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The Five “A”s that Threaten Your Union: Abandonment
(This is the third part of a five-part series entitled "The Five 'A's that Threaten Your Union".)
If you don’t live in a cave or in the Unabomber cabin, you’ve probably seen the movie Jerry McGuire. Of all the chick flicks in the film vault catalogue, I think most men would agree that Jerry McGuire was probably the easiest romance movie of its generation for a man to enjoy. I think there are two reasons for that: 1) It had a lot of football in it, but no-one had to die of cancer at the end and make you cry right there in the theater, sitting right next to your girlfriend, making you afraid to ever break up with her because then she’d tell everyone you cried in a theater; and 2) the male lead in the romance was a true romantic hero, but all he really had to do was “show up”. Bogart had “Here’s looking at you, kid”, but Cruise only had to show up to be a romantic success. Jerry’s approval-rating was indicated by Renee Zellweger’s now famous “Shut up, shut up. You had me at ‘Hello’”. He won the girl just by showing up. Can romance really be easier than government work? Jerry made it look like any idiot could do it, so we fellas liked the movie Jerry McGuire.
For a relationship to work out, everyone must show up. Some of my most frustrating experiences as a couple’s therapist have been about a man or woman who simply wouldn’t fully participate in the relationship, sometimes for reasons that were never very clear. But a person can make or break a relationship just by how/if they choose to show up. I’ll share two ways this typically plays out.
The classic way that showing up becomes an issue is in cases where there is an actual, physical absence of one half of the relationship: simple abandonment. One of them is A.W.O.L. They just stop being around. In a dating relationship this is hurtful to experience, but at least in dating relationships they are “only dating”. In courtship there isn’t usually the same expectation of commitment. In a marriage, two people are bonded to each other, so the experience is about more than being without a date on a Saturday night. One person suddenly deciding to check out of a marriage is typically a very hard thing for the other to cope with. It’s not a divorce, nor is it a separation. Divorces and separations are usually negotiated to some extent, sometimes even agreed upon, but one person simply deciding to be “gone” without consideration for the other person is unsettling and destabilizing to a marriage. The uncertainty of an absent partner makes it hard to even address their potential reason(s) for not being there. Even worse, when one parent simply disappears from a family with children, well… that’s just child abuse, and damaging. Children who suffer the emotional wounds of “my dad just up and left one day” will typically suffer those wounds into adulthood. It’s a suffering that can hurt for generations.
The other significant way that abandonment can be experienced in a relationship is when all parties are present and accounted for (they are both sitting together at the same dinner table every night) but one of them is no longer emotionally or spiritually available. The emotionally, spiritually and relationally absent partner is an especially confusing situation. Confusing in that it can be difficult to even see that it’s happening. The abandoned party might be aware that something doesn’t feel good or right; but doesn’t have eyes to clearly see that their partner’s lack of emotional involvement is really just a form of abandonment. One indicator that someone is emotionally M.I.A. in a marriage is when the marriage becomes a sexless marriage (sex fewer than 10 times a year). If the party who’s been emotionally abandoned came from a family where emotional connection was weak in the family, then they may not be able (or willing) to acknowledge that the source of their loneliness is about their desire to have a richer connection with their partner. But I don't want to say any more about that. We’ll discuss the issue of closeness in my final installment of this series in two weeks...
What to do with an abandoning partner? Confront the abandonment. It’s not normal to be “in” a relationship while also being “gone”. Where there is love there is also a willingness to work and invest in building stronger bonds. If there is a reason for the absence, then make it a goal to discover and resolve what’s wrong. If there is no reason for the abandonment, then express an expectation that the absent partner will either start showing up, or that they have agreed to end the relationship in abstention.