Abandonment: A Divorce Issue
by Honorable Anne Kass. Ann Kass is a District Judge in the Second Judicial District State of New Mexico
In high conflict divorces, those that never seem to end, abandonment is a common factor.
These days, when we see divorced spouses returning to court two or more years after the divorce process was technically completed, we inquire into their early childhood experiences, and we frequently find abandonment trauma in their family histories.
The most obvious form of abandonment is when a parent deserts the family, but it can also be the result of a parent dying when a child is young. Sometimes the effect of a parent being ill and away at hospitals or just not able to invest adequate time and energy into parent/child interactions is perceived by the child as abandonment. It can even be one consequence of parental drug or alcohol abuse. A substance-impaired parent is not emotionally available, and to a child that can feel like abandonment. Not surprisingly, many adopted children have feelings of abandonment.
I remember one case in which the children were diagnosed with abandonment anxiety. They had been raised by a stay-at-home, full-time mom. Abandonment seemed an odd opinion! However, the mother had suffered a long-term, untreated depression. She had been there for the children physically, but not emotionally.
Abandonment causes problems in divorce cases for both grown-ups and children. If one or both of the spouses have abandonment issues, divorce is very likely to reactivate the earlier trauma. The result can be outrageous, reactive behavior--the stuff movies and headlines are made of. One spouse may cut-up the other's clothing or chainsaw the furniture in half. On occasion one spouse will stalk the other. In one case in my court, one spouse set the other's house on fire.
Grown-ups who are suffering from abandonment problems frequently commit bizarre acts, but more often than not the one who is acting inappropriately is utterly unconscious of the force driving the behavior. Sometimes he or she will be genuinely embarrassed and say things like, "I don't know what came over me," but the desperate behavior may well recur after the divorce, when new concerns such as modifying child support must be addressed.
As for the children of divorcing parents, they frequently experience their parents' divorce as abandonment, especially if one of the parents leaves altogether, moves away or just fails to visit regularly. Parents of these children need to be prepared for their child behaving in strange and unfortunate ways. A child may over-react to the death of a pet. When a friend moves away, a child may be inconsolable for an overly long time. A child who is made to feel abandoned may fall apart if he or she is not invited to a school chum's party. Another, less obvious behavior, is the child who becomes the super achiever hoping the parent will then return.
The solution? First, there must be awareness that feelings of abandonment exist and that those feelings are powerful and potentially destructive. After that, counseling is generally the best way to fix things.