Fear of Abandonment


Fear of Abandonment - An irrational belief that one is imminent danger of being personally rejected, discarded or replaced.

On the Edge

Fear of abandonment is often partnered with an exaggerated sense of dependency on another individual. People who suffer from Borderline Personality Disorder often live in a chronic sense of fear that their world is about to collapse through the abandonment of those closest to them.

While fear of abandonment may seem to do more harm to the person expressing it, it can become dangerous when someone begins to act on the false belief that you are going to abandon them.

This can result in sabotage of your other relationships, punishment in the form of retribution ("I’ll leave you before you leave me" or "I’ll cheat on you before you cheat on me"); jealous fits of rage (such as destroying property, hitting, threatening – even, in extreme cases, homicide); emotional withdrawal; and self-harm (including suicide attempts).

Fear of abandonment often manifests itself as an irrational form of jealousy. The abuser accuses the victim of being unfaithful or of loving other people in an unbalanced or inappropriate way. Pressure is then applied to the victim to cut off contact with the competing family member, friend or “lover”.

The irony of the fear of abandonment is that those who act on it often behave in ways that frighten their victims and push them further away.

How it looks

  • A spouse assumes their partner is having an affair without any objective evidence.
  • A mother does not allow her teenage child to form romantic or peer relationships.
  • A boyfriend calls or texts repeatedly - 15 or more times in a single day.
  • A girlfriend shows up at an office function to which she has not been invited.
  • A divorcee stalks his ex-wife after the dissolution of the relationship.

Some examples of statements from people who have a fear of abandonment include:

“You’ve never loved me.”
“I know you are having an affair”
“You prefer them to me.”
“You never want to spend time with me.”
“I know you want to leave me”

Why they do it

One of the root causes of Fear of Abandonment can be Lack of Object Constancy. Another can be deep-seated lack of self-esteem. In the case of some abusive individuals who also feel a strong sense of dependence on their victim and therefore fear losing them, there can be a conviction that the victim will imminently escape.

Sometimes the accusation “You're leaving me, aren't you?” is used to justify an episode of abuse, is used as emotional blackmail or to perpetuate a situation of codependency.

Fear of abandonment can also be used by someone with a Personality Disorder as a justification for abusive behaviors including stalking, isolation, invasions of privacy, and other ways of controlling or monitoring the person they are afraid of losing.

How it feels

It can be a frustrating and deflating experience to live with someone who frequently expresses a fear of abandonment.

Inwardly, it can be tempting to want to become the person that you are being accused of. You may fantasize about dumping them. You may be tired of their accusations and their dependent attitude. You may feel angry that you are being accused of being unfaithful without being able to act on it.

Outwardly, you may maintain a facade of reasonableness. It's natural to want to say the "right thing" and assure the other person that you love them and will never leave them. But people who express a fear of abandonment generally make themselves less attractive by doing so. You may feel conflicted, wishing to be kind, yet feeling trapped in a downward spiral, resenting the other person for giving up on improving themselves while putting you in a difficult position.

How to cope

When faced with fear of abandonment it can be tempting to try to tackle the root cause by addressing the person’s feelings in an attempt to convince them they are not accurate. However, when you tell someone their feelings are inaccurate they are likely to find it invalidating

What NOT to do

  • Don’t try to argue or reason with a person who is experiencing fear of abandonment. Fear of abandonment is a primal emotion they are expressing, like a hungry baby crying for milk. You would have as much success trying to persuade a baby that crying doesn’t help.
  • Don’t go out of your way to try to prove you aren’t having an affair, or plotting to leave a person who has a fear of abandonment. Their fear is irrational and is unlikely to be resolved by a rational argument.
  • Don’t cave in to the demands of a person who is expressing fear of abandonment, when what they are demanding is not healthy for you or them. Just like a responsible parent, you sometimes have to say “no” to an unreasonable demand.
  • Don’t stay in the same room with anyone who threatens to hurt you, any children or themselves. Call the police immediately.
  • Don’t allow yourself to become isolated, or sacrifice things which are good for you in order to try to “prove” your love to someone else. Someone who truly loves you will never require you to prove your love for them. Keep your friends, your job and your support network intact.

What TO do

  •  Put safety first - for children, yourself, property and for the person with the abandonment issues.
  • Take stock of the truth and separate what is real from what is not. You will have to do this for yourself as it will not be easy to convince the person expressing abandonment. Remember that even people with Personality Disorders get it right some of the time so don’t always discard their concerns just because they have cried wolf too often in the past.
  • Consider what is good and healthy for all parties concerned. It does no good to sacrifice your own needs to serve another person's fear of abandonment - especially if it is not based on reality. You need to consider what is good for you AND what is good for the person with the disorder. For example, it isn’t good for you to give up your friends or family relationships to try to convince a person with abandonment that you love them. Neither is it good for you to retaliate in anger - you will just find yourself in a position of having to apologize later and you will just have handed the accusing person evidence that supports their abandonment theory. Consider what is best for both of you - if you can.
  • Follow through on your good judgment of what is appropriate. You will have the satisfaction of knowing you are picking your battles and fixing what you can fix and leaving alone what you can’t. You can’t fix other people's feelings. Instead you can make good choices for your own life and your children’s lives - and reap long term rewards by doing so.