NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Monday, August 29, 2016

Fear of Abandonment Can Occur Even in a Healthy, Stable Relationship

In prior articles, I've discussed fear of abandonment in various contexts, including fear of being abandoned in therapy (see my articles:  Old Abandonment Issues Can Get Triggered During Your Therapist's Time Away From the Office and Overcoming Fear of Abandonment).  In this article, I'm focusing on the fear of being abandoned, which can occur even in a healthy, stable relationship.

Fear of Abandonment Can Occur Even in a Healthy, Stable Relationship

Fear of being abandoned in a relationship is usually associated with on-again, off-again chaotic relationships (see my article: The Heartbreak of the On-Again, Off-Again Relationship).

But many people, who are in healthy, stable relationships, also have fears of being abandoned--even when there are no signs that a spouse of partner has any intention of abandoning them in any way.

This fear often stems from early childhood experiences of feeling abandoned, whether it was a physical or an emotional abandonment (see my article: Overcoming Unresolved Childhood Trauma).

People who fear being abandoned when they're in a healthy, stable relationship often feel ashamed, guilty or confused about their fear because they're aware, on some level, that their partner isn't doing anything to cause this fear.

They might think of themselves as being "weak" because they don't understand that they have unresolved psychological trauma from the past (see my article: Reacting to the Present Based on the Past).

Since the early trauma is unresolved, it gets played out, usually unconsciously, in the present.  It has nothing to do with "weakness."

It's easy to see how childhood psychological trauma occurs with parents who are predominantly abusive and/or negligent.

What is often not understood is that the past unresolved psychological trauma can occur in an otherwise loving childhood.

The memory of that trauma, whether it is explicit (conscious and remembered) or implicit (unconscious), can continue to have an impact into adulthood.

The following fictionalized vignette illustrates how fear of abandonment, which developed early in childhood, can occur in a stable relationship.

Fictionalized Vignette

Nina came to therapy because she was afraid that her fear of being abandoned would ruin her marriage.

Fear of Abandonment Can Occur Even in a Healthy, Stable Relationship

Deep down, she knew that Ed loved her and wanted to be with her but, at the same time, she felt overwhelmed by her fears that he would leave her--even though they were married for five years and there were no signs that he wanted to end the relationship.

She felt deeply ashamed of her constant need for reassurance that he loved her and didn't want to leave her.   She also worried about herself, "I feel like I'm losing my mind.  How can I know that he loves me and wants to be with and, at the same time, be afraid that he'll leave me?"

Whether he went on a business trip or went out for the evening with friends, Nina felt a growing sense of panic that she wouldn't ever see him again.  She tried to hide her fears, but they were so overwhelming that she couldn't help asking Ed for reassurance over and over again.

Nina was afraid that she was going to bring about the very thing that she was to bring about the very thing that she feared if Ed got fed up with her and left her.

Ed came for one session to give his perspective.  It was evident that he really loved Nina and had no intention of leaving her.  But after several years of enduring her insecurities, Ed admitted that it was taking a toll on each of them and their relationship.  He reassured Nina that he didn't want to leave her, but he hated seeing her so unhappy and he wanted her to get help.

In the following sessions, Nina talked about her family history.  There was nothing obvious that stood out to indicate that her parents were abusive or negligent.  On the contrary, they sounded like very loving and attentive parents.

Most skilled trauma therapists understand that there are often unconscious roots to fear of abandonment when someone is in a healthy, stable relationship.

One way to discovery the unconscious is to use a technique from clinical hypnosis called the Affect Bridge (the same technique is used in EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), and it is called the Float Back technique.)

Before using the Affect Bridge, the therapist must assess the client's ability to tolerate whatever difficult emotions that might come up.  This is a clinical judgment call on the therapist's part.

If she has doubts about the client's ability to tolerate strong emotions, the therapist will usually help the client to develop the ability to contain strong emotions as an initial step before doing the Affect Bridge or any other form of discovery work (see my article:  Developing Internal Resources and Coping Skills).

Using the Affect Bridge, the therapist asks the client to remember a recent memory (or a memory that still has an emotional charge) to bring up the emotions related to the fear.  Then, the therapist asks the client to identify those emotions and where s/he feels them in the body.

After the client has identified the emotions and where s/he feels these emotions in the body, the therapist asks the client to go back in time to the earliest memory of feeling this way--even if that memory seems to be unrelated to what's going on in the present.

When Nina went back in her memory, she remembered being a four year old child lost at the beach after she wandered away from her family's blanket.

She was standing alone, terrified and crying.  She remembered looking around and seeing hundreds of people, but there was no sign of her family.  She felt completely abandoned.

Fear of Abandonment Can Occur Even in a Healthy, Stable Relationship

A woman, who noticed Nina crying, offered to take her hand and help her to look for her family. But Nina wasn't sure what to do.  She remembered her mother telling her never to go with strangers.  At the same time, she was afraid that, on her own, she would never find her family and she would be alone forever.  This terrified her even more.

So, crying and shaking in fear, she walked with the woman to try to find her family.  After what seemed like a very long time, her mother, who was also worried and upset, noticed Nina and called her over.

By the time Nina reunited with her family, she was so upset that they decided to go home.

After that experience, as a young child, she never wandered far from her parents.  She also developed a fear whenever her parents went out and left her with a babysitter that they wouldn't come back.  She worried that they might die in a car accident or that there would be some misfortune where she would never see them again.

Her parents thought Nina would "grow out of it."  Also, as she got older, Nina learned to hide her fear of being abandoned, so it didn't seem to be as much of a problem.

After doing the Affect Bridge, Nina and her therapist talked about her earlier experience of feeling abandoned at the beach.  Nina was surprised at how similar these old feelings were to what she felt now in her relationship.  She was also surprised at the long lasting effect of this incident in an otherwise stable, loving family.

When she first started dating Ed, she didn't feel fearful that he would leave her.  But as the relationship progressed and she developed stronger feelings for Ed, she felt there was more to lose because of how much she loved him.

Many people who have fears of being abandoned unconsciously choose relationships where their partners will recreate their fears.  In other words, they choose people who will, more than likely, abandon them or betray them in some way.

In those cases, the therapy will focus on both the past and the present.  It will also focus on helping the client to make better relationship choices in the future.

But, as previously mentioned, this clearly wasn't the case with Nina.  Other than Nina's fear, which was based on the past, they had a good relationship, so the work was focused on the original fear that occurred when Nina was a child.

Using EMDR therapy, over time, her therapist helped her to gradually work through the original fear.

Since there were no other memories related to Nina's fear of abandonment, they only had to work through the one memory.

In cases where there were many instances of abuse and neglect, it's often necessary to work through many more complex memories.

Overcoming Fear of Abandonment

Once Nina worked through the original fear, she no longer worried about Ed abandoning her.  She described it as having a huge burden lifted from her, and she and Ed were happier than they had ever been.

Fear of being abandoned is a common problem that many clients come to therapy to resolve.

When there is no evidence of anything going on in the present to cause this fear, the work usually focuses on memories, which might be unconscious, from the past.

Before trauma therapy begins, trauma therapists must assess if clients are ready to do the work and, if not, help clients to prepare to do the work.

When the memories are unconscious, various discovery techniques, like the Affect Bridge, are used to help uncover the underlying issues from the past that are affecting the present.

Talk therapy alone is often not as effective as trauma therapy, like EMDR therapy, to help clients overcome this fear.

Getting Help in Therapy
It's unfortunate that many people suffer through their whole lives with a fear of abandonment, and they never get help.

As a result, either they continue to feel insecure in their relationships or they choose not to be in a relationship at all because their fear is so great.

If you feel stuck in your fear of abandonment, you're not alone.  You can seek help from a licensed mental health professional who has experiencing helping clients to overcome this fear.

Once you've overcome you're fear of being abandoned, you can live a more fulfilling life.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

I have helped many clients to overcome their fear of abandonment so they could lead happier, more fulfilling lives.

To find out more about me, visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.