NYC Psychotherapist Blog

power by WikipediaMindmap

Wednesday, November 2, 2022

What Does Fear of Abandonment and Fear of Engulfment Look Like in a Relationship?

In my prior article, Relationships: What Are the Underlying Issues With the Cat-and-Mouse Game?, I discussed the relationship dynamics of emotional pursuers and withdrawers and the underlying issues involved, including the pursuer's fear of abandonment and the withdrawer's fear of engulfment.

In the current article I'm focusing on what fear of abandonment and fear of engulfment look like in the same relationship.

Fear of Abandonment and Fear of Engulfment in a Relationship

What is Fear of Abandonment?
Fear of abandonment is an overwhelming worry that people who are loved and cherished will leave. Although anyone can develop a fear of abandonment at any time, most of the time it's rooted in childhood trauma.  For instance, it could mean the loss of a parent who moved out or who died.  

This fear makes it difficult to have adult romantic relationships because this person feels vulnerable to being left in the same way s/he was left as a child (see my article: Fear of Abandonment).

What is Fear of Engulfment?
Fear of engulfment in a relationship is a fear of being trapped and smothered as well as a fear of losing independence.  

People who fear being engulfed show their fear by behaving emotionally indifferent, withdrawn, or distant.  They might cheat on their partner as a way of distancing themselves and creating emotional distance in the relationship. They might also find other ways to punish the partner who is an emotional pursuer.

This fear develops during childhood within an enmeshed family where family members were intrusive with each other and did not respect each other's personal boundaries (see my article: Learning to Develop Healthy Boundaries in an Enmeshed Family).

Clinical Vignette
People who fear being abandoned often choose people who fear engulfment and vice versa.  These are not conscious choices.  These choices occur unconsciously.  

The clinical vignette below illustrates how this dynamic between the emotional pursuer (the person who fears being abandoned) and the emotional withdrawer (the person who fears being engulfed) plays out and how Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) for couples can help (see my article: What is EFT Therapy For Couples?).

This is just one way that fear of abandonment and fear of engulfment manifest in a relationship.  There are many other ways it can show up in a relationship.  However, the scenario presented below is a common example of this dynamic.

This vignette is made up of many different cases with all identifying information removed to protect confidentiality:

Meg and Todd
Meg and Todd, who were both in their mid-30s, met and they felt immediate chemistry for each other. They began dating soon after they met.

During the first few months, they spent a lot of time together, which was fun, and sex was passionate, which they both enjoyed.  

As the relationship got serious, problems arose.  Meg realized how much she cared for Todd and she worried he might end the relationship and she would be devastated.  She was familiar with her fear of abandonment from psychotherapy sessions she attended in the past.  

Meg knew from her prior therapy that her fear of abandonment was related to a real abandonment that occurred when she was five when her father walked out of the house and he was never to be seen again.  

Although she knew about the origin of her fear, she didn't know how to stop it from happening whenever she developed deeper feelings for someone.  So, her insight about her fear didn't help her when she felt worried.

During this same time, as Todd developed stronger feelings for Meg, an old fear of his surface--his fear of being engulfed in the relationship.  

Initially, he liked spending a lot of time with Meg, but now that their relationship was much more serious, he felt trapped.  Todd wanted to spend less time with her and have more time to himself.  

He felt annoyed whenever Meg told him about plans she wanted to make with him.  Outwardly, he went along with it, but inwardly he felt like screaming that he cared about her, but he needed his independence.  

He also sensed how fearful she was that their relationship wouldn't work out and he would leave, which he secretly thought about whenever he felt especially trapped.

Things came to a head six months into the relationship when Meg told Todd she wanted to talk about the relationship.  From her earnest look, Todd knew Meg was going to ask him where he thought the relationship was going and if he was thinking of a future with her.  He was also aware that Meg wanted to get pregnant in the next year or two and this added to the pressure (see my article: Is It Time For "The Talk"?).

When they sat down to talk, they were both silent at first.  Meg seemed to be waiting for Todd to speak and Todd was silent and dreading this conversation.  Finally, Todd broke the silence by telling Meg that he cared for her a lot, but he had mixed feelings about whether they had a future together.

Fear of Abandonment and Fear of Engulfment in a Relationship

This was exactly what Meg feared and she broke down crying uncontrollably.  Her fear of abandonment was being triggered. 

Seeing her reaction, Todd wasn't sure what to do.  On the one hand, he felt he should comfort her.  But, on the other hand, he felt like running away because he felt overwhelmed by her reaction.  Todd's fear of being engulfed was being triggered.

So, they were both triggered.  Meg sat crying on the couch and Todd suppressed his urge to run out of the room.  It was almost as if he was paralyzed.

At Meg's insistence, they started couples therapy with an EFT (Emotionally Focused Therapy for couples) therapist (see my article: How EFT For Couples Can Improve Your Relationship).

Todd just went along with it at first to please Meg.  But as time went on, he became curious and more engaged in couples therapy.

Over time, the EFT therapist helped Meg and Todd to look at their negative cycle together.  Rather than blame each other, she helped them to get curious about their dynamic.  

As they continued to attend couples therapy, Meg learned that she was an emotional pursuer and Todd learned he was an emotional withdrawer and their dynamics were rooted in their childhood experiences (see my article: Emotional Pursuers).

Todd learned that he developed his fear of engulfment due to the dynamics in his enmeshed family.  Both of his parents were strict disciplinarians.  They were highly critical and imposed their will on him until he got fed up and moved out after he graduated college.  Even after he was on his own, his parents refused to respect Todd's personal boundaries.  

Even now that he was in his mid-30s, they expressed their strong negative opinions about almost everything he did.  So, he had a lot of pent up resentment towards them and these experiences created a fear of being trapped and overwhelmed.

Gradually, Tom came to see how his emotional withdrawal with Meg was related to his unresolved childhood experiences (see my article: Understanding a Partner Who Withdraws Emotionally - Part 1 and Part 2).

Unlike her prior therapy, which was cognitive behavioral (CBT), Meg experienced EFT, which is a type of experiential therapy, in an embodied way.  Instead of having just intellectual understanding about her fear of abandonment, she felt the insight emotionally as well as viscerally.

Their therapist explained to them how people often make unconscious choices when they choose someone to be in a relationship.  She explained that these choices often bring up what they fear the most.  

In other words, an emotional pursuer often unconsciously chooses an emotional withdrawer and vice versa for an emotional withdrawer.

As Meg and Todd learned to turn towards each other to work together to change their negative dynamic, they grew closer together.  

EFT Helps Couples to Develop a Healthier Relationship

By the time they completed EFT couples therapy, Meg and Todd changed their negative cycle into a healthier dynamic.  

There were still times when Meg still feared being abandoned and Todd still feared being engulfed, but they were able to talk about it and get out of that negative cycle based on what they learned in EFT (see my article: Overcoming the Negative Cycle in Your Relationship That Keep You Both Stuck).

Eventually, Todd and Meg each got into their own individual therapy to work on their own. unresolved childhood trauma that created their fears.  Working through the trauma enabled them to free themselves of the fears that manifested in their relationship.

It's not unusual for a person with a fear of abandonment and a person with fear of engulfment to unconsciously choose each other for a relationship.

A couple with this dynamic can get stuck in a negative cycle indefinitely because they don't understand the dynamic they are in and they don't know how to stop it.  T

Emotionally Focused Therapy for couples, which is an attachment-based therapy, helps couples to understand their dynamic and then work together to change it so they can have a healthier relationship together.

About Me
I am a licensed New York City psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR, EFT, AEDP, Somatic Experiencing and Sex Therapist.

I work with individual adults and couples (see my article: What is a Trauma Therapist?).

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.