Fear of Abandonment
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | February 20, 2021 (edited March 24, 2022)
Fear of abandonment invades adult relationships, motivates protective behaviors that prevent healthy connection.
We desire relationships. We are emotionally driven for connection. We feel lonesome when lacking connection, driving action. From the moment of birth (most likely even before) to the grave, we find comfort in others. Healthy childhood connections lay the foundation for future secure and healthy attachments. Conversely, chaotic childhood relations, fraught with inconsistencies and fear, damage the soul, creating disorganized and destructive emotions that interfere with attachment needs. The child with erratic emotional memories often struggle forming healthy bonds throughout their life.
Origins of Fears of Abandonment
Many ignorantly advise, “Don’t be insecure, it ruins relationships.” By addressing symptoms rather than underlying causes, we further alienate the sufferer, demanding they change internal mechanisms imprinted during childhood. The conditioned reactions appropriately created a protective reaction to defend against their childhood abnormal conditions, establishing emotional patterns that continue in adulthood.
The young child tempers disappointments by predicting emotional states of his caregiver. When dad fumbles with his keys at the door and stumbles into the foyer, the child knows to watch out. Accurate predictions create security. Many childhood relationships must contend with emotionally chaotic care-givers. A parent may show overflowing love one moment and heart-stopping rejection the next. The parents disjointed relationship style, full of alienation and enmeshment, is passed on to the child (biologically and experientially).
See Entangled Relationships for more on this topic
John Bowlby's theory of attachment provides insights into the painful phenomenon of fear of abandonment. He explained in the second volume of his seminal work on attachment that if a parent threatens a child with abandonment if the child doesn't behave, or suggests that they will withhold love for misbehavior, that the interactions creates a genesis of anxiety in the child (1976).
Daniel Siegel, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and executive director of the Mindsight Institute, explains that "fears of annihilation and abandonment are the origins of the desperate withdrawal and anxious approach common in ambivalently attached individuals." The excessive parasympathetic reactions to possible relationships ruptures, he explains is an "adaptation to inconsistent and intrusive parenting." These fears lead to vulnerable and dysregulated emotions in attachment (2020, location 7404).
In Daniel Goleman's book Social Intelligence he explains that "we have a hardwired system that is alert to the threat of abandonment, separation, or rejection" (2007, page 114). Childhood exposures can magnify or extinguish biological predispositions. A parental pattern of attachment may monopolize and manipulate the biological hardwiring in the child to achieve the parent's relationship goals.
A particular style of relationship that commonly leads to fears of abandonment is the symbiotic bonds. Joseph Richman describes symbiotic relationships in his book Family Therapy for Suicidal People (1986) as unhealthy bonds with a parent, where any outside attachment for the child threatens the parent and is resisted. Richman suggests this creates a symbiotic anxiety—a fear of losing a relationship where two people are enmeshed psychologically, rather than two autonomous beings in a relationship (Ledgerwood, 2004).
Eva Kahn in a 1986 article on Habitual Failure captures these child-parent dynamics succinctly, "the immature, dependent child, making repeated unsuccessful attempts to satisfy unrealistic or pathological parental demands fears that its inadequacies will result in abandonment by the parents. Repeated cycles of attempted compliance and failure are internalized and become a life pattern" (page 50).
We wrongly treat insecurity as a choice that sufferers can flip on and off like a switch. We can’t force security; it must be learned through a safe environment. Security is not a matter of self-discipline, where the strong-willed can force a feeling that isn’t there. We can, however, work on building stability and creating trust through a more predictable life. Overtime, acknowledging the fears and mindfully challenging unreasonable clinging, we can give fragile birth to a new security. Relationships do not need to be painful forever.
Relationship anxiety often includes fears of being abandoned. Insecure lovers often adapt by controlling, clinging, or avoiding closeness.
What is Fear of Abandonment?
Fear of abandonment is characterized by anxiety. An anxious response is logical given common histories of unreliable caregivers and partners. The anxiety triggers heightened vigilance and fear for abandonment and neglect.
The fear can lead to a variety of protective reactions—avoidance of closeness or intense clinging. Another common protection is a suppression of self. Fears of abandonment are often protected by developing "a superficial niceness" (Heller and LaPierre, 2012, location 1185), or, as Dr. Gabor Maté describes, compelled to repress any emotion that may cause rejection (2011).
What Does Fear of Abandonment Look Like?
Those with insecure attachments vigilantly seek signs of impending abandonment and try to intervene before the loss; they valiantly stand guard reacting to any indication of abandonment.
The protective reactions to abandonment fears are expressed in a variety of unhealthy ways:
Fears of Abandonment Interfere with Adult Connection
Children with chaotic backgrounds survive by adapting to their environment. Biologically, the brain trims and creates connection appropriate for the environment. The child’s environment forms her brain, creating the foundation for felt experience in all future relationships. The child’s brain, awash in chemicals, motivates protective sensitivity to the emotions and behaviors of a volatile caregiver. The child lives with the complex demands of being attached to the caregiver for survival while simultaneously fearful of another damaging blow. The conflict complicates attachments with scanty predictable guidelines.
A child in a volatile environment must constantly watch for changes in demeanor—faulty assessments may be costly. For these children, hyper-situational awareness is a natural adaptation. Yet as an adult, this vigilance interferes with healthy trust. The constant vigilance frustrates a loving partner. The onslaught of accusations undermines his needs for appreciation. Partnerships develop with trust—a character trait often undeveloped in volatile homes. Instead of inner strength, these adults now need constant reassurance.
Even when paired with healthy partners, the intense fears of abandonment, continued accusations and jealousies interrupt developing new attachments, creating drama instead of quiet moments of bonding. A partner’s voiced commitment not to abandon is constantly scrutinized for sincerity. The barrage challenging sincerity eventually damages communication; the partner doubts their own sincerity, accepts the tainted views and contributes to the fears.
Fears of abandonment are often a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Partner Selection and Fears of Abandonment
Patterns imprinted on young minds outwardly express themselves in adulthood. Our learned attachment style attracts or repels potential partners. The more salient the associated behaviors, the more limiting partner selection becomes.
There is ample and compelling evidence that suggests that mates are selected for their ability "to confirm attachment-related expectations, even if the expectations are negative" (Hazen and Shaver, 2004, location 5615). Those most fearful of abandonment often pair with those most likely to abandon.
Some insecurity, cloaked in secrecy, remain hidden until bonds of connection begin to form. While other fears scream loudly, evident to pursuers during the early stages of connection. The twelve missed phone calls while you were in the shower is a hint that a partner suffers from underlying relationship fears. The subtle cues and desperate clinging invite givers and abusers into the shaky relationship bonds prevalent with fear of abandonment.
Givers Attracted to Insecure Partners
Givers are attracted to needy partners. In the dawning moments, the giver finds pleasure in giving, hoping to cure the debilitating illness. The givers desire to heal—giving provides them purpose. The patient giving may provide exactly what is needed. But sometimes the black hole of need sucks the life out of the giver; their giving is insufficient, the hurt refuses to heal and the needs begin to overwhelm. Both the insecure partner and the giver feel dissatisfied and the relationship begins to unravel. Neither partner is inherently evil, but both feel victimized. The relationship failed to provide the attachment needs for both.
"But sometimes the black hole of need sucks the life out of the giver; their giving is insufficient, the hurt refuses to heal and the needs begin to overwhelm."
Abusers Attracted to Insecure Partners
Another common relationship for the insecure is with the abuser. The insecure stumble into harmful relationships more often than the secure. Sometimes stupid luck or more likely the design of a manipulative other seeking someone to exploit. The manipulator feasts on the insecurities, skillfully using them, escalating the trauma by extracting life out of the present. The manipulators are sick too; but the smugness of their brutality seldom solicits compassion.
The manipulators’ hurtful behaviors evolve from their brutal or neglected pasts. A young child doesn’t simply decide to be isolated and mean. But for a host of biological and social reasons, the child becomes a tyrant willing to hurt.
The painful collision between the insecure and the narcissist happens often; the insecure finds momentary salvation in the brazen confidence and quickly commits to the tortuous future. Domestic Violence occasionally accompanies these volatile relationships.
The adaptive responses for both partners is a lethal cocktail for violence. Normal disengagement during emotionally heated conflict is abhorred, spiking fears. John M. Gottman, a William Mifflin Professor of Psychology at the University of Washington in Seattle and world-renowned expert for his work on marital stability taught that "physically violent couples had no ritual for withdrawing from conflict when one of them was flooded." Gottman continues describing the emotional difficulty for these couples to disengage, "often the break seemed like abandonment to one or both of them, so they stayed with each other, interminably arguing while flooded, a context that is a high risk for violence" (2011, Kindle location 2344).
Those most in need of stability stumble into the most volatile relationships. Their need to continue with childhood programming is solidified in adulthood by choosing partners that reflect inner trauma. The adaptive behavior makes sense in these relationships, providing measured rewards of safety while living in danger. Trust serves no purpose here. fears of abandonment and danger are appropriate.
Books on Fear of Abandonment
The Fear of Abandonment and New Relationships
New relationships deceive, temporarily blinding lovers with powerful feelings—childhood fears subside; often providing the momentary paradise of a loving relationship. But patterned responses stubbornly remain, patiently waiting for vulnerability before their triumphant return. When fear resurfaces, the momentarily security that was enjoyed magnifies the panic of pending doom. A great fear the joy may be lost. Fear and love are not healthy traveling companions. Fear drives manipulations; love invites kindness. The closeness enhances beauty or unleashes demons from the past fearing.
Even in these relationships there is hope, trust can still be forged. Outside professional help may be required; but with patience and love, two dedicated partners can work through the demons and experience the joys of intimacy.
Even with chaotic beginnings, intimacy is possible. Understanding our propensity for fear—making the unconscious conscious—loosens the grip of these emotions. With recognition of the bubbling emotions, we can confront them. Feelings of insecurity often persist for years; perhaps a lifetime. But by recognizing the fear, compassionately holding it, we free ourselves from unconscious influences; by sharing these fears with openness, we can enlist a giving partner’s help in managing them.
By facing our fear, no longer manipulating a partner’s succor, but gently summoning help, together with a loving partner, we can sooth the resurfacing intense emotions associated with fear of abandonment. As we do so, we build the foundation of trust necessary to enjoy intimacy and feel security (at last).
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Bowlby, J. (1976). Separation: Anxiety And Anger (Basic Books Classics,) Volume 2. Basic Books; 1st edition
Fristcher, L. (2020). Understanding Fear of Abandonment. Very Well Mind. Published 6-15-2020. Retrieved 2-20-2021.
Goleman, D. (2007). Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships. Bantam; Illustrated edition.
Gottman, J. S. (2011). The Science of Trust: Emotional Attunement for Couples. W. W. Norton & Company; Illustrated edition
Hazen, C., Shaver, P. R. (2004) Reading 9: Attachment as an Organizational Research on Close Relationships. Harry T. Reis (eds.) Close Relationships (Key Readings in Social Psychology). Routledge; 1st edition
Heller, L., LaPierre, A. (2012). Healing Developmental Trauma: How Early Trauma Affects Self-Regulation, Self-Image, and the Capacity for Relationship. North Atlantic Books; Illustrated edition
Kahn, E. (2004). Habitual failure: A childhood adaptation to the threat of abandonment. Clinical Social Work Journal, 17(1), 50-63.
Ledgerwood, D. (2004). Suicide and Attachment: Fear of Abandonment and Isolation from a Developmental Perspective. Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy, 29(1), 65-73.
Maté. G. (2011). When the Body Says No: Understanding the Stress-Disease Connection. Wiley; 1st edition
Richman, J. (1986). Family Therapy for Suicidal People. Springer Pub Co.
Siegel, D. J. (2020). The Developing Mind, Third Edition: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are. The Guilford Press; Third edition.