An Expert-Vetted Guide to Legal and Emotional Marital Abandonment

Plus, advice on how to cope.
Heart balloon being cut with scissors
Photo: J Studios / Getty Images
elizabeth ayoola headshot
Elizabeth Ayoola
elizabeth ayoola headshot
Elizabeth Ayoola
The Knot Contributor
  • Elizabeth contributes a range of lifestyle content to The Knot.
  • She also works as a full-time writer at NerdWallet and contributing writer at ESSENCE and POPSUGAR.
  • Elizabeth has a degree in Environment, Politics, and Globalization from King's College London.
Updated Mar 08, 2024

Every marriage goes through some turbulence, because doing life with someone is seldom a smooth ride. While some couples stay and work it out, others may choose to jump ship, abandoning their partner. Abandonment in marriage is multilayered and can be physical or emotional. Either way, it's likely a painful and traumatic experience.

What types of marital abandonment exist and how can you work through them? A few experts help us answer these questions. Holly Davis, owner of Kirker Davis in Austin, Texas and Marina Divinsky, a lawyer who specializes in family law at Law Firm PC, in Southampton, Pennsylvania shed light on the legal implications of marital abandonment. Shawnessa Devonish, founder of Rejuvenated Minds Therapeutic Services also shares tips on how to cope emotionally.

In this article:

What is Abandonment in Marriage?

Abandonment in marriage can be defined in multiple ways and falls into different categories. The three primary types of marital abandonment are emotional, financial and criminal, which you'll learn more about below.

Physical Abandonment

Physical abandonment is not relevant in every state, but it is in places like Texas.

"Abandonment in Texas is where a person physically leaves a spouse and the person who's leaving stays away for one over one year consecutively and they don't have any intent to return to the marriage," says Davis.

If a spouse leaves their belongings behind, it can still be classified as marital abandonment if they don't intend to come back. Bottom line is it is physical abandonment when there isn't an agreement for the abandoning spouse to leave and both spouses haven't agreed to separate.

Emotional Abandonment

When emotional abandonment occurs in a marriage, a spouse may still be physically present but may have emotionally checked out.

"A lot of times people feel abandoned or interpret their relationship as if they are abandoned emotionally, even if they're living with someone," Davis says.

For instance, if you've been receiving the silent treatment for months or have experienced a complete breakdown in communication, you may categorize this as emotional abandonment.

Sometimes, emotional abandonment can be caused by betrayal or rejection, Devonish explains.

"Unfortunately, this form of abandonment can cause an intense disconnect and trigger a multitude of feelings such as loneliness, resentment and regret," she says. "The person's sense of safety and security within the relationship is in jeopardy when a person feels abandoned in their marriage."

Another example of emotional abandonment could be when a spouse completely ignores your emotional or intimacy needs despite you repeatedly communicating them.

Criminal Spousal Abandonment

Usually in a union, two people have an agreement about how they'll share and manage finances. When criminal abandonment takes place, one spouse may relegate their responsibilities, leaving the other partner and their children without any financial support. If the abandoning spouse has no intention of providing financial support to said children, they could be at risk of criminal abandonment, which could have future repercussions.

What Happens When Someone Abandons Their Marriage?

When someone abandons their marriage, it can have several implications. Some may include the other spouse filing for divorce, the abandoning spouse getting fewer assets or even having criminal charges filed against them.

The Other Spouse May File For Divorce

When someone has abandoned their spouse, they haven't filed for divorce. The other spouse may decide to do so and would have the right to on the grounds of abandonment depending on which state they live in. The rules around abandonment differ in each state and in some, it isn't legally recognized. That said, in states like Texas, abandonment is grounds for divorce, says Davis.

"It was originally designed to address a situation where someone got married and then just absolutely got left, that person never intended on returning and it wasn't just like a really long, convoluted breakup," Davis explains.

That said, you don't need to experience abandonment to file for divorce, especially if you live in a no-fault state—there are about 17 in the U.S. This means either party doesn't need to establish fault before getting a divorce and the relationship being irretrievably broken is enough.

What if your spouse has ghosted you? It is still possible to get divorced. In many states, there is the option of serving someone through a process server and taking additional steps like putting an ad in the newspaper to prove you've tried to notify them about your intent to divorce.

It Could Lead to Getting A Larger Cut Of Assets

When abandonment leads to divorce, it could result in one spouse getting more assets of any property shared, says Davis.

That said, deciding on how assets are divided in court could be complicated. However, the abandoned spouse may have an upper hand, especially if they were left to manage the expenses associated with any shared property. For example, if the former couple owned houses together and the spouse who left stopped paying the mortgage, the abandoned spouse may get a bigger cut in a divorce. Of course, it's all relative to the state and laws in that location.

The Abandoned Spouse Could File for Support

Another consequence of marital abandonment is that the abandoned spouse may apply for alimony or child support if kids are involved. This is the case when the spouse who left doesn't provide any financial support for the abandoned spouse and kids.

"The remedy in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, would be the remaining parent would file for child support or or any other kind of support with the courts," Divinsky says.

In some states, the spouse who was abandoned may receive alimony for the period they were abandoned too.

The Abandoned Spouse May Move On

Some people who have been abandoned don't rush to get divorced, but may choose to move on. This could look like choosing to date someone new or become emotionally intimate with someone else.

How to Cope With Emotional Abandonment In Marriage

Coping with emotional abandonment in marriage can be challenging for so many reasons. Knowing someone you exchanged vows with up and left without notice can feel like betrayal and leave you devastated. However, it is important to remember you didn't deserve to be abandoned and it's possible to move forward.

One way you can move through what may be a dark time is to prioritize self care, says Devonish.

"Engaging in activities that provide you with joy and fulfillment can enhance your mood," she says. "These can include physical exercise, hobbies and activities that produce joy and satisfaction."

Additionally, lean on your community for support as trying to go through emotionally challenging times alone can lead to unhealthy isolation. Devonish recommends leaning on one to two individuals who can help you work through the abandonment.

"Reach out to a trusted person to provide you with validation, comfort and encouragement. This can also include professionals such as a licensed therapist," Devonish says. "However, everyone in your life is not well equipped to provide insight on your relationship challenges from an objective lens, [so] choose wisely.

If you've experienced emotional abandonment and your spouse still lives with you, consider working through the issues you're having if you feel it's worthwhile. Devonish recommends communicating, especially if you haven't before. If emotional abandonment is a longstanding issue, consider therapy as a solution.

FInally, it's easy to slip into a negative thought pattern and blame yourself for the abandonment or even question your worthiness. It's important to observe and challenge these thoughts, says Devonish.

"Challenge your irrational thoughts triggered by the somber emotions associated with abandonment with encouraging and empowering statements," she says.

If you're having negative thoughts about being worthless and unworthy of love, replace them with positive ones about being "phenomenal, and worthy of an abundance of love and companionship," concludes Devonish. When things feel unbearable, hold onto those words and know that in spite of the abandonment you've experienced, they are true.

Please note: The Knot and the materials and information it contains are not intended to, and do not constitute, legal advice and should not be used as such. You should always consult with your legal advisors about your specific circumstances. This information contained herein is not necessarily exhaustive, complete, accurate or up to date and we undertake no responsibility to update. In addition, we do not take responsibility for information contained in any external links, over which we have no control.

Up Next
  • Does Marriage Counseling work
    But Seriously: Does Marriage Counseling Actually Work?