The Subtle Nature of a Fear of Abandonment

Marriage Counseling Insights From Westlake Village-Based Patricia McTague-Loft

You don’t have to be a psychotherapist to understand that childhood events can affect you as an adult. It gets trickier, though, when you try to figure out exactly what happened in childhood and exactly how that has lifelong effects. How you relate to a romantic partner is one area in which childhood upbringing is fundamentally important and relates to attachment styles.

An anxious young woman

I’ve been exploring the topic of attachment styles to shed some light on this interesting subject. Basically, there are four accepted attachment styles — ways that we bond with another, especially a romantic partner — that we develop based on how we were treated as children. Although different psychologists use slightly different terminology, the four styles are often referred to as:

  • Secure
  • Anxious
  • Avoidant
  • Fearful-avoidant

In a revealing article for Psychology Today, Annie Tanasugarn, Ph.D. focuses on a fear of abandonment being rooted in an insecure attachment style (which includes the latter three styles above). “Many with fears of abandonment also have an insecure attachment style,” says Tanasugarn, “where they may become anxious, avoidant, or vacillate between both extremes, especially when their fears surface. Situations in childhood where a child cannot consistently rely on their caregivers for emotional or physical support or in getting their basic needs met often result in an insecure attachment style and a subsequent fear of abandonment.”

In an adult romantic relationship, an insecure attachment style often leads to a person appearing to be “clingy” or “needy,” to put it in everyday terms. That’s behavior that doesn’t require a clinical description to understand, and most people intuitively see it as a yellow or even red flag when they’re deciding whether or not to develop or deepen a relationship.

There are other ways as well where a fear of abandonment is manifested in a romantic relationship. Tanasugarn describes five of them.

Difficulty Letting Others In. With a little self-reflection, this pattern of behavior simply makes sense. If a person was deeply hurt as a child because their parents neglected them, they learn to be defensive to avoid being further hurt. “Many who have experienced abandonment in their formative years have built up emotional walls to keep others out,” Tanasugarn says. They have learned that vulnerability leads to further abandonment.”

Forming Quick “Attachments.”Attaching” is a nuanced term, and many of the nuances are negative. What you really want in a relationship is connection, and that’s not the same as attachment. It’s easier to try to quickly attach — by revealing too many intimate details too quickly, for example — than it is to form a deep and meaningful connection.

History of Leaving Relationships. Sad as it is to say, the easiest way not to be hurt by someone abandoning you is to be the one to cut off a relationship first.

Unavailable Partners. Tanasugarn homes in on one type of unavailability in particular: emotional unavailability. “Focusing on the challenge of winning over an emotionally detached partner operates as a distraction from the person’s own deep wounds and fears,” she says. “For many who find themselves in this pattern, it is often instinctively ‘safer’ to pursue someone who cannot provide them the emotional connection and intimacy they are deserving of, which negatively reinforces this pattern of ‘chasing’ people who are unavailable.”

Fragile Self-Identity. A more subtle and complex response to a fear of abandonment is the lack of development of a strong self-identity. Sometimes people try to form a relationship by adopting another’s identity — a probably unconscious belief that their partner will like them more if they are exactly like them. Tanasugarn describes this by saying, “Many with a fragile sense of self take on the mannerisms, beliefs, thoughts, feelings, opinions, and behavior of those closest to them in an attempt to minimize fears of abandonment. This results in not knowing who they are outside of a relationship, and ‘changing’ who they are (their likes/dislikes, values, hobbies, interests) from one relationship to the next, depending on what their partner likes.”

To delve further into the fear of abandonment, read Tanasugarn’s article here.