Why abandoned families find it impossible to move on

A rapid decline in the quality of their lives can have lasting effect

In Summary

• Separated or divorced couples may be few in number but are large in impact

An abandoned woman walks with her children
An abandoned woman walks with her children

Spending nights in police cells. Getting marriage proposals from drunken strangers. Bribing corrupt police. Seeing her children drop out of school one after the other. Living in an incomplete building lacking electricity. Carrying her lastborn to work because she can't afford a house help.

This is not exactly how Daniella* (name changed) envisaged her life. She walks home from work in the middle of the night, risking attacks from criminals, because she cannot even afford to pay for motorcycle transport. This is a small part of the misery Daniella has known since her husband walked out of their 16-year marriage, abandoning her with their three children.

With only the secondary school leaving certificate she got almost 20 years ago, the only vacancies available to Daniella are informal jobs, such as waitressing in cafes and bars. She now works as the only employee at a small establishment in a residential suburb at the Coast.

Though bars open in the evening on weekdays and in the afternoon on weekends, she has to report early to clean the premises, receive supplies from distributors, and immediately begin serving customers when the legal opening hour strikes. She is supposed to close business at 11pm as demanded by law, but bar operators often stay open beyond that time to make an extra sale. That's how Daniella ends up in police cells.

As anyone reading this story can imagine, a woman working in a place populated by inebriated patrons has to tolerate lots of lewd comments. "If I got enough money to start a business, I would not be selling alcohol," Daniella says.

Life wasn't always like this for Daniella and her children. They lived in what everyone thought was a stable marriage. Fate got her to marry her teenage sweetheart instead of continuing with tertiary education. Life was fairly smooth as the family had all the basics of life, but Daniella’s world suddenly changed when her husband left the family to its own devices.


Daniella is now among the estimated 3 per cent of Kenyan adults officially classified as divorced or separated in the 2023 Kenya Media Research. The survey was conducted by Radio Africa Limited's Research Department.

The results of that survey closely resemble findings from the 2019 national census, which found that about 5.5 per cent of Kenyan households are headed by someone divorced or separated. In actual numbers, this represented 661,000 households out of a total of 12 million enumerated across the country.

The seemingly small percentage of divorced or separated couples in Kenya does not in any way diminish the dire circumstances of women and children who find themselves abandoned. As the case of Daniella shows, she and her children experienced a rapid decline in the quality of their lives. What makes people abandon their loved ones? When does love turn to indifference and hatred?

Peter Gerlach, an authority on stepfamilies who wrote extensively on negative inter-generational cycles, described abandonment as a situation where an adult or child voluntarily denies or ignores key responsibilities expected of them. Such responsibilities include parental or marital obligations.

"Quitting an assigned or chosen role (like parent, grandparent, husband, wife, partner, sibling, son or daughter) or a relationship can occur because the role, responsibility or relationship was unwanted, or was accepted without understanding what it required," Gerlach said.

Other reasons for abandoning loved ones include a feeling of being chronically overwhelmed by responsibilities or the presence of stress in a relationship, role or social group. The person who abandons his or her family may feel guilty and ashamed for failing at his or her obligations and may not know how to correct the situation. The individual may not see any point in making improvements because he or she is unwilling to make corrections.

Abandonment can be especially traumatic for dependents, such as children and disabled adults. They struggle to understand why they have been rejected by someone who previously gave them so much affection.

"Some previously abandoned teens can seek love, acceptance and security through promiscuity or frantic trial relationships," Gerlach wrote in his 'Perspective on Parental Abandonment'. 


Children in abandoned marriages are likely to suffer long-term psychological consequences. The Foundation for Post-Traumatic Healing and Complex Trauma Research says that people who have experienced abandonment are more likely to have long-term mental health disorders, often based on the fear that abandonment will happen again in their adult relationships.

"For someone who lacks self-esteem due to childhood abandonment, the fear of being abandoned again becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as their clinginess and other negative behaviours tends to push away potential life partners and friends," the Foundation explains in an online brief.

Furthermore, children abandoned by one or both parents may blame themselves for the situation, believing that they did something to drive the parent away or perhaps did not live up to the parent's expectations. The child grows up feeling unwanted, which by itself is a traumatic experience and can block a child from succeeding in academics, careers and relationships.

Research proves that abandonment has adverse effects on the second and third generations of the victim. A team of brain specialists revealed in 2021 that the denial of emotional support early in a mother's childhood is associated with changes in the brains of her own offspring when she is of child-bearing age. As reported in Neuroscience News, the changes in brain structure among babies of neglected mothers make those children vulnerable to anxiety.

If you are contemplating abandoning your family, think about the consequences not just on your spouse and children, but on your grandchildren and great-grandchildren, too. Think about your obligations to older people in your family so that they don't feel abandoned.

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