The Fear of Abandonment: Overview and Treatment
Fear of abandonment is the overwhelming and unwarranted fear that the people that you care about will leave you physically and/or emotionally. A fear of abandonment is a complex phenomenon that can stem from a variety of developmental experiences, including loss and trauma. This fear has been studied from a variety of perspectives.
Although, is not an official phobia, the fear of abandonment is one of the most common and damaging fears. People with this fear tend to display behaviors (coping strategies) and thought patterns as a way to protect themselves that impact nearly all of their relationships. This paralyzing fear can cause an individual to avoid relationships all together to avoid getting hurt or inadvertently sabotage relationships.
Types of fear of abandonment.
Fear of emotional abandonment.
We all have emotional needs. When those needs aren’t met, you may feel unappreciated, unloved, and disconnected. You can feel very much alone, even when you’re in a relationship with someone who’s physically present. If you’ve experienced emotional abandonment in the past, especially as a child, you may live in perpetual fear that it will happen again.
Abandonment anxiety in relationships.
You may be afraid to let yourself be vulnerable in a relationship. You may have trust issues and worry excessively about your relationship. That can make you suspicious of your partner. In time, your anxieties can cause the other person to pull back, perpetuating the cycle.
Fear of abandonment in children.
It’s absolutely normal for babies and toddlers to go through a separation anxiety stage. They may cry, scream, or refuse to let go when a parent or primary caregiver has to leave. Children at this stage have a hard time understanding when or if that person will return. As they begin to understand that loved ones do return, they outgrow their fear. For most children, this happens by their third birthday.
Signs of a fear of abandonment include:
- Intense feeling of separation anxiety.
- People pleasing.
- Overreacting when feel slighted.
- Reluctance to fully commit.
- Hypersensitivity to criticism.
- Feeling insecure or unworthy of love.
- Quickness to attach, especially to partners that are unavailable.
- Difficulty achieving emotional intimacy.
- Quickness to move from relationship to relationship.
- Quick to anger/get defensive.
- Tend to overthink.
- Stay in relationships even if they are unhealthy.
- Engage in unwanted sex.
- Find is challenging to trust others.
- Hard to please or nitpicky.
- Experience depression or generalized anxiety.
- Tend to overthink.
Theories behind why fear of abandonment occurs include interruptions in the normal development of certain cognitive and emotional capacities, challenges with past relationships, and other problematic social and life experiences. Generally speaking, most mental health practitioners believe that the fear of abandonment originates sometime during childhood
A child who is denied basic, necessary comforts such as physical affection, emotional connection, and safety learns not to trust the permanence of these in adulthood. A scenario that might contribute to fear of attachment developed in childhood may be an absent caregiver.
For example, if a child’s caregiver is physically present, but mentally distracted (i.e. on their phone all the time, busy taking care of a sick grandparent, struggling with addiction, etc) the child is missing out on the emotional connection that they need for normal development. Rejection by peers or the sudden and unexplained loss of a friendship can also lead to fear of abandonment.
Death and divorce are other common causes, because they impact the child’s object constancy. Children with neglectful parents, parents in the military, or parents who have little time to spend with them are also at risk for interrupted object constancy. Furthermore, children in these households almost always develop an anxious attachment style which only fuels the fear of abandonment even more.
By the time we are adults, most of us have been through some significant changes – a death of a loved one, a friend moving away, a relationship ending, a transition from high school to college to marriage and parenthood.
Although most of us adapt to changing circumstances, getting stuck somewhere in the grieving process is common. Especially if the event was sudden or traumatic. The fear of abandonment after losing someone violently or tragically is significantly increased.
The fear of abandonment is personalized and varies from person to person. Some individuals fear all romantic relationships, while other people fear other kinds of relationships. A typical fear of abandonment relationship may go through several stages.
The first phase is the honeymoon phase. In this phase, red flags may be overlooked because the company of the other person is enjoyable. The two people in the relationship spend a lot of time together, things are light, fun, and at ease. Both individuals have a sense of security. However, real life intervenes.
People get sick, have work obligations, time constraints may happen. Although, this is a positive step in a relationship, it can terrify someone with a fear of abandonment who mistakenly perceives that the other person is pulling away.
If you have this fear, you are probably battling with yourself and trying very hard not to express your worries for fear of appearing clingy or feeling like a burden to your partner. Next, a slight occurs– an unanswered text message, request from one partner for alone time, or missed phone calls.
An individual with fear of attachment, may start to believe that their partner does not love them anymore. Some people handle this by becoming clingy and demanding, insisting that their partner prove their love by jumping through hoops. Others run away, rejecting their partners before they are rejected.
Still others feel that the slight is their fault and attempt to transform themselves into the “perfect partner” to prevent a breakup. The sudden personality shift seems to come from out of left field. The other partner probably has no idea why their previously confident, laid-back partner is suddenly acting clingy and demanding, smothering them with attention, or pulling away altogether.
As with other phobias, no one can simply talk someone out of their fear of abandonment. No matter how many times they are reassured, it will not be enough. Eventually, their behavior patterns and inconsolable reactions could drive others away, leading to the very conclusion the person feared most– the relationship comes to an end.
Several types of therapy may be helpful for those struggling with the fear of abandonment:
- Attachment-based therapy.
- Behavioral therapy.
- Family systems therapy.
- Working with a trauma informed therapist.
If you believe that you struggle with fear of attachment, give yourself some grace. Consider talking with your partner and remind yourself of all the good qualities that make you a great friend and partner
If you find this unmanageable, it may be helpful to work with a therapist that specializes in treating individuals utilizing one or more of the above listed therapeutic practices. Please contact me for further questions and scheduling a consultation.
Fear of abandonment. Retrieved on December 8, 2022 from https://www.healthline.com/health/fear-of-abandonment
Skeen M. Love Me, Don’t Leave Me: Overcoming Fear of Abandonment Building Lasting, Loving Relationships. New Harbinger Publications; 2014.
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