Monday, May 14, 2007

“Fear of Abandonment” – a Daunting and Challenging Emotion

It is amazing how pervasive, stifling and troubling fear of abandonment can be in ones life. As Rhonda Findling pointedly says in her eNotAlone article, “To be abandoned as a child is to die. A child cannot survive without the nurturing of adults -- depending on our individual histories, that fear remains within us to some degree… As adults, if we are abandoned by someone to whom we look for love and support, childhood fear of abandonment is triggered.”

In the beginning of my newest novel, If Ever Again… It’ll be for Love, Diane struggles with numerous recurring early childhood issues and more-recent-yet-related post-divorce issues. The one that is most challenging for her, especially after she meets and starts seeing Michael, is her fear of abandonment.

One of the two, companion self-help books I currently am working on, My Adult Loving Relationships, addresses many relationship fears with which many people struggle. The following is what I have drafted thus far regarding the daunting and challenging emotion, “fear of abandonment.”

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Fear of Abandonment

Fear that we will eventually be abandoned by another person can make the establishment of a meaningful and intimate relationship with another person extremely difficult. For example, I recall working with Angie, a 32 year-old hostess at a local restaurant. During our first session, Angie said to me, “For some reason I have always had difficulties really feeling close to, and getting close to, the men in my life. In the last five years, I have had over a dozen boyfriends and was engaged twice.” As time went on, some of Angie’s fears of abandonment became more evident to her. For example, she said, “I really felt close to my father when I was a freshman in college. Then he divorced my mother and within six months remarried. He moved to California and my contact with him became less and less. During that same period of time, my boyfriend, who I was hoping to marry, graduated and joined the military. I never saw him again. And, as I have already told you, three years ago my mother died.” In a nut shell, Angie’s experiences in life taught her that “every time I have a close and intimate relationship with someone, they leave me. I am left behind.” I recall saying to her, “Given your experiences, Angie, what you are telling me makes sense. And, you fear the risk of having another intimate relationship with someone because you know how painful it can be if it doesn’t last.” As we continued to work on Angie’s fear of abandonment, she found herself becoming more comfortable with other people – especially those with whom she wanted to enjoy an intimate relationship.

Toward the end of one of our sessions, I said to Angie, “Isn’t it interesting how many times in life those things that we want the most are simultaneously those things that we fear the most.” She replied, “That certainly has been true for me. Once you get the thing in life that you want the most, you have to constantly live with the fear of losing it.” An individual’s fear of abandonment can appear to be very real and gut wrenching at times. Unfortunately, fear of abandonment can limit or even preclude an individual from having and enjoying adult loving relationships. Everyone has some level of fear of abandonment – it makes sense to assume that there is always a probability that our loved one could leave us or die. Nonetheless, when our fear of abandonment becomes a dysfunctional aspect of our life – that is, it prevents us and precludes us from establishing and maintaining adult loving relationships – that is when our fear of abandonment can become significantly problematic.

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Question: Have you or anyone close to you ever struggled with fear of abandonment?

Bill

10 comments:

Maconole said...

I don't remember having fear of abandonment issues myself in previous relationships. Not saying I didn't have them, I just don't remember having them. However, I remember a couple times in college when girlfriends seemed to have these issues. They seemed to always say things like "I don't want you to go to that party - you might meet some other girl" or other things like that. It seemed to morph into insecurity and resulted in them never wanting to be apart. They would ultimately cling so much that I had no room to breathe. As a result, their fear of my leaving them is what made me leave.

Dr. Bill Emener said...

Hello Maconole,
Thanks for sharing and offering excellent insights (as usual).
One of the aspects of your experience is very intriguing -- the reinforcement theory piece. When the young lady acted paranoid and clingy and you could not stop her from doing it, you obviously did what was reasonable -- you ended the relationship. Unfortunately, instead of appreciating that you ended the relationship because of her clinging and overbearing behavior, she very well may have said to herself, "See... I knew he'd leave me." This, in turn, reinforced her preconceived fears. Sad isn't it!
Thanks again... hope you come back and visit often,
Bill

Mostly Happy Thoughts said...

hi Bill,

I know I have abandonment issues. When I was 10 my mom sat my sibblings and I down and said she was leaving and left us that same day. She moved close by, but it was all very confusing. Nobody every talked about it again- why she left or how we were with it or anything like that. My mom was the person I was the closest to. A year later my dad left us and had my mother move back in. During the time that my dad was with us he did not really care for us- my older sister cleaned and cooked and did everything. I often think my sister was a better parent to us than my parents ever were, which is probably why we are so close now. After my father left he went through a string of girlfriends and never made any effort to spend any time with us. Every single one of my romantic relationships has been affected by the dysfunction I experienced growing up. I think that I have gotten away from being needy and clingy and insecure as I am aware that it is a self-fullfilling prephecy and does more harm than good. I feel that through therapy and positive life events I have become more confident and have learned (and I am still learning) what is a healthy relationship. It is very hard to know what is normal and healthy when my role models were anything but. I still struggle at 35. I find my biggest issue is that as soon as there is a problem or a fight I am ready to leave. I really just don't deal well with conflict at all. In most of my relationships I was the one to leave... always leave before I was left as a defence mechanism I suppose.... I live always thinking I am somehow constantly averting some kind of disaster.

Cheers,

Angela

Dr. Bill Emener said...

Hello Angela,
Thank you for sharing your incredible experience... incredible not only because your childhood had such horrific parts to it, but that you have worked through many of the residuals and have meaningfully improved your live in spite of it.
As I was reading your Comment, two thoughts quickly emerged: (1) my heart went out to you -- you indeed have had some unbelievable experiences; and (2) when I was doing therapy with people who had experiences similar to yours, I always attended to their fears that I would abandon them.
You indeed have come a long way,Angela! Keep going... when such fears abate, life (and relationships... with the right person of course) can be a beautiful thing!
With an Internet hug going out to you,
Bill

Anonymous said...

Dr. Bill,

My father left my mom for the baby sitter when I was six. I was still baby sitted by her after because my mom was a nurse and needed to work. I remember loving my dad the most and hated coming home to my mom. Even though his new girlfriend treated me badly I wanted to be there because he was there. He died when I was eight. I was numb for a while then I just sucked it up and dealt with it. I am now in a wonderful relationship. He treats me great and he travels sometimes. If he leaves me for even two days I fight with him. He was married for a year and I torture him with question after question of why did he get married. I'm struggling with this.

Dr. Bill Emener said...

Hello Anonymous,
Thank you for sharing your experience with “abandonment” – you no doubt have felt the pain and fear that can be associated with that phenomenon. As you discuss, it also can be a significant issue in current and future relationships. And, unfortunately, sometimes it doesn’t just go away or get better by itself. As you may know, I was a psychologist for 33 years, and in my private practice helped many people address this daunting and at times plaguing aspect of life. Whet I would like to suggest is that you address this with a licensed therapist (psychologist, counselor, social worker, etc.) and work with him or her in getting it straightened out within you so that it doesn’t continue to bother and distress you. It may take some work on your behalf and it may not be easy or comfortable… but is successful, well worth it!
With all best wishes and regards,
Bill

Anonymous said...

Well here’s my story. My father and mother separated when I was three. My mother left me behind with my dad. My dad is a really great person and he made the best of the situation. I have vague memories of that being a happy time for me. My father promptly met and moved in with a woman whose husband had died. She had two children. I spent time going back and forth between his home and my mother’s. I didn’t get along with my dad’s new wife or her daughter. I’m assuming I was miserable and hard to deal with and consequently his wife never did like me.

My mother started and ended many relationships. I’m sure she had her own abandonment issues. When I was eleven I spent time at my dad’s at Christmas and when he tried to “return” me she left the apartment and said she wasn’t coming back, so he better come back for me. To make a long story short, she did not want me to live with her and my dad’s wife did not want me to live with them, so I ended up with a kind aunt that gave me refuge. Eventually my mom asked me to come back and live with her and her husband, so I went back because I felt too guilty to stay at my Aunt’s where I felt safe. The following years I spent taking care of two raging, fighting alcoholics. Finally they cheated on each other and broke up in a nasty violent split. I lived with mom of course, who couldn’t deal with me as a teenager and threw me out of the house repeatedly, mostly for talking back. I had obviously lost all respect for her by this point.

Now I’ve been in a relationship for twelve years, with a man who to this point has refused to leave me. I know that I sabotage our relationship and try to end it repeatedly even though I know in my heart I don’t want to be without him. So I go back and forth between the need to see him gone, to extreme fear that he will leave. I’m inconsolably jealous which taxes his spirit. We have two children. I do not want to pass this to them. We can’t afford therapy and I’m pretty sure health care doesn’t cover it. I just know that if I continue on this path I will ruin everything and get what I seem to want.

Oh and of course I’m overweight and eating myself to obesity. Today was the first time that I realized that my fear of abandonment is causing my issues with eating. HELP! Getting rid of these destructive feelings feels like cutting off my right arm. They are embedded in my brain!!

Dr. Bill Emener said...

Hello Anonymous,

I am saddened to hear your story – not feeling “grounded,” “loved unconditionally,” or “having a safe and secure home” indeed is very difficult to feel as a child. And not feeling wanted… ouch!

One of the issues I frequently have discussed is what I refer to as “the comfort of familiarity.” Being abandoned and not wanted is what you experienced (and may even have not felt worthy of being wanted?)… thus, for you to sabotage relationships makes sense. (Letting yourself go (moving toward obesity) is also a form of commitment phobia – if he leaves me, I’ll know what to blame it on. Clearly, you could use some assistance from a professional counselor – there’s no quick fix, but if you honestly work with someone in therapy you certainly have an opportunity to live the good life you want to live. To wit, I strongly encourage you to talk with someone (psychologist, counselor, social worker, etc.).

I wish you well… and again, I really suggest that you talk with someone.

Bill

Daethian said...

In the throes of a 24 hour near emotional meltdown I have come to the realization that I have a fear of abandonment. I knew before that I was experiencing irrational fear but I never put a label on it. Being aware of the irrationality of it has not made it easier to overcome.

Dr. Bill Emener said...

Hello Daethian,
I appreciate your sharing your experience... as difficult as it appears to have been and may still be. This is not an easy issue to self-fix. It's like trying to put stitches in your own right hand and being right-handed. Seeing a professional counselor, psychologist, etc., indeed would be beneficial.
Hopefully one day you will return with good news! Hang in there (and do something about it.)
With all best wishes and regards,
Bill