NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Monday, August 22, 2016

Fear of Abandonment: Leaving Your Relationship Because You're Afraid of Being Abandoned

Fear of being abandoned is one of the most common reasons why people come to therapy (see my article: Overcoming Fear of Abandonment).  For adults who have experienced early traumatic abandonment, the fear can be so great that, without realizing it, they abandon others first because they fear being abandoned (see my article: Overcoming Childhood Trauma).

Fear of Abandonment: Leaving Your Relationship Because You're Afraid of  Being Abandoned

A person who has experienced traumatic abandonment as a child can get easily triggered.  To someone who is looking at the situation from the outside, it might be hard to understand what precipitated this trigger.  But to the person who fears being abandoned, the fear is very real at the time.

Often, the emotional trigger is unconscious so that the person who fears being abandoned might not even know what caused him or her to react.

People who fear being abandoned will often say that they felt panicky at the time and would do anything to avoid feeling abandoned.  They will often describe the feeling as a sudden rush of emotion that comes over them which they feel they can't control.

Sometimes, in hindsight, when they no longer feel triggered, they say they realize that they overreacted to a particular situation.  But realizing this often isn't enough to prevent it from happening again because it's not a conscious response--it's an unconscious response.

The fear is usually related to an unresolved childhood trauma.  In other words, it already happened, but the emotions are so strong that it feels like it's happening now.

Even though a romantic partner can try to be understanding when this occurs, over time, s/he might give up on the relationship because it becomes too painful to keep going through one breakup after another, especially if the partner also has abandonment issues, which isn't so unusual.

So, unfortunately, this becomes a self fulfilling prophecy for the person who feels abandoned.  This becomes "proof" that his or her fears were real in the here and now and not just related to early traumatic experiences.

In order to understand this dynamic better, let's take a look a fictional vignette, which represents many different cases where these dynamics are common:

Cindy came to therapy because she was deeply afraid that her boyfriend, John, would leave her.  She told the therapist that whenever she felt this way, she would panic and want to leave the relationship before her boyfriend left her.

There were times when she could calm herself enough so that she could tell herself that there was no rational reason for her to feel this way.  At those times, she would realize that her boyfriend, who was loving and kind, gave her no indication that he wanted to leave her.

But there were other times when she tried to use the same type of self talk to calm herself, but it didn't work.

Contrary to everything that she knew about her boyfriend, she felt sure that he was going to leave her, and she knew she couldn't tolerate that.  So, she would end the relationship abruptly, telling her boyfriend that she knew he wanted to end it with her and she would rather end it herself rather than wait for him to end it.

Fear of Abandonment: Leaving Your Relationship Because You're Afraid of Being Abandoned

When Cindy was feeling most fearful, no matter how much her boyfriend told her that he had no intention of breaking up with her, she just "knew" that he would, so he couldn't convince her not to breakup with him.

When she talked to her therapist about it, in hindsight, she was able to describe how she felt "in control" of the situation during those times when she ended it.  She felt like she had averted a "catastrophe" in her life.  But shortly afterwards, she felt miserable because she missed her boyfriend and she regretted breaking up with him.

Cindy asked her therapist, "Why am I doing this?  Am I losing my mind?  How can I feel like I'm in control when, in reality, I'm completely out of control?"

As they talked about Cindy's family background, it soon became apparent what was getting triggered for Cindy.

Cindy was raised by a single mother and her mother's parents.  When Cindy was four, her mother moved away from their home town to take a job in another state where there were better employment opportunities.

Many years later, Cindy found out that her mother and grandparents were very ashamed of the fact that Cindy's mother, who never graduated high school, couldn't find a job in their town and she had to move away to take a job as a domestic worker in another town.  They were so ashamed of it that it became the "family secret" (see my article: Toxic Family Secrets).

Since it was the "family secret," no one talked to Cindy about this before her mother left.  Cindy's mother and maternal grandparents mistakenly thought it would be best not to mention anything to Cindy beforehand.  So, one day when Cindy came home from playing with a friend and she asked her grandmother where her mother was, her grandmother told her that the mother would be back "in a little while."

As day turned to night, Cindy became worried when her mother didn't come home.  Her grandparents responded by trying to distract her, but all Cindy could think about was that something awful must have happened to her mother.

Her mother and grandparents loved Cindy and they had no intention of hurting her.  They just didn't understand how damaging this would be for Cindy.  They thought "she's young, she'll get over it."

Fear of Abandonment

As days turned into weeks, Cindy became sad and angry.  She also felt guilty and ashamed because she thought she did something to make her mother leave her.

Until then, she had always been well behaved, but as she felt more and more frustrated by her grandparents' excuses about her mother, she would have temper tantrums, refuse to eat and refuse to go to bed.

After a while, when her grandparents saw that Cindy was inconsolable, they told her that her mother had to go away for a while and she would be back.

When she asked why, they wouldn't talk to her anymore about it.  So, Cindy assumed that they were lying and that, for sure, something awful happened to her mother and they just didn't want to talk about it.

Cindy became a very anxious child.  She remembered having nightmares where she would see her mother and ask her why she left and her mother would just smile and then fade away.

Several months after her mother left, the mother returned to the household, which was shocking to Cindy.  She remembered wondering if she was dreaming.  The mother and the grandparents didn't understand why Cindy seemed so shocked when she saw her mother.

After that, even though she normally slept by herself, Cindy insisted on cuddling with her mother and holding onto her mother's pajama top throughout the night.  She was so afraid that her mother would leave again that she felt she had to hold on to her.

Even though her mother remained in their town, Cindy never got over the feeling of being abandoned by her mother and always feared that her mother would leave again without telling her.

Years later, when she got into a relationship with John, she had a hard time whenever he had to go on a business trip. She feared that there would be some calamity that would take him away from her, like a plane crash, or that he would decide not to return.

There were so many things that would trigger her fear of being abandoned that John would avoid telling Cindy certain things too far in advance because he didn't want her to suffer the whole time.  Cindy came to realize that John would try to avoid telling her about his business trips too far in advance and this only made her more anxious.

Although he was normally patient, John was starting to feel exasperated because he didn't know what to do.  Cindy could see how frustrated John was and this was another trigger for her to worry about him leaving her.

At that point, John suggested that Cindy see a therapist to work on her fear of being left.

Cindy's therapist used EMDR Therapy to work on the current fear related to John and they eventually went back to her earliest memory related to her mother leaving (see my article:  How EMDR Therapy Works).

The work wasn't easy or fast, but Cindy had a felt sense of the connection between her current fears of being abandoned and the earlier, deeper fears.

Overcoming Your Fear of Abandonment

With EMDR therapy, she was able to work through her fears, both the current fear and the early fears of being abandoned so that it was no longer a problem for her.

Fear of abandonment is one of the most common reasons why people come to therapy.

This fear is usually related to earlier memories that get triggered in a person's current life.

Often, the fear can be so intense that the person would rather leave his or her partner or spouse first than anticipate being left.

This dynamic can repeat itself over and over again in different relationships until the trauma is worked through in therapy.

Experiential types of therapy, like EMDR, are especially effective in helping clients to overcome traumatic memories (see my article: Experiential Therapy, Like EMDR, Can Help to Achieve Emotional Breakthroughs).

Getting Help in Therapy
If you have fears of being abandoned, you're not alone.

Experiential therapy is usually effective in helping clients to overcome this fear.

Rather than continuing to enact your fears, you could work with a licensed mental health therapist who has experience helping clients to overcome trauma.

Once you're free from the effects of your history of trauma, you'll be free to live a more fulfilling life.

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

Over the years, I have worked with many clients to help them overcome their fear of abandonment.

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.