top of page

4. Love and Relationship in the aftermath of neglect.

The ‘core aloneness pain’ – a term that Frank Corrigan introduced us to- is such an apt description of an aspect of the emotional pain that is the ever-present companion on the journeys of those who suffered neglect, abandonment, and abuse in their childhood histories. It varies in intensity and in urgency. At its worst, with nothing there to soften or soothe it if only slightly, it often leads to suicide. People who feel unnoticed, invisible, not taken care of, not contained, not loved, seek relief from this unbearable loneliness, which feels like being on the brink of obliteration, in a variety of desperate ways. Ending the suffering, the endless pain of loneliness, alludes to relief.

In the desperate attempts to escape the pangs of overwhelming need, sufferers often reach from one relationship to the next or from one substance to the next. The need is best described in Sebern Fisher’s term ‘hunger’. And then to be more specific, ‘mother hunger’. Adults cringe and turn away in shame when this term rings true at some level. Any human adult male would not want to admit that his neediness, desperation, fear, and anger can be best understood as a thread of ‘mother hunger’ woven into every aspect of his being. The hunger is insatiable and cannot be satisfied by endless consumption of substances, alcohol, food or by sexual promiscuity. The anger does not dissipate in outbursts. The fear is ever-present and changes only in amplitude and the shame feels all-consuming at times.

We know now, because of the wonderful longitudinal studies of Dr. Karlen Lyons-Ruth, that neglect in childhood does not have less severe outcomes than sexual abuse. Neglect in childhood is a high predictor of many disastrous consequences -bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, suicidality and according to a recent study, it affects areas in the brain central to cognitive function too (Lyons-Ruth et al, Childhood Abuse Versus Neglect Associated with Differential Patterns of Infant Brain Development. Res Child Adolesc Psychopathol. 2023 Dec: 51(12):1919-1932). Sebern Fisher will be addressing the effects of neglect in the Trauma24 Conference in Johannesburg on 4 and 5 October. She will outline the disastrous consequences of neglect in terms of arousal in the brain rather than in terms of diagnoses and lead clinicians to the understanding of the importance of regulation of the central nervous system. When the infant brain does not learn to simulate regulation by replicating the regulation in the brain of the loving, present parent, the capacity to regulate emotions does not develop.

Let’s think more openly about neglect. Neglect is often referred to as deprivation in trauma literature. I find these terms too vague to reach the core of what the child is deprived of that causes the catastrophic cascade of horror, terror and desperation that pave the road of the futures of neglected children. What was the child deprived of? The broken shoes don’t really matter, neither do the irregular meals in comparison to the real hunger. The child was not loved. She never felt the consequence of hearing the words “I love you”. She does not know the sensation in her body neither does she have the template for it in her mind. The absence of being loved, the absence of feeling loved, is what the often seemingly deranged pursuit is about. Often, when this love-deprived adult finds a loving partner, it is difficult or even impossible to believe that love. The relationship becomes burdened with constant needs for confirmation and validation and too often, sadly, tested to a breaking point.

How does the therapist solve this conundrum? How can this unfathomable barrenness become inhabited by the concepts of attachment, meaningful connection, love? Why do therapists avoid this word? What are the tools clinicians have available to provide what the primary caretakers couldn’t? This is what the Trauma24 conference is about. The research that proves the validity of brain-based therapies will also be presented by the world’s leading trauma researcher, Dr. Ruth Lanius and a previous student of hers, Dr. Andrew Nicholson. These therapies, no matter how efficacious, cannot be provided in a void. The attuned therapist that deeply understands the damage of the deprivation and the coming online of the capacity to receive love, guides the patient away from shame about humans most basic needs toward embracing love.

I wish to see you at the Trauma24 Conference where three world leaders in the field of trauma will make all the puzzle pieces of the knowledge, the therapy models and the skills required, fall into place to pave a new future.


46 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page