Why Do Separations Feel Like Abandonments?

Research on attachment consistently shows that our experiences with our parents influence how we raise our own children. As I have noted previously in my many blog posts and books, many twin pairs had minimal parental connections and consequently had to “parent” each other.

I have worked for many months with an identical twin in her forties. Two ongoing issues prompted her to get in touch with me: a longstanding rift with her twin and the tumultuous, treacherous behavior of her then seventeen-year-old son. At that point, she did not understanding that the adolescent boy was acting out partially because he needed to break away from her. Eventually, he left her house and moved in with his father, who had separated from my client many years before.

Fern (not her real name) told me that separations feel like desertions. She has experienced this reaction with her twin sister and with her sons. She grew up in a violent household where she felt unloved and victimized by her parents and older sisters. Only her twin relationship offered any support or solace. So, after her twin married, she felt utterly alone and desolate. With a sense of urgency, she married a man similar to her twin’s spouse.

Fern emotionally smothered her boys. At the same time, she was wildly envious that her sister gave birth to two daughters. She described her connection with her younger son as “beyond enmeshment.” She said, “I can look into his eyes, feel what he feels, and know what he’s thinking. I am my son.” In return for her sacrifice and devotion, she demanded that her sons mirror her particular cultural beliefs and expectations. She told me that loving parents should be worshipped for their assiduous care and support.

When her twenty-five-year-old son announced that he planned to move into an apartment with some friends, Fern reacted with rage and disbelief: “How can he do this to me?” His decision to leave home and separate from her felt like an insufferable narcissistic blow that announced to the whole world that she was a bad mother. She declared that children who do not live at home to save money are breaking the rules of engagement.

As one might imagine, helping Fern understand and appreciate the role that separation plays in healthy development has been challenging. Our work together focuses on how her traumatic upbringing thwarted her ability to become a separate person. Her overreliance on her twin was a consequence of sadistic parenting. Her sister’s desire to disconnect from Fern stemmed from a need to feel independent. Prior to counseling, Fern could not fathom why her sister deserted her. She surmised that the separation meant that Fern was unlovable, unattractive, and too boisterous. As a result, she was flooded with rage and self-loathing—the only two emotions she recognized and vehemently enacted.

In truth, until one safely grows into feeling like a separate individual, separations will be experienced as betrayals and desertions.

Image courtesy of amir appel (CC BY 2.0)


  1. Mary Ann Maher

    This is so exactly what I needed to read!!! Will share with my twin. Thank you, Joan!!!

  2. Ann

    That last sentence you wrote hit home! Thnx sooo much, Joan for the work and writing you do. I think it’s invaluable to so many people out there. Take care.

  3. Ann

    The last sentence you wrote hit home. Thnx for the work and writing you do, Joan. I think it’s invaluable for many people out there. Take care.

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