In the United States, spousal abandonment is the second leading cause of fault-based divorce. Abandonment is a word with many implications when it comes to divorce. There is the legal aspect of abandonment and how it impacts child custody, child support, and other divorce matters. There is also the emotional trauma when a spouse or parent leaves abruptly. That sense of loss can alter a family’s sense of stability and change the way some view and approach everyday life. This discussion takes a closer look at what it means when the family breaks up abruptly and partners and/or children are left to process that trauma.
What is Willful Abandonment?
In terms of divorce, willful abandonment is when a spouse willingly leaves the relationship without any indication to their partner and/or children. They leave with the intention of severing ties forever. A spouse who deserts willfully leaves without offering any sort of help and often without communication. It has a ripple effect that often informs the way family courts decide custody and support. Married partners can abandon their family members, homes, and obligations in different ways, and they are all equally devastating. The following are different types of relationship abandonment:
- Emotional abandonment. This is defined as withholding emotional support or being emotionally abusive.
- Financial abandonment. Abandonment that is considered financial includes not upholding one’s financial responsibilities, not paying bills, and not supporting the children.
- Physical abandonment. This type of abandonment involves withholding physical affection or physically leaving the home
For leaving to constitute marital abandonment or desertion under the law, the following must be proven:
- The spouse who left has resided outside of the home for at least a year.
- The remaining spouse did not cause or consent to the separation or abandonment.
- The deserting spouse failed to provide financial support while out of the home.
Is it Acceptable to Abandon a Spouse?
Under the law, there are valid defenses for moving out suddenly before the divorce is final. There may be just cause or reason to leave a marriage if one of the following applies:
- There is mental, verbal, or physical abuse.
- The other spouse withholds conjugal rights.
- The other spouse is unfaithful.
- The other spouse withholds financial support.
Leaving a home or marriage under these circumstances is called constructive abandonment. However, it is not enough to merely claim a spouse cheated or committed domestic violence. These allegations must be backed up in court.
What are the Legal Consequences for Willful Abandonment?
With the addition of irreconcilable differences as a ground for divorce in 2007, New Jersey effectively became a no-fault state. However, in rare cases, fault-based divorce can be utilized. Willful abandonment is one of these cases. Desertion is a factor when a remaining spouse suffers economic hardship without the financial support of the partner who left. Whether or not they filed for divorce, the spouse staying in the home can seek temporary emergency financial support to stay afloat. They also have the right to use marital property as they see fit, even if that means selling the family home.
Abandonment also impacts the way the courts approach child custody. A parent who deserts their children physically and financially is less likely to have an advantage. The parent who assumes sole parental custody for 12 months or more while the deserting spouse has been gone is likely to obtain permanent and legal custody in the divorce order.
What is the Psychological Toll of Abandonment?
Beyond all the practical ways marital abandonment changes a family dynamic, it has a deeper and darker effect on the emotional health of everyone involved. The partner who leaves suddenly and without communication has probably been making these plans for some time. One day they are part of the family, and the next day they are gone. The partner left behind can feel everything from shock and disbelief to anger and self-doubt. While they are tasked with processing heavy emotions, they still need to run the household and create some sense of normalcy for the children.
The trauma of marital desertion can manifest in many different ways for adults. Signs of abandonment issues include the following:
- Choosing unhealthy partners
- Continual need for reassurance from others
- Giving too much in partnerships
- Quickly moving from one romance to another
- Pushing others away out of fear of rejection
Fear of abandonment often evolves into debilitating mental health conditions, such as anxiety, depression, and even phobia. Someone who has been abandoned may be drawn to people who treat them just as poorly, continuing that cycle of fear and distrust.
How Does Abandonment Harm Children?
Children feel abandoned for several reasons. Divorce is one of the most common. A divorce that does not transpire in a positive way with both parents staying involved in the child’s life can cause lasting emotional trauma. When a parent abandons the family, a child attaches to their caregivers, and when that cord is severed suddenly and completely, their world as they know it is upended. The following are ways that abandonment issues manifest in children:
- Insecurity and low self-esteem
- Clinginess and nagging fear of being abandoned
- Fear of the dark and bedtime
- Fear and worry when a parent leaves for any reason
- Frequent illness with no known cause
Children who are not equipped with healthy ways of coping may turn to self-harm, eating disorders, or addictions to maintain some semblance of control. Childhood abandonment that goes unresolved can surface in adulthood and even overshadow the way a person goes on to parent their own children. They can be overly critical of their children, have trouble letting them express themselves emotionally, or even be fearful when they are physically apart from them.
What are Some Ways to Work Through Feelings of Abandonment?
Whether a person deals with abandonment as a child or an adult, the emotional scars left behind are real. Getting help is crucial for working through these feelings so they cannot sabotage future relationships with family, friends, and romantic partners. The two primary treatments for abandonment issues are as follows:
Self-care. Self-care is the act of paying attention to one’s self to make sure one’s emotional needs are being met. That means a lot of different things, depending on a person’s situation. It can be as drastic as ending an unhealthy relationship or as simple as eating a nutritious diet and getting plenty of sleep. Self-care is a mindful approach to making sure the life choices one makes every day are in their best interests.
Therapy. Self-care alone is often not enough to fully process deep-seated fears of abandonment and rejection when a spouse or parent leaves the home and never looks back. The assistance of a mental health professional, such as a counselor or therapist, can help the patient make connections between their feelings, where they originated, and how they show up in their daily life. A therapist will offer healthy coping strategies for managing and overcoming anxiety and other symptoms to break the cycle of abandonment once and for all.
Deserting the family without preparation or communication is possibly the cruelest way to leave a marriage. It is important for the family to work through their emotions. With professional help and a commitment to self-care, the family not only can survive, but also thrive, after divorce.
Morristown Divorce Lawyers at Lyons & Associates, P.C. Represent Clients Dealing with Marital Abandonment
The experienced Morristown divorce lawyers at Lyons & Associates, P.C. know firsthand how marital abandonment can devastate a family. We approach your case with compassion and skill to help you navigate this challenging time while ensuring your rights and interests are protected. Call us at 908-575-9777 or contact us online to schedule an initial consultation with our legal team. Located in Somerville and Morristown, New Jersey, we proudly serve clients in Somerset, Woodbridge, Morristown, Parsippany, Rockaway, Short Hills, Chatham, Randolph, Madison, and Morris Plains.