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Fear of Abandonment

A Self-Sabotaging Phobia

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Updated January 31, 2013

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Although it is not an official phobia, the fear of abandonment is arguably one of the most common and most damaging "phobias" of all. People with the fear of abandonment may tend to display compulsive behaviors and thought patterns that sabotage their relationships, ultimately leading to the dreaded abandonment. This fear can be devastating, but understanding it is the first step toward resolving it.

Fear of abandonment is a complex psychological phenomenon. It has been understood from a variety of perspectives. It is even a core symptom of borderline personality disorder. Here are some theories, models and scenarios that I have personally found useful in understanding and trying to be helpful to people struggling with fears 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 an adaptation of 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 three. As children grow and mature, the periods of separation lengthen and are often generated by the child as he 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 the development of 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 dedicated 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 all internalized certain archetypes and stories and made them part of our shared world view.

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 phobias 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 the death of a loved one. Friends move away. Relationships break up. Transitions occur when high school or college ends, people start getting married and new babies take priority. Although most of us adapt to changing circumstances, it is not uncommon to get stuck somewhere in the grief process. 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.

Effects on Relationships

The fear of abandonment is highly personalized. Some people are afraid solely of losing a romantic partner. Others fear suddenly finding themselves completely alone. Either way, I have found that people with a fear of abandonment often follow one of a few basic patterns.

Before we take a look at the patterns for those with a fear of abandonment, let's look at the way I think a typical relationship may evolve. It is especially true for romantic relationships, but there are many similarities in close friendships as well.

1. Getting to Know Each Other - 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 or unreturned phone call, or a request for a few days of alone time.

What Happens Next

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 his love by jumping through hoops outlined by the fearful partner. 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. As mentioned, people are simply people, and sometimes they do things that their partners do not understand. In a healthy relationship, the slight may or may not even be acknowledged as such. The partner may simply recognize it for what it is, a normal reaction that has little or nothing to do with the relationship. Or he may feel slighted, but address it with either a calm discussion or a brief argument. Either way, a single slight is not promoted to dominating importance in determining the partner's feelings.

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 the partner does not suffer from a fear of abandonment, he probably does not have the slightest idea 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 inconsolability could drive your partner away, ironically leading to the conclusion that you fear most.

Coping With the Fear of Abandonment

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 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.

Sources:

American Psychiatric Association. (1994). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th Ed.). Washington, DC: Author.

Sonoma State University. Object Relations Theory. Retrieved January 29, 2013 from http://www.sonoma.edu/users/d/daniels/objectrelations.html

College of New Rochelle. The Jungian Approach to Symbolic Interpretation. Retrieved January 29, 2013 from http://www2.cnr.edu/home/bmcmanus/approach.html

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