Abandonment issues refer to a deeply held fear or belief that you will lose a loved one. While losing those close to us is a natural part of life, and for which there are several reasons, people with abandonment issues experience frequent worry, stress, and anxiety about the potential loss of someone they love, whether through death, the loss of a relationship, or neglect.
Abandonment issues are common, but that doesn’t make them any less painful. The affected person usually knows that their fears and worries are not always rational, but this only adds to the difficulty of the fear of abandonment. A person might feel obsessive, clingy, or that they’re “going crazy”.
What Causes Abandonment Issues and Abandonment Anxiety?
Abandonment issues typically begin in childhood. If they remain unresolved, they can impact our social life, romantic relationships, and self-esteem throughout our adolescent and adult years.
Often, a child who has experienced a traumatic loss, such as the death of a parent, or other family member, parental separation or divorce, or living with a mentally ill parent, will develop a deep fear of being abandoned. These are known as Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), and have a significant impact on our psychosocial development.
What are Adverse Childhood Experiences?
ACE’s have a significant impact on our health and well-being as we enter adolescence and adulthood. The original landmark study on adverse childhood experiences was carried out in the 1990s by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Kaiser Permanente.
MD AT Kaiser Permanente Vincent J. Felitti was leading a weight loss program for obesity and noticed a high dropout rate. What confused Felitti was that the drop-outs had been doing well in the program.
After some investigation, he and his colleagues learned that the weight loss that participants were trying to achieve had uncovered some childhood trauma, which they had tried to cope with through their disordered eating habits.
The researchers investigated further and found that exposure to adverse experiences in childhood significantly increased a person’s likelihood of health complications in adulthood, such as obesity, cardiovascular issues, mental health issues, and substance use disorders.
Abandonment and Attachment Styles
If in your early childhood, your parents or primary caregiver responded to your needs with warmth, compassion, and perhaps most importantly, consistency, you likely developed a secure attachment style.
Secure attachment is one of four recognized and established attachment styles, theorized by developmental psychologists John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth in the mid-20th century.
Secure attachment is the ideal attachment style and makes it likely that a child will have trusting, healthy relationships, as they grow older.
If, however, your parents were harsh, cold, neglectful, abusive, or inconsistent with meeting your needs, you may have developed an insecure attachment style. Abandonment issues most often stem from an insecure attachment style.
What is Insecure Attachment?
The three insecure attachment styles are:
The avoidant attachment style is characterized by pushing and keeping others away to avoid vulnerability, which could lead to rejection or betrayal, both of which would be emotionally overwhelming and challenge the person’s ability to cope.
People with an avoidant attachment style may appear withdrawn, cold, and distant. They are reluctant to commit and tend to avoid confrontation and conflict by shutting down or even leaving a partner. Their behavior serves as a maladaptive means of preventing emotional abandonment.
The anxious attachment style is characterized by neediness, clinginess, and other obsessive behavior patterns. This person may find it difficult to maintain their independence in a relationship, losing their sense of self and becoming completely fascinated by and absorbed in their partner’s life.
Conflict and even healthy space may signal to the person with an anxious attachment that their partner is going to stop loving them or leave them. Their attempt to stay connected and close to their partner is their means of avoiding emotional abandonment.
The disorganized attachment style is perhaps the most complex of the attachment styles. It is characterized by a need for, yet a discomfort with, intimacy and closeness.
People with a disorganized attachment style display inconsistent behaviors in their relationships, which reflects the inconsistency of care and support they received from their caregivers in their early childhood.
What are the Signs and Symptoms of Abandonment Issues?
Experiencing abandonment issues is not in itself a mental health condition, but may indicate an underlying condition such as anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or ruptured attachment.
Since abandonment issues typically begin in childhood and may stem from ACEs, they may indicate the presence of complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD).
If you have abandonment issues, you may notice that you experience difficulties in your relationships. It can be hard to open up and vulnerable with others because you fear that showing your true self will lead to rejection or abandonment.
If you believe you or a loved one is struggling with abandonment issues, consider the following signs and symptoms:
- People-pleasing (‘fawning’)
- Difficulty trusting others
- Pushing people away to avoid rejection or abandonment
- Losing yourself in relationships
- Deep feelings of insecurity with romantic partners
- Needing constant reassurance
- Wanting or needing to control others
- Staying in clearly abusive or unhealthy relationships
- Difficulty forming and maintaining healthy relationships
- Difficulty with emotional intimacy and vulnerability
People who experienced abandonment issues in childhood or deal with abandonment issues in adulthood may subconsciously seek out unhealthy partners.
This stems from the idea that the nervous system, which stores the memory of the traumatic experience, looks for opportunities to discharge its emotional baggage through situations that resemble the past.
When the unhealthy partner eventually hurts, the individual’s fear of abandonment and rejection is reinforced, and they will find it even harder in the future to trust and be vulnerable with others. Their ability to form healthy relationships is compromised because of their past hurtful or traumatic experiences.
Signs of Abandonment Fears in Young Children
Abandonment trauma in childhood leads to a fear of abandonment and negative physical and mental health outcomes in adulthood. As such, children must receive adequate care and support if they have experienced abandonment.
The first step in helping a child overcome their abandonment trauma and prevent or reduce the severity of later health consequences is to learn to recognize the signs of abandonment.
Some fear or worry about being left alone by a caregiver, known as separation anxiety, is normal in children. It is a natural part of a child’s development and is most often seen during infancy and the toddler years. Typically, separation anxiety begins to dissipate by age 3, according to Stanford Children’s Health.
The problem occurs when separation anxiety persists beyond 3 years of age. If symptoms of abandonment persist and are severe, the child must receive compassionate and attuned professional support. Fear of abandonment can manifest as the following symptoms in children:
- Expressing frequent concern about being abandoned
- Crying or screaming excessively when left alone by a caregiver, such as at school or daycare
- Clinginess to a parent or caregiver
- Fear of being alone, such as bedtime
- Medically unexplainable illness
- Low self-esteem
- Low self-confidence
- Isolation from others
- Reluctance to explore
How to Support a Child with Abandonment Issues
Once you have learned to recognize the signs of symptoms of abandonment issues in children, you can help them cope by:
- Seeking help from mental health professionals
- Offering compassionate support, validation, and reassurance
- Offer security and predictability – if a child learns that you are predictable, and observes that you leaving does not mean that you are gone forever, they are more likely to overcome their issues
- Encourage them to express how they feel, and don’t judge or harshly criticize any feeling they express
How to Support an Adult with Abandonment Issues
If a loved one has abandonment issues, it can be hard to know what to do to help. We can tell our loved ones how much we love them, but the roots of abandonment are deep and it can be hard to get your love and support through. Fear of abandonment may cloud your loved one’s ability to hear what you’re trying to tell them.
Take Space if you Need it
Moreover, having to constantly reassure someone that you care for them and that you’re not going to abandon them can be emotionally taxing and exhausting, and may even make you want to end the relationship.
That’s perfectly fine; other people’s issues are not yours to take on, and if someone’s behavior is too much for you to handle and still maintain your health and well-being, you are entitled to take all the space you need.
Amid an emotionally charged conversation about your friend or partner’s issues, know that you can take a break if necessary. Sometimes this type of conversation can go around in circles, as the person gets lost in the throes of their anxiety or rumination. If this happens, let the other person know that you care and that you’re listening, but that it might be helpful to have a break from the conversation and take a breather.
If you do need a break, remain sensitive to your friend or partner’s abandonment issues by letting them know where you’re going and when you’ll return. On your return, avoid diving straight into the emotional depths. Begin lightly, and gently work your way back to the issue.
Offer Compassionate Support and Validation
Validation in relationships cultivates trust. If you want to effectively support your loved one with a fear of abandonment, offer validation by acknowledging their fears and anxieties without judgment or bias. If you can demonstrate compassionate and empathic understanding, you will keep the quality of communication high.
You don’t have to agree with someone to validate them. Even if you hold a different perspective or opinion, you can still support their feelings and build trust in the process.
If you want to offer support and validation, try the following:
Be fully there with your loved one when they talk about their concerns.
After listening with presence, sum up what you’ve heard and reflect it back to your loved one to make sure you’re both on the same page.
Understand your loved one’s history and acknowledge how difficult their experience has been.
Attachment and abandonment issues are common, and others who have similar past experiences would feel the same as your partner. Let them know that they are not alone in their experience.
What Can I do if I Have Abandonment Issues?
If you are struggling with abandonment issues, the good news is that there are some helpful steps you can take by yourself to prevent your issues from taking over your life.
Fear of abandonment can permeate into all aspects of your life, and demotivate you from maintaining your health and well-being. To prevent that from happening, or to recover if that has already happened, try the following:
Self-care, when you have abandonment issues, looks like being mindful of your behavior and the relationships you allow you in your life. It’s important to understand your triggers and set healthy boundaries around your emotional baggage to prevent you from becoming overwhelmed and projecting your fears and anxieties onto your partner.
Exercise, nutrition, and connecting with others are great ways to keep your mental health in check and prevent your issues from getting in the way of your life. Still, abandonment issues are deep, and sometimes you may need some extra help.
Therapy is the best treatment for abandonment issues. Self-help or helping others process and overcome their past can only go so far. We might want to save or fix our friends’ or partners’ issues, but dealing with someone else’s emotional turmoil, especially that which stems from trauma, can put our own mental well-being at risk.
An attuned and compassionate therapist can support you or your loved one through a trauma-informed exploration of their abandonment-related experiences and memories.
A therapist can help you address the root causes of your fear of abandonment, increase your distress tolerance and emotional resilience, and offer helpful tools and techniques for coping and self-management when faced with abandonment triggers.
They can help you identify negative or unproductive thought patterns and deeply held beliefs, and in their place cultivate a healthier and more realistic outlook.
In therapy, people also get the chance to grieve for their losses, such as the parent who died or left, or the deterioration of their own mental health, which ultimately helps people process and mitigate the severity of the fear of abandonment.
Furthermore, a therapist can help you set healthy boundaries. People with abandonment issues tend towards ‘fawning’ (people-pleasing) behaviors and codependency in a relationship, which can make the end of a relationship heart-wrenchingly painful.
Boundaries help you form and maintain appropriate and healthy long-term relationships by preventing you from allowing maladaptive, toxic behavior patterns to affect your personal and relationship health.
A therapist may also help you overcome your abandonment fears by addressing your anxiety. If you exhibit the criteria for an anxiety disorder as outlined in DSM-V, they may advise you to take a short course of anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) medications.
These medications are an evidence-based treatment for anxiety and related conditions and may help you reduce the severity of your anxiety symptoms long enough to promote positive outcomes in traditional talk-based therapy.
Abandonment Issues Quotes
Below are some quotes about abandonment issues:
“The person whom you really, really love may not be here anymore. And you might be feeling lonely, but, there are people in this world who really, really love you, so shouldn’t that equal it all out? So, please don’t ever think that you’re alone. I’ll be watching over you. I’ll always be watching over you. I promise to always watch over you. You’re not alone.”― Yuuki Obata, We Were There
“There must be different kinds of loneliness, or at least different degrees of loneliness, but the most terrifying loneliness is not experienced by everyone and can be understood by only a few. I compare the panic in this kind of loneliness to the dog we see running frantically down the road pursuing the family car. He is not really being left behind, for the family knows it is to return, but for that moment in his limited understanding, he is being left alone forever, and he has to run and run to survive. It is no wonder that we make terrible choices in our lives to avoid loneliness.”― Charles M. Schulz, You Don’t Look 35, Charlie Brown!
“Some people might leave you,’ he said, for once ignoring a joke in favor of something real. ‘But it doesn’t mean you’re worth leaving. It doesn’t mean that at all.”― Veronica Roth, Summer Days and Summer Nights: Twelve Love Stories
“A generous heart is always open, always ready to receive our going and coming. In the midst of such love we need never fear abandonment. This is the most precious gift true love offers – the experience of knowing we always belong.”― Bell Hooks, All About Love: New Visions