Fear of abandonment: Many adults have fears that the people closest to them will leave. There’s something very human about having a good thing and not wanting it to go away. However, if your fears around being left become chronic, the fears themselves can create what you’re most afraid of. The fears can alienate lovers and friends, because they persist despite evidence to their contrary. Lovers may become tired of providing so much validation, only to find that you’re still displaying high-levels of relationship insecurity. Friends may find your behaviors confusing, or interpret them as demanding when you’re expecting constant inclusion, or immediate text message responses.
Fear of Abandonment in Friendship
Ally sees her closest friends several times a month for dinner or coffee. Her friends express interest in her life, and have provided emotional support during rough transitions, such as Ally losing her job last year. Despite the care her friends provide, Ally frequently questions if they care about her and wonders if they will stop answering her phone calls. Ally feels consistently insecure about where she stands in her close friendships. If Ally’s friends don’t respond to her text messages right away, Ally is consumed with the fear that her friends have left her. Ally often texts her friends 3-4 times in a row to try and coax a faster response from them to curb her anxiety and fear of abandonment. Friends find this behavior puzzling, and slightly annoying, which pushes them away from Ally and confirms her fears that she will be left, or alienated. The distancing by friends sends Ally into an increasingly desperate state of mind, and she feels helpless, hopeless and alone.
Fear of Abandonment in Partnership
George and Steve have been dating for 2 years. They get along well, share similar interests and enjoy being social with friends. George comes from a family where love was given freely and parents were available to meet his emotional needs in times of stress. He feels relaxed within his adult relationships and confident he can self-soothe when times get tough. Steve’s history is more complicated having been in a family where love needed to be earned through good behavior and academic success. As a young person, Steve was never sure if support would be given or withheld from him. Steve often felt like he was “too much” for his parents and kept his emotions hidden, often suffering in silence. George is open and verbal about his love for Steve and his desire to get married in the upcoming years. However, when George goes away for business, Steve becomes emotionally distraught and calls him excessively, interrupting meetings and meals with potential clients. Last time George took a trip, Steve accused him of cheating and was convinced that George was planning to leave him. George feels powerless to relieve Steve’s insecurities in their relationship and he’s wondering if the partnership can be maintained.
Everyone has desires for reassurance in close relationships, especially in times of transition and vulnerability. But abandonment fears are stubborn and may not be resolved by a lover or friend reminding you that you’re loved and cared for. Abandonment fears usually have roots in childhood loss, the loss being from the death of a loved one, or a lack of physical and/or emotional care from living caregivers. The absence of emotional care in childhood can result in difficulty self-soothing as an adult. We learn how to soothe ourselves from how the adults in our lives helped to soothe us in childhood.
As a young child, Casey was fearful of thunderstorms. When storms rolled in, Casey would tearfully come into her parent’s bedroom and ask to sleep with them for comfort. In response to Casey’s fear, her Mother walked her back to her room and sat with her until she was able to calm down. Casey’s Mother often sang, played with Casey’s hair and told her sweet stories in efforts to reduce Casey’s fear and helped her to feel safe in her own room. Casey’s Mother taught her that it’s important to be gentle with herself in times of stress. As Casey grew older, she learned that music and stories still helped her to feel safe and secure, and reached for a peaceful melody, or a good book when she became stressed or overwhelmed. Casey learned how to self-soothe from reliable caregiving. She also learned that she can rely on others for support when she needs to.
Children cannot handle big emotions on their own, and require guidance and support from an adult caregiver in order to not become overwhelmed or overtaken by feeling. When young people are left (abandoned) with feelings they cannot make sense of on their own, they become fearful and unequipped to independently manage their emotions as life progresses. Children need a helping hand to process difficult emotions in a safe way. When children are emotionally unsupported in childhood, they experience terror, panic and powerlessness because they don’t yet have the resources needed to take care of themselves. The lack of caregiver attention to their emotions feels life-threatening, leaving them overwhelmed and out of control. Children that are left with unmanageable feelings don’t learn how to move through their emotional experiences in a way that prepares them for adulthood.
Past and Present Meet
In adulthood, when we text our lovers incessantly and ask for reassurance, we are trying to guarantee our partner’s presence in our lives, so that we don’t have to re-experience the terror, panic or loneliness of being left with feelings that we don’t yet have the resources to manage on our own. We are trying to avoid the childhood panic of being left with intolerable feelings. Distance, or perceived distance from friends and lovers feels familiarly life-threatening because we don’t yet have the skills and resources to manage the experience. We may come to rely too heavily on our partner to “plug up the dam” and prevent emotional overspill. It’s no wonder we fear abandonment and desire excessive reassurance. These experiences are deeply painful and confusing. The true interplay of past and present is exemplified in abandonment fears.
The absence of emotional support in children leaves a symbolic hole in the heart of adults suffering from abandonment fears. As suffering adults, it makes sense to want to get that hole patched up from outside sources, like external validation and reassurance from friends and lovers. A deep and seemingly intolerable loneliness is often wrapped up in the fear of abandonment. Many would do anything to avoid facing that darkness. Awareness is the first step in healing abandonment wounds and making sense of your neediness, insecurity and anxiety around close relationships. Fear of abandonment starts in childhood, but as adults, we can develop the resources needed to take good care of ourselves and soothe our deepest anxieties. Healing the fear of abandonment improves the relationship with yourself and others.