doesn’t take much for a child to feel hurt and abandoned. Children can feel abandoned when they’re criticized, controlled, unfairly treated, or otherwise given a message that they or their experience is insignificant or wrong. A few incidents of emotional abandonment don’t harm a child’s healthy development, but when they’re common occurrences, they affect the child’s sense of self and security and often lead to relationship difficulties later in life.
The neural networks of children who grow up in abusive situations are focused on survival. The brain keeps track of those behaviours which help the child get what he needs and those which avoid pain. In a dysfunctional family, it is not acceptable to ask directly for what you need, or to expect to get it, so the child has to find other ways of getting his needs met. Unfortunately, the behavioural strategies which enable the child to survive a chaotic environment can get in the way of emotional health and intimate relationships later in life.
The consequences for adult relationships
In adult relationships, people may find themselves unhappy, without being able to pinpoint why; they feel disconnected from their partner and feel as if something is missing. What is probably happening is that they’re feeling emotionally abandoned as they did as a child, because in one way or another, their emotional needs aren’t being met in the relationship. Often people don’t realise they have emotional needs, or don’t understand that it is ok to ask for their emotional needs to be met. It is normal in an intimate relationship to want to be listened to and understood; to be nurtured, appreciated and valued; to be loved and accepted.
Resentments easily develop when feelings, especially hurt or anger, aren’t expressed. When they go underground, you may either pull away emotionally or push your partner away with criticism or undermining comments. If you have expectations that you don’t communicate, but instead believe your partner should be able to guess them, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment and resentment.
A fear of intimacy (usually unconscious) can result in pulling away, putting up walls, or pushing the other person away. Often, this abandoning behaviour occurs after a period of closeness or sex. One person may physically withdraw or create distance by not talking or even by talking too much. Either way, it may leave the other person feeling alone and abandoned.
Unhealthy communication patterns, in which one or both partners don’t share openly, listen with respect, and respond with interest to the other, can be very harmful to a relationship over time. When you feel ignored or that your partner doesn’t understand or care about what you’re saying, you may eventually shut down. Walls begin to build and you find yourself living separate lives emotionally.
In order to keep a relationship fresh and alive and healthy, it is important for couples to spend time talking together about their experiences, feelings, needs and expectations, on an ongoing basis.
- Stay connected. Some relationships get stuck in peaceful coexistence, but without truly relating to each other and working together. While it may seem stable on the surface, lack of involvement and communication increases distance, so that when you need to talk about something important, the connection and understanding may no longer be there.
- Face conflict openly and respectfully. To keep a relationship healthy, it is important to work through conflict, rather than avoid it. Each partner needs to feel safe to express things that bother them, without fear of retaliation, humiliation or degradation. Validate each others’ opinions, thoughts and feelings, without needing to be right.
- Keep outside interests and friendships alive. Expecting too much from your partner can put unhealthy pressure on a relationship. Having friends and outside interests not only strengthens your social network, but brings new life to the relationship, too.
- Be open. Honest, direct communication is a key part of any relationship. When both people feel comfortable expressing their needs, fears and desires, trust and bonds are strengthened.