What Is Emotional Abandonment in Marriage?
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Sitting on the sofa in my office during their first couples counseling session, Alena, 38, describes the loneliness she feels in her ten-year marriage. As she shares the ways her husband, Dan, 43, withholds approval and affection from her, he sits quietly and doesn’t respond to her comments.
In most cases, it’s not anger or strong emotions that destroy a marriage. It’s emotional abandonment in marriage or neglect. This means one or both partners withdraw to avoid conflict and convey disapproval by distancing or withholding attention or affection. This pattern often leads to one partner feeling unsupported, lonely, and rejected.
Alena said, “Whenever I try to talk to Dan about my true feelings, he tells me I’m blowing things out of proportion, and then he walks out of the room, and I won’t see him for hours.”
While it’s difficult to spot emotional abandonment in marriage in the early stages, having your bids for connection ignored are often telltale signs. It’s almost as if there’s an invisible barrier that you can’t break through to reach your partner.
When emotional abandonment in marriage exists, couples often stop sharing their feelings and become non-responsive and non-communicative.
What is emotional abandonment in marriage?
Emotional abandonment in marriage refers to feelings of neglect, being left out, and not being heard in a marriage. It is when one partner is so self-absorbed that they cannot see the troubles, tears or problems their spouse is going through.
Looking for ways to build emotional intimacy in your marriage? Here are some tips suggested by licensed marriage and family therapist Steph Anya.
8 symptoms of emotional abandonment
What is emotional abandonment in marriage? Here are eight symptoms of emotional abandonment by husband or wife in marriage.
- You’re feeling rejected, ignored, and/or lonely in your marriage
- Your partner often uses the silent treatment to ignore your overtures for attention
- Rather than communicating authentic feelings, your partner blames you and distances themselves from you when you want to discuss something
- Your partner withholds affection, approval or attention from you regularly
- You often walk on eggshells around your partner and don’t feel comfortable being vulnerable
- Your relationship lacks physical intimacy
- You feel socially isolated and rarely go anywhere with your partner
- Due to mistrust, you often confide important information to others rather than your partner.
Related Reading: 25 Signs of Emotional Neglect in Marriage & How to Deal With It
Causes of emotional abandonment in marriage
In my practice working with couples, the most common reason why emotional abandonment in marriage occurs is a change in the amount of support and engagement between partners. Most often, one spouse withdraws and gives the other person the silent treatment due to feelings of hurt, anger, or resentment.
This happens when they fail to communicate their feelings. “Maybe they’re stomping around or sighing, but they certainly aren’t speaking,” writes Brittany Risher. If this goes on long enough, it can cause the neglected partner to feel emotionally abandoned.
In some cases, the cause of emotional abandonment in marriage is an emotional or extramarital affair. If your partner begins confiding your problems to another person over time, this can lead a deep connection that’s more than friendship.
Relationship expert Cathy Meyer explains that emotional and extramarital affairs are forms of betrayal. She writes, “The primary difference between physical affair and emotional affairs is actual physical contact. Usually, cheating involves people meeting face-to-face and then engaging in physical sex.”
In other instances, the cause of emotional abandonment or neglect in a marriage could run deeper, clarifies Associate Marriage and Family Therapist Sarah O’Leary, “Emotional neglect often stems from an individual’s own attachment inquires. If someone never learned how to have supportive, healthy relationships in childhood or adolescence, they will struggle to make that change in adulthood.”
Also Try: Emotional Neglect in Marriage Quiz
How do emotional abandonment issues affect relationships?
According to Dr. John Gottman, if the spouse who feels emotionally abandoned becomes a pursuer, a pursuer-distancer pattern develops, which is a leading cause of divorce. While all couples need autonomy and closeness, this dynamic leaves both partners chronically dissatisfied.
In a recent landmark study of 14,000 participants conducted by Paul Schrodt of Christian University, it was discovered that women are usually (but not always) the ones who demand or pursue, and men tend to withdraw or distance.
Whether a partner experiences emotional abandonment in marriage occasionally or often, it’s destructive to a marriage because it leads to one partner grasping for straws, feeling ignored and helpless, and questioning what they did to upset their spouse.
It’s a clear defense mechanism on the person’s part inflicting silence and emotional pain on their partner.
Related Reading: Why Is It Important to Overcome Abandonment Issues Before Getting into a Relationship?
Treatment of emotional abandonment
How can you and your spouse avoid and treat emotional abandonment in marriage? Here are some ways.
1. Establish an honest and open line of communication
Try not to take things personally if your partner complains about your behavior. Instead, listen carefully when they speak to you. Further, don’t respond in anger or be condescending and allow them to talk openly about their concerns without interrupting. Then, respond calmly, validate their points, and express your perspective.
Related Reading: Open Communication In a Relationship: How to Make it Work
2. Turn toward your partner and avoid withdrawing when you feel upset
Do your best to stay with an important discussion by turning toward your partner and being willing to engage in a conversation. Listen to their side of the story even if you feel rejected or resentful.
Overtures can be displayed in simple but powerful ways, such as a smile or a pat on the shoulder. If you find your partner turning away from you (looking at their phone) or turning against (walking away), gently ask them if they have time to talk, and turn toward them by using good eye contact.
3. Avoid the pursuer-distancer pattern
This dynamic happens when one partner becomes defensive and distant, and the other becomes critical and becomes strong in their pursuit of attention. This pattern can destroy a marriage so gain awareness of it and stop it in its tracks by reversing this dynamic.
The pursuer must retreat somewhat and encourage the distancer to move closer by offering empathy and understanding.
Related Reading: How to Break the Pursuer Distancer Pattern in Your Relationship
4. Practice Self-soothing when your spouse is stonewalling
Take a brief break if you feel stressed out or flooded. This will give you both time to calm down and collect your thoughts so you can have a more meaningful dialogue with your partner. Decide how long of a period you’ll take for a reprieve from dialogue.
With a break, couples usually feel less defensive, so feelings of hurt and rejection dissolve more quickly, and couples can return to a discussion respectfully.
Related Reading: How to Respond to Stonewalling by Your Loved One: 25 Ways
5. Avoid playing the role of a victim
If you want to heal from the hurt caused by emotional abandonment, it’s important not to play the victim card or the blame game. Don’t rehash the past and replay what your spouse did to inquire you. Doing so may make them defensive and can be counterproductive to your goal of healthy communication.
Once you’ve learned to avoid the behavior patterns that can lead to emotional abandonment in marriage, it becomes much easier to communicate effectively with your partner.
However, if you find yourself struggling, tell him or her what you need in a positive way using an “I statement” without assigning blame. For instance, say something like, “I feel disconnected from you. You’re pulling away, and I want to connect with you.” Over time, you’ll restore intimacy by being honest and open with your spouse during periods of high conflict, emotional distance, or distress.
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