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Understanding Fear of Abandonment

Original Post By Lisa Fritscher November 13, 2022 Medically reviewed by Steven Gans, MD

Definition, Signs, Causes, and Treatments

Fear of abandonment is the overwhelming but unwarranted fear that people you love 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.

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

Although it is not an official phobia, the fear of abandonment is arguably one of the most common and damaging fears. People with a fear of abandonment tend to display behaviors and thought patterns that affect their relationships. Ultimately, these maladaptive coping strategies can result in the very abandonment they dread.

National Alliance on Mental Health. Understanding borderline personality disorder.

Consequently, this fear can be devastating.

Symptoms of Fear of Abandonment

In relationships, people with a fear of abandonment tend to:

  • Attach quickly—even to unavailable partners or relationships

  • Fail to fully commit and have had very few long-term relationships

  • Move on quickly just to ensure that you don't get too attached

  • Aim to please

  • Engage in unwanted sex (this is common in women)3

  • Stay in relationships no matter how unhealthy they are

  • Struggle with being hard to please and nitpicky

  • Have difficulty experiencing emotional intimacy

  • Feel insecure and unworthy of love

  • Find it hard to trust people

  • Are often jealous of everyone you meet

  • Experience intense feelings of separation anxiety

  • Have feelings of general anxiety and depression

  • Tend to overthink things and work hard to figure out hidden meanings

  • Are hypersensitive to criticism

  • Contain repressed anger and control issues

  • Engage in self-blame frequently

Causes of Fear of Abandonment

Many theories surround the disorder's origins. Generally, psychologists attribute fear of abandonment to experiences, beliefs, and concepts we internalized as children. 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. Examples of contributory experiences might include:

  • Abuse

  • Abandonment

  • Neglect

  • Death of a loved one

  • Emotional distance of a parent or caregiver

Mental Health Conditions

Fear of abandonment figures frequently and prominently in several mental health conditions, including borderline personality disorder (BPD) and separation anxiety disorder.

Object Constancy

In object relations theory (an offshoot of Freudian analysis), an "object" in one's mind is a person, a part of a person, or something that somehow symbolizes one or the other. Object constancy is the concept that one's experience of a person does not fundamentally change when the person is physically absent.

This is related to the idea of object permanence first studied by the developmental psychologist Jean Piaget. Infants learn that physical objects continue to exist even when they are outside the field of vision.

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—for example, when they go to school or spend the weekend at a friend's house. A child with good object constancy understands that important relationships are not damaged by time apart.

Traumatic events can interrupt object constancy. Death and divorce are common causes, but even situations that seem relatively unimportant to the adults involved can affect developing this critical understanding.

For example, 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.

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 lovers go 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.

According to Jung, we each have a personal myth that is not shared with others but resides deep within our cores. It comprises our interpretations of the collective unconscious through the filters of our own experiences.

From this perspective, the fear of abandonment is connected to these universal myths but varies in severity according to our own personal memories.

Prior Experiences

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.

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

Fear of Abandonment Effects

The fear of abandonment is highly personalized. Some people are afraid of losing romantic partners. Others fear abandonment in other relationships.

A typical relationship involving a person with abandonment issues might go through the following stages.,

Getting To Know One Another

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 together.

Honeymoon Phase

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

Real Relationship

Real life intervenes. People get sick, have family problems, work difficult hours, worry about money, and need time to get things done. Although this is a normal, positive step in a relationship, it can terrify someone with a fear of abandonment who mistakenly perceives that you're 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.

The Slight

A seeming slight occurs—an unanswered text message, an unreturned phone call, or a request for a few days of alone time.

Their Reaction

What happens next is almost entirely determined by your fear of abandonment, its severity, and the preferred coping style. To you, this looks like your partner no longer loves you. In reality, your partner didn't return your text because they were driving, busy, etc.

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.

In a healthy relationship, both partners would recognize the situation for what it is: a normal occurrence that has little or nothing to do with the relationship.

Or they might address the resulting upset with a calm discussion or brief argument. Either way, a single perceived slight does not become a dominating influence on the partner's feelings in a healthy relationship.

Your Partner's Reaction

Your sudden personality shift seems to come from out of left field. Your 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.

Treatments for Fear of Abandonment

Several types of therapy are available to help manage and reduce abandonment issues:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy helps the person replace negative thoughts with positive ones.

  • Play therapy uses toys and games that appeal to children in psychotherapy.

  • Attachment-based therapy relies on a strong relationship between the therapist and the patient.

  • Behavioral therapy helps patients uncover patterns of behavior and their origins through talk therapy.

Coping With a Fear of Abandonment

If your fear is mild and well-controlled, you may be able to handle 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 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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