The world expects a lot from men, and men expect even more from themselves. The phrase, “Be a man” is another way of saying “Be impervious, be invincible, be completely unaffected by the world around you.”
Although modern society has come to view these types of expectations as unrealistic and even dangerous, they somehow remain as influential and dominant as ever.I know this because I often work with men in counseling who struggle with overwhelming shame for not living up to the impossible standard of being totally self-sufficient. In fact, I’ve found that at least half of the distress most men experience is secondary distress or distress about their distress.
In other words, men don’t believe they are allowed to have needs, especially relational needs. Imagine if you believed that any sign of vulnerability meant there was something fundamentally wrong with you (which is the essence of shame).
This leaves the modern man in a state of unrest that makes him “like the tossing sea; for it cannot be quiet, and its waters toss up mire and dirt” (Isaiah 57:20). The fear of abandonment is really the unbearable fear of being alone.
In this article, I hope to give some insight into how this fear influences and shapes the behaviors of many men when they “act out” in our world today.
Made for Love
I have personally struggled with the sense of inadequacy that comes with being a man and yet still needing other people. I felt that as a man I should be able to forge my own happiness in this world. I was taught by the culture that needing anyone was a sign of weakness or unmanliness. But no matter how hard I tried, I could not escape the part of myself that yearned for relationship, for romance, and for union.
The illusion of self-sufficiency is like a cancer that eats away at the fundamental part of us that longs for a safe, secure bond with another being.
As Dr. Sue Johnson writes in her book Created for Connection, “The notion of the invulnerable warrior who faces life and danger alone is long ingrained in our culture. Consider James Bond, the iconic impervious man, still going strong after five decades.”
In the early twentieth century, a man named John Bowlby studied children who were orphaned or separated from their parents. He found that being deprived of a loving “attachment figure” brought about devastating results in the lives of these children. Many died of what David Levy termed “emotional starvation.”
Eventually, Bowlby published his work outlining what is known as Attachment Theory. As Johnson writes, “His findings confirmed his belief in the reality of emotional starvation and his conviction that loving contact is as important as physical nutrition. He believed that keeping precious others close is a brilliant, built-in survival code…as Mozart noted, Love guards the heart from the abyss.”
I believe God designed us not as “impervious loners,” but as beings who by nature desire and need connection with others. He made us for a relationship with Himself and with others. Genesis 1:27 tells us that humans were created “in the image of God” or the imago Dei.
In other words, we bear a likeness to God. Sometimes we forget that since God is triune (made up of Father, Son, and Spirit), He is an inherently relational being. When you grasp this amazing truth, you will see that your desire for relationship is actually a reflection of God in you!
Now let’s briefly look at three of the main ways men act out due to a fear of abandonment and isolation. When a man’s need for connection is threatened, what type of man does he become? Some men might become all three types at different times or in different contexts, but each one presents unique problems.
The Angry Man
When men lash out in anger against those they love, it damages the relationships they are most dependent on for support and love. Why would anyone engage in such blatant of self-sabotage? The answer is that most men don’t realize that their anger is really a secondary emotion and that their primary emotion is fear.
Like an iceberg floating in the Arctic Ocean, most of the “substance” of our emotions exists below the surface, within the depths of our being. An angry outburst is often only the visible “tip” of an iceberg composed primarily of a deeper fear of abandonment which looms ominously beneath the waterline.
Most of the time, the existence of this fear is unconscious, which makes it difficult for the “angry man” to realize that he is frightening away the very person he is afraid of losing. Men’s anger is often an instinctual reaction to a perceived threat, like a blaring siren that sounds during an air raid. The greater the perceived danger, the more intense and hostile the reactionary anger.
As Johnson writes, “Bowlby gave us a general guide to when our attachment alarm goes off. It happens, he said, when we feel suddenly uncertain or vulnerable in the world or when we perceive a negative shift in our sense of connection to a loved one when we sense a threat or danger to the relationship. The threats we sense can come from the outside world and from our own inner cosmos. They can be true or imaginary. It’s our perception that counts, not reality.”
When something sets off “alarm bells” in a man with a fear of abandonment, the part of the brain that would help him survive in an actual crisis takes over, and he often lashes out verbally with the same intensity and energy he would use to fight off a human intruder or to escape a life-threatening natural disaster. Remember that in a very real way, his emotional survival does feel threatened.
Robert Anton Wilson wrote that “The abandoned infant’s cry is rage, not fear.” In the same way, men who fear they will be abandoned and left all alone respond with a rage that indicates how deep their need for connection and nurture truly is. We do not lose this dependence on love when we grow beyond infancy. Men are simply taught to deny or suppress it.
There are some cases in which anger is intended as a protective mechanism, a way of saying “I’ll hurt you before you can hurt me”, or “I’ll leave you before you can leave me.” It’s obvious how destructive and self-defeating this behavior pattern is, but scolding the individual guilty of it usually doesn’t motivate change. It takes empathy, vulnerability, and reassurance from a loving attachment figure to soothe the anguish of fear and replace these negative habits with helpful ones.
I should mention here that an “underlying fear of abandonment” does NOT excuse the often destructive or abusive behaviors of the “angry man.” Every individual is responsible to either control his temper or to seek the support necessary to do so. The idea that fear often underlies external anger is not a means of letting anyone off the hook. As Paul exhorted the Roman church:
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. – Romans 12:21
The Timid Man
The second way men act out as a result of a fear of abandonment is to become the “timid man.” Timid or apprehensive behavior seems to be intuitively connected to a deep-seated fear of isolation, so this is the type of man who is usually labeled as having “abandonment issues.” Unfortunately, anxious or insecure behavior does not produce the result the timid man is after: intimate, secure connection with another self. In fact, it often drives people away.
Think about it. Any potential adult attachment figure is going to gravitate toward a man who at least appears to be secure in himself. One of the top traits that women report being attracted to in a mate is confidence. This makes sense when you remember that God designed us all to seek strength and support in a relationship. The famous lines in Ecclesiastes capture this theme poetically:
Two are better than one,
because they have a good return for their labor:
If either of them falls down,
one can help the other up.
But pity anyone who falls
and has no one to help them up.
Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm.
But how can one keep warm alone?
Though one may be overpowered,
two can defend themselves.
A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.
– Ecclesiastes 4:9-12
Abandonment issues usually come to the surface when a “timid man” is already in a relationship. There is usually some triggering event or experience that “sounds the alarm” within him, telling him that he is at risk of being rejected and left all alone.
Johnson writes, “Attachment theory teaches us that our loved one is our shelter in life. When that person is emotionally unavailable or unresponsive, we face being out in the cold, alone and helpless.”
“We are assailed by emotions – anger, sadness, hurt, and above all, fear. This is not so surprising when we remember that fear is our built in alarm system; it turns on when our survival is threatened. Losing connection with our loved one jeopardizes our sense of security.”
The problem compounds when the resulting anxious, fearful behavior either weakens or risks destroying the very relationship it is desperately trying to sustain. Once again, it will do no good to simply scold the timid man or demand that he “man up”. This will only deepen his sense of inadequacy and despair.
The timid man needs affirmation, assurance, and the restoration of hope, all of which come first and foremost from God, our ultimate secure attachment, whose “steadfast love endures forever” (Psalm 136). This phrase is repeated 26 times in the Psalm, which is a beautiful portrayal of the type of faithful, rhythmic assurance of love that the timid, fearful heart needs in order to be restored to confidence and made whole.
The Superficial ManThe third way that men with abandonment issues sometimes act out is to play the role of “the superficial man.” Some guys keep everyone at a distance, maintaining only surface-level relationships with a large number of people. It may sound like I’m just describing “shallow” guys, but this type of behavior is often a defense mechanism that essentially says, “I won’t let you get close enough to hurt me.”
This type of man won’t strike you as having “abandonment issues.” In fact, he probably looks like the most well-adjusted, popular, confident guy around. After all, everyone seems to like him and be on good terms with them. However, when you look a little closer you’ll notice that while everyone in the room seems to be an acquaintance of his, he’s not a true, loyal friend to any of them. His network of relationships is a mile wide and an inch deep.
You might be tempted to look at a man like that and say, “Well, maybe it is possible to be self-sufficient as long as you’re popular.” But remember, we were all created for a genuine connection with loved ones within secure relationships. God made us for intimacy, and we will never be satisfied with less. Beneath the surface, the superficial man is as deep as any of us. His longings for love are as deep as ours. He just needs help believing that intimacy is possible.
The Inner Voice
When it comes down to it, we all have moments where “abandonment issues” get the best of us. You can probably identify with some of the ways that men act out as result the underlying fear of being rejected by others and left all alone. Maybe you’ve struggled at times with similar fears that whisper doubt into your mind. Maybe you’ve even acted out as a result of the panic that fear produces.
In an article on the PsychAlive website, Carolyn Joyce writes that “Every one of us has fears about being left alone. Most of us struggle with some fundamental feelings that we are unlovable or won’t be accepted for who we are. We all have a ‘critical inner voice,’ a negative internal dialogue that chronically criticizes us or gives us bad advice. This ‘voice’ often perpetuates our fear of abandonment.”
“The more each of us can accept that we are human and, like all humans, we will struggle in our lives, the more self-compassion and strength we can cultivate. If individuals can consistently remember that they are not alone and that they are worthy, they can help themselves avoid believing those cruel and incorrect messages, telling them that they will be abandoned or that they’re unwanted.”
If you or someone you love is struggling with the fear of abandonment and the longing for true intimacy, don’t feel like you need to face the fear alone. Reach out to me or another Christian counselor on this site. We would be honored to journey with you toward discovering your secure love attachment to the God of the universe, along with the wonderful human relationships He made you for.
Johnson, S., Sanderfer, K. (2016). Created for connection: the hold me tight guide for Christian couples. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company, Hachette Book Group.
Joyce, C. (2017). Fear of abandonment. Retrieved from: https://www.psychalive.org/fear-of-abandonment/