Dr. Val Farmer
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Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Emotional Abandonment Takes Toll On Marriage

December 8, 2008

One vital dimension of marriage is that it provides the sense of security we need to face the major challenges of life. It is like having someone in your corner when life gets overwhelming - someone you can turn to for comfort and support.

The quality of marriage in today’s society is becoming magnified because of the loss of community and family supports. Being lonely and alone is more dangerous to mortality than smoking. A dependable source of intimacy is an essential buffer for dealing with stress and trauma.

When there are differences and conflicts in a marriage, what makes the relationship secure is the ability of the couple to stay connected emotionally. They are able to retreat to one another’s arms for soothing, comfort and care, especially when there is threat or a loss.

Attachment bond violation. What happens if this bond is violated and a spouse is left alone when he or she is most helpless and desperate? The violation is experienced as a betrayal of trust or abandonment during at a crucial moment of need. It is a wound to their marital bond.

These times of crisis are different for different people. It could be a time of financial ruin, job loss, physical danger, physical illness, birth, death, or miscarriage. The worst example however is infidelity. Instead of being a safe haven for comfort, the offending spouse becomes a source of fear, pain and danger.

"You weren’t there for me. You left me alone. My hurt didn’t matter to you. You didn’t care. Never again will you do that to me."

Educational psychologist Susan Johnson of Ottawa, Canada, published a book, "Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy with Trauma Survivors." In it she states that abandonment or betrayal is seen as a defining moment in the lack of dependability of the offending partner. Tragically, at a time of great vulnerability and when presence and comfort was most essential, his or her partner was missing in action - or in the case of an affair or money fraud, the one delivering blows instead of comfort.

The most recent blow or traumatic episode may not be as profound or intense, but it can be a vivid and symbolic reminder of the past and more devastating hurts that have yet to be resolved. One abandonment may be cause enough for a painful rift - but more likely - it is just one more in a series of similar letdowns that have destroyed trust.

No resolution. If apologies or reassurances are given, they aren’t good enough or they are not believed. The injured spouse can’t let it go. The traumatic incident takes on a disproportionate influence on their relationship from that time forward. Reminders of the traumatic event trigger emotion with fresh and renewed intensity. Sometimes the wounded partner retreats into a state of being emotionally numb and shuts down.

If the offending spouse responds to the hurt by discounting, denying, dismissing or simply not "getting it,"

it is a double wound. This defensive reaction is extremely provocative to the injured partner. Repeated attempts at conversation about the "event" confirm the inner experience of disappointment and hopelessness for each partner.

The offending event becomes the subject of constant bickering, hostility and a part of an inflexible attack/defend cycle of the "here we go again" variety. The aversive interactions between them cause marital partners to withdraw into despair, alienation and aching loneliness. If the hurtful event is not openly discussed, it is still there producing tension and emotional isolation.

Resolving relationship injuries. The antidote to violations of the security and safety of the relationship is a willingness to take a risk - to confide one’s inner hurt and to have it received compassionately and non-defensively.

The offending spouse needs to be strong enough to be engaged and empathic while their injured partner describes the impact of the offence and its significance.

As he or she is being truly listened to, the injured partner’s anger often evolves into hurt, helplessness, fear and shame. The hurt partner shares grief at the loss of connection and trust the offence caused. The offending partner, by really listening and understanding their partner’s pain, helps the him or herself truly understand and empathize with the harm that was caused.

The offending partner needs to takes responsibility for the event, and acknowledges the pain and hurt he or she caused, expressing concern, sorrow, remorse and regret along with promises of the future safety of the relationship. He or she can also acknowledge his or her own grief at the loss of connection between them.

Apologies can go both directions. The process of mutual confiding with emotional openness and intensity pulls each other back into the relationship.

Physical closeness. Confiding to each other needs to be accompanied by touch, affection and physically holding each other. Both partners take emotional risks in either reaching out compassionately or by asking for comfort, reassurance and caring. The physical and emotional caring acts as an antidote for the lack of comfort that was missing in the original incident.

It is a beautiful, sacred moment when couples reaffirm their commitment to stand by each other again. Two broken hearts come together again truly knowing what it now means to be loyal and trustworthy. They enjoy a rekindled hope that they can find comfort in the shelter of each other’s arms.