Understanding Fear of Abandonment

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A fear of abandonment is a complex phenomenon in psychology that is thought to stem from childhood loss or trauma. This fear has been studied from a variety of perspectives. Theories behind why fear of abandonment occurs include interruptions in the normal development of young children's social and mental capacities, past relationship and life experiences, and exposure to specific norms and ideas.

Although it is not an official phobia, the fear of abandonment is arguably one of the most common and most damaging fears of all. People with the fear of abandonment may tend to display compulsive behaviors and thought patterns that affect their relationships, ultimately resulting in the abandonment they dread becoming a reality. This fear can be devastating. Understanding it is the first step toward resolving it.

Why It Happens

Our behaviors and actions in current relationships are all thought to be the result of old fears and learned concepts that take place in childhood. There are three widely accepted theories behind the fear of abandonment.

Object Constancy

In object relations theory, an offshoot of Freudian analysis, an object is either a person, a part of a person, or something that somehow symbolizes one or the other. Object constancy is the concept that even when we cannot see someone, that person does not fundamentally change.

This is adapting the idea of "object permanence" first studied by the developmental psychologist Jean Piaget. Infants learn that mommy or daddy goes to work and then comes home. He or she does not stop loving the child just because they are separated for a few hours. Meanwhile, the child develops an internal object, or a psychological representation of the parent, that satisfies the child's need for contact during the interim.

Object constancy generally develops before the age of 3. As children grow and mature, the periods of separation lengthen and are often generated by the child as he, say, goes to school or spends the weekend at a friend's house. A child with good object constancy understands that important relationships are not damaged by time apart.

Object constancy may be interrupted by traumatic events. Death or divorce are common causes, but even situations that seem relatively unimportant to the adults involved may affect developing this critical understanding.

For example, children with parents in the military, those whose parents have little time to spend with them, and those with neglectful parents may also be at risk for interrupted object constancy.

Archetypes and Mythology

Mythology is filled with stories of abandoned or rejected lovers, primarily women who dedicate their entire selves to their partners only to be left behind when the lover goes off to conquer the world. Some psychologists, such as Carl Jung, argue that these myths and legends have become part of our collective unconscious. At some primal level, we have internalized certain archetypes and stories and made them part of our shared worldview.

We each have a personal myth as well—one that is not shared with others but resides deep within the core of our beings. This personal myth is made up of our interpretations of the collective unconscious through the filters of our own experiences.

From this perspective, the fear of abandonment is a deep-seated core conflict that varies in severity according to our own personal memories.

Prior Experiences

Many fears are triggered by the events of our past. Even if your object constancy is intact and you are not affected by overarching myths or archetypes, you may have been abandoned at some point in your life.

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, it is not uncommon to get stuck somewhere in the process of you grieving what once was.

If you have been through a sudden and traumatic abandonment, such as losing someone to violence or tragedy, you may be at increased risk for developing this fear.

Signs of a Fear of Abandonment

Millions of people struggle with this fear. When it comes to relationships, its resulting behaviors include:

  • You are quick to attach, even to unavailable partners or relationships.
  • You are reluctant to fully commit and have had very few long-term relationships.
  • You may be quick to move on just to ensure that you don't get too attached.
  • You aim to please. For some women, research has even found an increase in the willingness to have unwanted sex.
  • Once in a relationship, you stay, no matter how unhealthy the relationship is.
  • You are often hard to please and nitpicky.
  • Emotional intimacy is difficult for you.
  • You feel insecure and unworthy of love.
  • You find it hard to trust people.
  • Being jealous of everyone you meet is not a strange feeling to you.
  • Feelings of separation anxiety are intense.
  • Feelings of general anxiety and depression are very common to you.
  • You tend to overthink things and work hard to figure out the hidden meaning in everything.
  • You are hypersensitive to criticism.
  • You have repressed anger and control issues.
  • Self-blame is common for you.

Effect on Relationships: An Example Scenario

The fear of abandonment is highly personalized. Some people are solely afraid of losing a romantic partner. Others fear suddenly finding themselves completely alone.

To better explain how individuals with a fear of abandonment may navigate a relationship, here is an example of how a typical relationship may start and evolve. It is especially true for romantic relationships, but there are many similarities in close friendships as well:

1. Getting to Know One Another Phase

At this point, you feel relatively safe. You are not yet emotionally invested in the other person, so you continue to live your life while enjoying time with your chosen person.

2. The Honeymoon Phase

This is when you make the choice to commit. You are willing to overlook possible red or yellow flags because you just get along so well. You start spending a great deal of time with the other person, you always enjoy yourself, and you start to feel secure.

3. The Real Relationship

The honeymoon phase cannot last forever. No matter how well two people get along, real life always intervenes. People get sick, have family problems, start working difficult hours, worry about money, and need time to get things done.

Although this is a very normal and positive step in a relationship, it can be terrifying for those with a fear of abandonment who may see it as a sign 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.

4. The Slight

People are human. They have foibles and moods and things on their minds. Regardless of how much they care for someone else, they cannot and should not be expected to always have that person at the forefront of their minds. Especially once the honeymoon period is over, it is inevitable that a seeming slight will occur. This often takes the form of an unanswered text message, an unreturned phone call, or a request for a few days of alone time.

5. The Reaction

For those with a fear of abandonment, this is a turning point. If you have this fear, you are probably completely convinced that the slight is a sign that your partner no longer loves you. What happens next is almost entirely determined by the fear of abandonment, its severity, and the sufferer's preferred coping style.

Some people handle this by becoming clingy and demanding, insisting that their partner prove her 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" in a quest to keep the other person from leaving.

In reality, the slight is most likely not a slight at all. Simply put, sometimes people just do things that their partners do not understand. In a healthy relationship, the partner may recognize the situation for what it is—a normal reaction that has little or nothing to do with the relationship. Or he may feel upset by it, but address it with either a calm discussion or a brief argument. Either way, a single perceived slight does not become a dominating influence on the partner's feelings.

6. The Partner's Point of View

From your partner's point of view, your sudden personality shift seems to come from out of left field. If your partner does not suffer from a fear of abandonment, he probably does not have the slightest idea as to why his previously confident, laid-back partner is suddenly acting clingy and demanding, smothering him with attention, or pulling away altogether.

Similar to phobias, it is impossible to simply talk or reason someone out of a fear of abandonment. No matter how many times your partner tries to reassure you, it will simply not be enough. Eventually, your behavior patterns and inconsolable reactions could drive your partner away, leading to the very conclusion that you fear most.

Coping Strategies

If your fear is mild and well-controlled, you may be able to get a handle on it simply by becoming educated about your tendencies and learning new behavior strategies. For most people, though, the fear of abandonment is rooted in deep-seated issues that are difficult to unravel alone.

Professional assistance is often required to work through this fear and build the self-confidence needed to truly change your thoughts and behaviors.

Although treating the fear itself is critical, it is also essential to build a feeling of belonging. Rather than focusing all of your energy and devotion on a single partner, focus on building a community. No one person can solve all of our problems or meet all of our needs. But a solid group of several close friends can each play an important role in our lives.

Many people with a fear of abandonment state that they never felt like they had a "tribe" or a "pack" when they were growing up. For whatever reasons, they always felt "other" or disconnected from those around them. But the good news is that it's never too late.

Whatever your current stage of life, it is important to surround yourself with other like-minded individuals. Make a list of your current hobbies, passions, and dreams. Then find others who share your interests. While it is true that not everyone who shares an interest will become a close friend, hobbies and dreams are an excellent stepping stone toward building a solid support network. Working on your passions also helps build self-confidence and the belief that you are strong enough to cope with whatever life throws your way.

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