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Parental abandonment comes in many different forms. Sometimes the parents are physically absent, other times they are emotionally or mentally absent. Sometimes they are consistently absent, other times they are only absent at the times we need them the most. Regardless of what the specific circumstances are, the absence of a parent often results in a feeling of psychological starvation. Children who grow up without fathers develop an insatiable craving for fatherly attention and affirmation. Children who grow up without mothers end up craving motherly attention. This craving often results in very dysfunctional behavior patterns as adults try to find other adults who will role-play the missing parent for them. As these efforts keep failing—which they will—there is continuous envy towards those who grew up with two attentive parents in the home.
So what’s the good news here? As someone who is dragging through life feeling frustrated, bitter, and emotionally crippled, is there any hope we can place on your horizon? Of course there is. Regardless of how frustrated you are today, you certainly do not need to resign yourself to a life of misery, nor should you accept the idea that you will never be able to be as happy as those who grew up with loving parents. The purpose of this post is to help you identify dysfunctional behaviors you are using to compensate for a missing parent, and to help you reframe your loss in a hopeful light.
FOUR COMMON COPING STRATEGIES
Adults who are struggling with parental abandonment issues have a notoriously difficult time establishing functional relationships with other adults. But why is this? If you’re going to fix your approach and stop setting yourself up for pain, you need to understand what it is you’re doing wrong. Now in real life, humans are complex creatures, and in cases of multiple types of trauma, things get more complicated than we’re going to describe here. What we’re going to discuss are four common ways that adults try to compensate for growing up without one or more parents. All of the methods we are going to describe feel very logical to the people who use them. Which method you’re personally attracted towards will depend on the specific form your parental abandonment came in, and what your own temperament is.
Strategy #1: Invent the Perfect Parent
In cases of abandonment, the child often becomes consumed with the goal of trying to find someone who can role-play the missing parent so that interacting with that parent will finally become possible. So who can you get to role-play your missing parent for you? The world is full of possibilities, but most of them will not satisfy you. The kind of parental replacement you will seek out is going to be shaped by your personal experience of abandonment. In cases of complete physical abandonment, a parent is not available for any kind of interaction due to death, adoption, or some other form of permanent separation. When children permanently lose contact with a parent as infants, there is no opportunity to interact with the missing parent, so the child ends up piecing together his or her own “blueprint” of what a mother or father should be like. Here’s where you look around at the other kids in your life and you observe how they interact with their parents. You piece together an ideal image of what a father or mother is, then you go in search of someone who can fill that role. The problem is that what you’ve pieced together is a set of impossible expectations which no real human can hope to meet. Because you never had the chance to be disappointed by your missing parent, you are not willing to accept flaws in your parental substitute. In these cases, you’re chasing after an ideal fantasy which you have spent years being infatuated with.
Because perfect parents abound in entertainment media, it’s very easy for a child to think the fantasy figure he’s constructed is reasonable. After all, the mom in the movie never gets cross with her children, so why should he accept crossness in his mother stand-ins? Once fantasy figures are mentally constructed, the child aggressively looks for evidence that those figures exist in real life. They don’t, of course, but when Joe sees Tommy laughing and playing with his father, he assumes that Tommy and his father are experiencing that kind of lighthearted, positive dynamic 24/7. When Emily sees Roberta’s father dancing with her at the school’s father-daughter dance, she projects that Roberta’s father is always treating her like his little princess. In real life, Roberta could have a very negative dynamic with her father, but Emily will mentally reject any information that threatens to shatter the fantasy image she’s constructed of what fathers are.
Children who respond to parental abandonment in this way grow into adults who are still trying to locate that ideal parent while they are consumed with envy towards everyone else who has a parent. Because they are obsessing over perfection that does not exist, they aren’t willing to accept what good is available, and this makes it impossible for them to form positive peer relationships. When they meet older adults who start acting parental towards them, they respond with suffocating dependency which causes those older adults to hastily back away. When they meet potential romantic partners, they compare these real people to their fantasy parent figure and naturally find them lacking. So the real people leave, frustrated by being constantly held to impossible standards.
In this first dysfunctional response pattern, adults are stuck in a state of infatuation with someone who does not and never will exist. They become like treasure hunters who waste their lives chasing after lost gold because they are so sure that simply finding that treasure will bring them happiness. This is a very common side effect of infatuation: the target of infatuation becomes viewed as a magic “fix all” for the infatuated person’s problems. Whatever your issues are today, you tell yourself that those problems wouldn’t exist if you’d only had the parent that you were missing. Soon the fact that you grew up without a father or mother becomes your excuse for everything—the answer you give to illicit endless sympathy and to justify all of your dysfunctional behaviors. Such an obsession is very tiresome and draining for others to be around. Every time you remind people of how you grew up without a parent, functional people hear you saying, “And I’m refusing to move on,” so they back away from you.
Obsessions are common relationship killers, and wise people don’t try to form functional romantic relationships with someone who is obsessing over parental abandonment. Is it a traumatic experience? Definitely, but so are many things. Imagine trying to form a friendship with someone who made every conversation turn back to how she nearly drowned as a child or how she lost her baby, or how she was sexually abused. At what point do you start becoming exasperated with your friend’s singular focus? At what point do you start canceling lunch dates because you’re tired of having to keep expressing sympathy for the same issue?
Strategy #2: “Please Parent Me” Desperation
Now in cases of total physical abandonment—and especially in cases of orphaning where the parentless child realizes that both of his biological parents are totally gone—an intense need to be parented can result in us giving ourselves to anyone who expresses any parental interest in us. The mental attitude here is one of “Please, anyone on the planet, just want me.” Once we adopt this kind of mindset, we project an emotional aura of desperation which is easily detected by others. Now don’t misunderstand—we’re not talking about some mystical magic when we talk about auras. There is nothing mystic or magical about human auras. When we’re talking about your aura in psychological discussions, we’re simply talking about the reality that human emotions can be detected across limited physical distances.
When you walk into a room and you immediately feel tension in the air because the two people in the room are angry at each other, what you’re picking up on is the emotional auras that they are projecting from their physical bodies. Emotional auras work like perfume. You can smell a woman’s perfume when you’re standing close to her—you can’t smell it from across the room, but you can smell it without actually touching her. Now the more perfume the woman dabs on herself before she leaves her house, the farther away you can stand from her and still pick up on the scent. In America when we say that someone “broke the bottle” when putting on cologne, we mean that the person overdid it with scenting themselves, and as a result it’s rather suffocating to be in their presence, especially if you don’t like the aroma they are doused in. In the world of perfume, the more you put on, the larger the cloud of scent around you becomes. When it comes to human auras, we find a similar dynamic at work: the more intensely someone feels a particular emotion, the more easily detectable that emotion becomes to others. Ever find yourself in a conversation with a very overbearing person? Such a person is exuding an intense desire to dominate you, and that intense aura is what causes you to feel uncomfortable and threatened and wanting to get away.
Now there are ways to manage your aura. Mental focus has a major impact on the intensity of the feelings you are projecting towards others. What happens in the case of desperate people is that they are focusing on their desperateness as they interact with others, and this causes them to project an intense vibe of neediness. Imagine a fellow who is dangling over the edge of a cliff, barely hanging on to the cliff’s edge. When you come along and see the man, he cries out to you for help. You can see the dire situation he’s in, but how will you internally respond to his clear desperation? You see, humans respond to desperation in others very differently. Some people feel an intense need to play the savior. Such people would rush over to help our dangling man. The problem is that after the man is pulled free from the cliff, chronic saviors are going to want to keep saving him. They won’t want him to ever get his act together enough to be able to take care of himself. Instead, they will try to keep him in a crippled state so that he will remain dependent on them. Desperate people are very attractive to people who need to save, but they also attract abusers.
When you’re not an abuser yourself, it can be hard to imagine why someone would see our man dangling on the cliff and react by kicking him over the edge. And yet there are many people in the world who react to desperation like a shark reacts to the scent of blood—it makes them move in for the kill. This is why projecting an aura of emotional desperation is such a problem—because when you are constantly emitting a signal of “please, someone save me,” what abusers hear you saying is that you’re going to be very easy to dominate and control. And while abusers are moving towards you, functional people are feeling repulsed by your desperation. But why is desperation such a turnoff to functional people? It has to do with power.
There is an element of power in every human relationship, and for human relationships to remain healthy, the power must be properly balanced between the two relationship partners. The tricky part is understanding what the right balance of power is—it’s not the same for every relationship. In peer relationships, the power should be equally distributed. A 50/50 balance is what’s needed for things to remain healthy. To be healthy, marriages should function like peer relationships—and this is a point which Christians often get confused on. Because Christians rely heavily on the New Testament epistles for marital advice, and since those epistles were written by Jewish men who had been taught to view men as far superior to women in all areas, what you find in the New Testament epistles is teaching that the husband should retain the majority of the power in a marriage relationship. Well, no, this is not correct. When either the husband or the wife starts hoarding too much power, the marital dynamic becomes an authority dynamic instead of a peer dynamic, and this leads to all kinds of problems.
Now while authority dynamics are not appropriate in marriages or in peer friendships, they are quite necessary in early parent-child relationships. Parent-child relationships are unique in that they are supposed to change dynamics over time. They are supposed to begin as an authority dynamic, with the parent holding more power than the young child does. As the child matures into an adult, the parent is supposed to slowly relinquish power until the relationship evolves into an adult peer friendship with both parties in the relationship keeping the power equally balanced between them.
Now because traumatic parental abandonment occurs early on in the child-parent relationship, what happens is that you end up craving an authority dynamic. You want someone to parent you as your absent parent should have done early on in your life. As an adult, you should be transitioning into a peer dynamic with both of your parents, but since you can’t make this healthy shift with a parent who is absent, you end up stuck in the past. As an adult, you start seeking out an adult relationship partner who will dominate you—someone who will hoard most of the power and demand the kind of submission from you which is only appropriate for a parent to demand of a young child. Parents control who their children can socialize with, they control what their children eat and watch, they tell their children when to go to bed, they dole out various forms of discipline when their children defy their authority, and they claim ownership over all of the material resources in the relationship. None of these things are bad when they are happening to appropriate degrees in the early stage of a parent-child relationship. But these same things become extremely problematic when they start happening in adult peer relationships.
When a desperate need to be parented is combined with a willingness to accept any form of parenting, the result is that you end up being kicked around by a very abusive and domineering adult. Once you become an adult, it simply isn’t appropriate for other adults to treat you like a young child. And yet you invite this kind of abuse when you go around projecting an aura of desperation. Because functional adults do not want to participate in abusive dynamics, they are going to steer clear of you because you are refusing to take enough power in the relationship. Instead of taking your full 50%, you keep rejecting power and acting babyish in order to entice your adult partner into parenting you. At first you find it very appealing to be bossed around, because this makes you feel like someone is finally parenting you. Because not being parented made you feel rejected, unwanted, forgotten and/or devalued, the feeling of being parented makes you feel desired, focused on, and cherished. The problem is that adults who are willing to dominate you in this way are not viewing you the way that you think they are. Instead, adults who treat other adults like children are trying to compensate for their own unprocessed traumas, and often the way people cope with trauma is to intentionally hurt others.
Strategy #3: Clone & Correct the Absent Parent
In the first strategy we discussed, adults struggling with parental abandonment become infatuated with an ideal fantasy parent figure who they make everyone else compete with. This causes new relationships to be hard to find and quick to fail as people are repelled by the demand for perfection.
In the second strategy we discussed, adults struggling with parental abandonment cope by seeking out other adults who will agree to parent them. This results in abusive authority dynamics, in which one adult controls, dominates, and often ends up physically abusing another adult who regresses more and more into childlike behavior.
Clearly both of these coping methods are bad news, and things that you definitely want to grow out of. But before we talk about how to improve your focus, there are two more very common coping strategies which we need to explain for those of you who don’t identify with either of the first two.
In cases where some interaction with the absent parent was possible—such as in cases where the parent was in the home, just not willing to engage with you in the way that you needed, you will use whatever information you do glean from interacting with them to shape your definition of what a “mother” or “father” is. Then, if you go the route of our third coping strategy, as an adult you will attempt to “fix” what went wrong in that original relationship by searching for someone who can symbolically represent the absent parent. Your goal is twofold: first, clone your parent in the form of a peer, then get that clone to bond with you the way your absent parent never would. The problem here is that you end up pursuing relationship partners who display the same dysfunctional behaviors that your aloof parent had, thus you end up feeling hurt and rejected by them over and over again.
Adults who employ this cloning strategy are often focused on specific personality traits more than they are a specific power dynamic. They don’t need an authority dynamic to be happy, and they aren’t craving the feeling of parental domination. Engagement is what they’re primarily interested in, and they feel that a peer can satisfy them as long as the peer has certain personality traits in common with the absent parent. For example, when Abby was growing up, she was very hurt by the way her workaholic father never had time for her. As an adult, Abby finds herself intensely attracted to Stan, a workaholic whose mannerisms and basic temperament really ring Abby’s “daddy” bells. The problem is that Stan doesn’t have time for Abby either, nor is he interested in engaging with her. But when Abby starts offering him free sex and free housecleaning, Stan can’t resist. Soon years have flown by, and Abby is still breaking her neck to make Stan happy in hopes that Stan will start taking more interest in her than he does in his job. But Stan is never going to reverse his priorities like that—instead, he comes home one day and announces to Abby that he’s marrying a woman named Marcie. It’s a smart political move for Stan—one that will really advance his career. Advancing his career is all Stan has ever cared about, and he didn’t try to pretend otherwise with Abby. But the more Stan pushed Abby off, the more he reminded her of her father, and the more determined she became to make him show interest in her. To Abby, Stan was a daddy clone, and it was really daddy who Abby was trying to fix all of those times that she was nagging Stan about not paying enough attention to her. Now that Stan is telling Abby to get out of his house, she finds herself reeling with the agony of being rejected all over again.
Cloning strategies are a very common response to trauma, and humans use them to try and cope with a variety of stress scenarios. It’s because little Davie next door looks so much like the son James lost that James aggressively inserts himself as a second father figure in Davie’s life. It’s because Ben sees so much of himself in his son that he pushes the boy to succeed at achieving the goals Ben couldn’t reach in his own life. It’s because Hannah reminds Rex of the sister he lost that he is overly protective with her and trying to control her choices in life. The problem with cloning is that the clone only exists in our minds. We try to tell ourselves that one human symbolically represents another, when in reality they don’t. Even if poor Abby could get Stan to drop everything and obsess over her, Abby would still find it devastating that her own father rejected her. Stan will never become Abby’s father, no matter how much she wants him to, and Stan can’t undo the pain that Abby’s father has caused her. We simply can’t go back and change the past, and this is always our underlying goal when we start trying to clone and correct people who have hurt us in life.
Strategy #4: Immerse In An Ideal Quality
Now if we take several steps back from full on cloning, we come to a much simpler coping method. Rather than seek out adult partners who are willing to roleplay parents in their lives, the people who use this fourth coping strategy are going for a far simpler goal. They react to parental absence like one might react to a diet that is severely lacking in one essential ingredient: the solution is to start taking large doses of whatever it is that you were missing. This fourth coping method is particularly common in cases where some limited degree of interaction with the parent was available—just enough to help the child understand what it is he’s lacking in the relationship. This is Jen, whose father moved to another state after her parents divorced when she was just a baby. Now and then Jen’s father breezes into town, takes her to lunch, gives her a bunch of physical affection and emotional affirmation, and then he disappears again for some unknown period of time. This occasional tantalizing taste of fatherly affection results in Jen growing up into an adult who feels an insatiable hunger for men to touch and affirm her. So Jen becomes a sex addict: getting into bed with any man who will have her just to get another dose of male affection.
And then there’s Joel, whose emotionally absent mother was always showering verbal affection on everyone but him. As an adult, Joel seeks out women who will worship him. As long as his girlfriends keep stroking his ego and his body, he’s keeps them. But as soon as their infatuation with him fades and they start pointing out flaws or trying to get some time in the spotlight, he becomes furious and dumps them. Joel is trying to resolve his trauma by immersing himself in the positivity that his mother withheld from him. Jen is trying to solve her gnawing hunger by gorging herself on the male affirmation her father used to tantalize her with. But will Jen and Joel find happiness using this kind of strategy? No, they won’t.
Like cloning strategies, immersion strategies come up in many different trauma scenarios. As a boy, Ryan’s father was always on his case about how underbuilt he was. As an adult, Ryan is completely obsessed with building his muscle mass. He has his self-worth all tangled up in the size of his biceps, and since they’re never big enough, he feels that he’s never good enough. Then there’s Veronica, the average girl who grew up in a house of brainiacs. Because being smart was the only way to get acceptance in Veronica’s home, she’s killing herself to try and get a doctorate degree in a subject that she hates. While Veronica spends all of her free time studying and Ryan spends all of his time pumping iron, neither of them are happy internally. Immersion is a form of obsession, and obsessions result in one thing knocking all other things off of our priority list until many important issues are being left unaddressed in our lives.
As Jen goes hopping from bed to bed, her whole life is revolving around sex. She’s measuring her self-worth by how enthusiastically she can get men to ooze over her. Meanwhile, Joel has such an insufferable ego that he’s having an increasingly harder time finding women who will endure his self-exalting talk for more than one night. When we start obsessing over one quality or experience, and when we start telling ourselves that all of our problems would be solved if we could just get more of whatever that one thing is, we only end up with new problems. If your diet really is lacking in magnesium, then it can be helpful to take a magnesium supplement—but only in limited amounts for a limited time. If you just start downing huge doses of magnesium, you’ll quickly develop a whole host of new health problems that you didn’t have before you started trying to immerse yourself in one missing element.
The four coping strategies we’ve discussed so far aren’t the only methods people use to cope with parental abandonment. But they are very common ones, and they are all focused on trying to fix something that went wrong in the past. Looking backwards and obsessing over “if only” theories is always the wrong way to address trauma. So now let’s finally talk about how to do it right.
THE RIGHT RESPONSE
When you become traumatized by parental abandonment, it’s as if someone picks up a crystal figurine that represents you, smashes it onto the ground and then runs off with some of the pieces. When you sweep up the fragments and lay them out on a table, what do you have? With some of the pieces gone forever, is there any hope of you putting the figurine back the way that it was? No, there’s not. You see, to heal from trauma, the first thing you need to realize is that you are supposed to be permanently changed by what you went through. The goal is not to go back and restore what was broken. Instead, what’s needed is for you to expand your imagination and realize that who you once were is not who you were meant to always be. The second thing to realize is that in this world, everyone gets broken. While you’re busy envying those who grew up with two attentive parents, you don’t see all of the other ways God brought pain into those people’s lives. Having a wonderful father doesn’t stop Sharon from being devastated by the death of her twin sister. Having a loving mother doesn’t save Aaron from becoming emotionally crippled by peer bullying. Having two wonderful parents didn’t protect Sam from getting molested by his neighbor. Having plenty of parental affection didn’t stop Raina from becoming enslaved by anorexia. Envy always blinds us to reality. While we’re busy focusing on one difference between ourselves and others and leaping to a bunch of false conclusions about what that difference means, we blind ourselves to how much struggle, pain, and fear exists in every life.
Among humans, trauma is considered a terrible thing. It’s viewed as damaging, destructive, and all around negative. We don’t see trauma as a step forward—instead we see it as a step backwards. We don’t see it as the beginning of something new and wonderful. Instead we just see it as the destruction of something good or the permanent pollution of something pure. When you accept such warped views of your personal traumas in life, you’ll only end up permanently stalled in useless bitterness and rotting in self-pity. But when you learn to see trauma the way that God does, then you position yourself for wonderful things.
When God sees those crystal fragments of you lying on that table, He doesn’t see a sorrowful tragedy or the end of something beautiful. Instead, He sees new beginnings, and an exciting change of course. It is God who breaks us in life. He often chooses to use other people as His breaking tools, but He is the One who is wielding the hammer and choosing the time and manner in which our fall will come. It’s vital to realize this, because the same God who saddled you with the grief of parental abandonment is the God who causes perfect seeds to be ruptured, devoured, and disintegrated on their way to becoming beautiful flowers and trees.
If you dig up a tree, you won’t find any trace of the original seed in its mass of roots. Is this a sorrowful thing? No, and it doesn’t bother you at all, because when you planted the seed in your yard, your true desire was to have a tree. When the tree begins to form at the expense of the seed, you don’t stand around mourning what’s happening to the seed underground. Instead, you’re celebrating the appearance of the tree. As the tree continues to grow, you become more and more pleased, and you really don’t care in the least that the seed has ceased to exist. The seed was just a means to an end—the tiny, miraculous starter kit that was packed with amazing potential.
To God, you began your life like that miraculous little seed. When He first created you, He had no intention of having you just grow into a larger version of what you were when you were an infant. Instead, He created you with plans to put you through a long series of epic changes and transformations. When He set you up to experience life without one or more parents, He wasn’t shoving you to the back of the line or expressing disdain for you. Instead, He was causing the first roots to come bursting through the husk of that miraculous little seed that was so packed with potential, and you’ve only just begun in your journey with Him.
To God, trauma is indeed a destructive force, but it destroys for the purpose of making new growth possible. The way that God has designed trees to grow, their seeds must be destroyed in the process. You can’t have both the seed and the tree: you must give up the lesser thing in order to have the greater. In cases of trauma, we find ourselves being forced by God into a similar dilemma. He says that He has something new and precious to give us, but He’ll only give it to us once we are willing to let go of what He’s damaged.
A girl who is raped can never go back to being a virgin, but she can come to realize that her trauma has positioned her to mature into someone who has qualities that are infinitely more important and valuable than virginity could ever be. The boy whose father leaves him can’t go back in time and cause his father to stay in the home. But he can come to see that the emotional rupture that his father’s leaving caused can be the first step in him developing a whole new set of strengths and perspectives that will help him move forward in his own beautiful journey.
When God brings trauma into your life, some grieving over what is lost, broken, or wounded is a very necessary part of healthy processing. But we don’t want to stay in perpetual mourning. Instead of focusing only on what has been lost, we want to turn our focus ahead to what can be gained. The seed’s husk doesn’t rupture for no reason—it becomes ruptured by new roots poking out of it, and those roots are the beginning of a whole new kind of life. In the same way, every trauma marks the beginning of a new stage of development. Every loss and wound lays the foundation for a new strength to be built on top of it. It’s looking forward that helps us move forward. It’s by praying, “God, help me to fully release what You’ve taken away and to fully embrace Your plans for me,” that we end up experiencing the full benefits of what our trauma was designed to bring us. When we submit to God’s agenda for us, He takes all of those shattered crystal fragments and uses them to construct an entirely different and far more beautiful design than existed before.
The Mindset of Trauma Reversal: Pursuing the Unattainable
The Mindset of Trauma Rehearsal: Trying to Acclimate to the Unbearable
Understanding Your Perverse Fantasies: A Sign of Stress, Not Defectiveness
Improving Your Social Skills: The Principles of Coercion & Power
The Element of Power in Human Relationships
The Importance of Feeling: Why You Need to Reengage
Rejecting Labels of Inferiority: Help for Victims of Abuse
Dealing with Death: Eight Lies that Keep Us Stuck in the Past
Help for Victims of Abuse: Breaking Out of the Doormat Syndrome
Help for Sex Addicts: Understanding Symbolic Sex
Symbolic Genders: Understanding Trauma Driven Homosexuality