The Psychology Of Abandonment Issues & How They Affect Relationships
Abandonment issues can strike at any time. For some people, it began in childhood, but for others it can have a later onset. It may be triggered by grief from losing a loved one, a romantic relationship, or even a job. There are different causes and coping mechanisms for fear of abandonment, but getting to the root of trust issues requires a deeper look at attachment styles.
What are abandonment issues?
Abandonment issues are an unhealthy fear that the people, places, and things you've grown attached to will eventually leave or reject you. Although it's not an official diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the term is generally used to describe incessant thoughts or behaviors driven by anxiety or fear that someone or something you care about will, inevitably, leave.
In response to those thoughts, which may or may not be founded in some truth, a person coping with this fear of abandonment may become clingy, insecure, jealous, emotionally manipulative, or even controlling. Typically, this is a learned response. Perhaps they saw adults react this way when they were kids, or maybe their close friends in early adulthood responded to rejection in this way. The normalization of these kinds of unhealthy tendencies can go on for quite some time.
Where the problems come from.
Abandonment issues often stem from childhood experiences, according to Chrystal Dunkers, LPC, a licensed counselor at Point and Pivot Counseling in New Jersey. This strong sense of being left behind, rejected, or excluded may have been acquired due to prolonged exposure to an unreliable, abusive, or absent caregiver.
"Abandonment issues can largely be created based on childhood trauma and schemas developed as a result," she explains.
But while the fear of abandonment might be easily dismissed as "Mommy issues" or "Daddy issues," both Dunkers and double board-certified physician Anandhi Narasimhan, M.D., note that any relationship could also be the root cause of abandonment issues. Dunkers says the loss of a loved one at any point in our lifetime can also lend itself to the development of abandonment issues. "In addition, if a spouse or romantic partner decides to end a relationship, this, too, can lead to abandonment issues that could potentially affect future relationships," she adds.
Medical and mental illness, loss, romantic rejection, workplace mistreatment or lack of career opportunities, and even financial stress can be other sources of abandonment issues, Narasimhan adds. In each instance, the affected person may come to feel angry or unsafe in future situations that might otherwise be healthy and stable.
How they relate to attachment styles.
Abandonment issues usually indicate an insecure attachment style. Attachment theory, which was first proposed by psychologist Mary Ainsworth and psychiatrist John Bowlby in the 1950s, suggests that attachment styles often develop in early childhood as a response to relationships with primary caregivers.
"If, as a child, you felt safe and your caregiver was attuned to your physical, mental, and emotional needs, this lends itself to a secure attachment style. As an adult, you will continue to have a sense of safety and autonomy in your relationship," Dunkers explains. But without that emotional attunement and safety early in life, a person could develop one of three insecure attachment styles—anxious, avoidant, or disorganized—all of which have abandonment and trust issues at the root.
If your caregiver was habitually inattentive and unavailable, Dunkers says this could lend itself to an avoidant attachment style. As a result, you may have learned to meet your own needs and self-soothe. In an adult relationship, this may look like detachment, limited communication, and emotional unavailability.
"If caregiver nurturing was not consistent, meaning one day they were attentive and the next they were unavailable and aloof, this could result in an anxious attachment style," she continues. "A child with this type of caregiver may be uneasy, as they can never be certain from one day to the next how their caregiver will respond to their needs. As an adult, this may resemble a partner who has difficulty trusting, who is hypervigilant and possibly clingy."
Lastly, a person may develop a disorganized attachment style in response to experiences of childhood trauma or abuse from a caregiver at a young age.
Unfortunately, having an insecure attachment style, in particular, can be harmful enough to trigger the abandonment and rejection that a person most fears.
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How abandonment issues manifest in relationships.
Driven by desperation, abandonment issues can cause people to act in ways that hurt others and make it hard to create healthy, trusting relationships in the future. Dunkers says that unshakable feelings or thoughts that significant people in your life are going to up and leave can be behind attempts to control a partners' behaviors, relationships, and thoughts.
When these reactions and fears no longer serve a person with abandonment issues, it is usually because someone who is trying to establish a healthy relationship recognizes and dislikes being on the receiving end. This could mean that a romantic partner rejects the overbearing behaviors of a partner with abandonment issues, that a child demands that their parent with abandonment issues stops invading their privacy, or that a stellar subordinate employee pushes back against a micromanager with an unflappable fear of losing their job and financial stability.
The wake-up call is often an emotional rupture, which can potentially soil the chances of being able to connect deeply with someone who truly matters. By the time it is clear that these thoughts and beliefs are no longer serving their intended purpose, acknowledging and repairing harm done is often vital to ensuring that abandonment issues don't become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Conversely, some people with abandonment issues may avoid attachments altogether, so as to minimize the disappointment that could come if those relationships ultimately ended poorly or prematurely. This response aligns with an avoidant attachment style, a pattern of behaviors that reflect a difficulty forming or maintaining close bonds with others. Whereas those with an anxious attachment style might require external validation, those with an avoidant style might appear to be highly independent and self-motivated. Some might be described as "too busy for relationships," friendly but flighty, and/or emotionally unavailable. They may suddenly withdraw from relationships that require vulnerability. Because they fear rejection so deeply, they may display counterintuitive behaviors to suppress positive emotions toward others (whom they can't control) and instead divert their focus to their own needs and creature comforts (things that they feel are firmly within their control).
Outside of romantic relationships, a person battling abandonment issues may struggle to admit the need for a solid support system. They may have trouble receiving help or affection, or they may be too heavily reliant upon others for positive feelings of self-worth.
Common signs of abandonment issues:
Anxiety in relationships
Most acutely, someone with abandonment issues often deals with unshakeable feelings or thoughts that significant people in your life are going to inevitably leave, die, or reject you. Projecting the sense of anticipated betrayal onto romantic relationships and new friendships is often a sign of unresolved abandonment issues.
Insecurity and feelings of unworthiness are common among those with abandonment issues. They may be more likely to lack confidence and seek external validation, or they may feel generally unprotected and vulnerable, even among people and situations that have been positive and uplifting. Fear of abandonment makes it hard to trust both other people and one's own judgment about people.
Overthinking and constant suspicion
The habit of obsessing over the possibility of abandonment or rejection may cause a person to plot or plan ways to prevent it, even before it has begun. "A person can become anxious if they don't hear from their partner, ruminate on meanings of statements, repeatedly call or text their partner if they don't hear from them, suspect infidelity, express irritability or an overreaction to certain changes in plans," Narasimhan explains. "Some may drive by a partner's place of residence repeatedly or show up at their partner's workplace."
Anger and volatility in relationships
Abandonment issues typically are produced by a traumatic situation that stripped a person of their power to control outcomes that they truly wanted—the inability to prevent a death, to stop a spouse from leaving, or to protect yourself or others from harm. If ignored, those underlying situations may still ignite anger many years later. People may become easily triggered in situations that remind them of that time. Violence and anger could be used to try to exert control over others now, in ways that weren't possible in the initial incident. Rage or outbursts may be directed at a loved one, one's self, or channeled into certain physical or behavioral expressions—for example, punching a wall when highly triggered by the thought of someone rejecting them.
Abandonment issues often come down to a lack of trust in others. These trust issues may manifest as unhealthy emotional bonds that limit the ability to trust or be trusted. An all-or-nothing approach to loyalty may lead to unrealistic expectations from others or a sheer detachment from others, so as to avoid future disappointment. Extreme cases may involve hermit-like behaviors.
Abandonment issues can present as commitment issues, meaning a person is unable to fully commit to a long-term or emotionally engaged relationship. Avoiding commitment may look like lots of individual hookups or repeated engagement with a person but no titles or clear expectations.
Perhaps unexpectedly, one way abandonment issues may present is through getting attached to new people too quickly. A person with attachment issues—which are often tied to abandonment issues—may truly feel emotionally dependent on the attention of others, even if they don't know that person very well. Clinginess can happen even if there are signs that this person's engagement is fleeting. Because people with abandonment issues feel that it is inevitable that people will leave them, they may rush to have deep engagements as soon as possible because they don't trust the continued evolution of the relationship. It can look like trying hard to get attached to people who you've just met or who have already displayed some signs of being emotionally unavailable.
Similar to trust issues, this may appear externally as a person who is distant or cold. It could also look like engaging only in an intimate physical relationship but not an emotional one. Communication is severely impaired or dishonest.
Not leaving relationships when you should
Counterintuitively, some people do not leave a decaying relationship for fear of being abandoned or alone. No matter how toxic or unhealthy the relationship, a person may be resigned, or committed to a "stick it out" or "ride or die" approach.
Inability to accept rejection
This behavior may go beyond simple denial. "They may not believe they are being rejected and try to cling to the relationship or try to convince or manipulate the person into staying in the relationship," Narasimhan explains. Note: Preventing a person from exiting a relationship that they no longer want to continue is a form of abuse.
Depressive behaviors or episodes
When fear of abandonment becomes unbearable, it can lead to mental health breaks and physical harm. If the root cause of abandonment issues are trauma, then episodes that trigger memories or that replicate those patterns can cause profound sadness and depression.
Abuse, harassment, or violence
In rare circumstances, Narasimhan says a person dealing with abandonment issues may even result in violence, whether emotional, verbal, or physical, in situations where they feel that they have been abandoned or are likely to be. Manipulation, stalking, harassment, or abuse toward an animal, child, parent, spouse, co-worker, or loved one can occur when a person will go to great lengths to control another person.
Resolving the issues & healing.
The good thing is that knowing where these feelings come from is the first step to overcoming them. To start, Dunkers says that seeking therapy to understand your attachment patterns will bring awareness to behavioral patterns in relationships. There are also many books about attachment theory, such as Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How You Find and Keep Love by Amir Levine and Rachel Heller, which can be good tools to guide self-reflection.
"Once you have an awareness, this will arm you with the agency to consciously engage with others in a healthier way. Moreover, even if you have behavioral characteristics consistent with anxious or avoidant attachment styles, it is possible to do the work to move yourself to a secure attachment style," she says.
She and Narasimhan agree that learning to voice emotional needs in a healthy way and engage in activities that increase autonomy will improve romantic relationships and contribute to a more secure attachment style.
"Practice effective communication by discussing your feelings and what you hope the relationship to be like," advises Narasimhan. It can be useful to discuss certain topics that previously felt off-limits when getting to know someone, like wanting to know early on if you have common goals about the future. If the other person won't engage in respectful communication, it is time to reevaluate the relationship.
But if abandonment issues persist and communication remains elusive, Dunkers and Narasimhan say it is time to call in the professional therapists and counselors who can help individuals, couples, and families unpack the past and establish healthy habits for the future.
The bottom line.
People with a fear of abandonment have experienced some kind of loss or trauma. Whether they were too young or too grief-stricken to address it at the time, those unresolved experiences can result in unhealthy attachment issues that they may not even recognize.
It is important to remember that abandonment issues may affect one part of a person's life more than others—say, more in an amorous relationship than in platonic friendships—and that, over time, a person can oscillate between secure and insecure attachment styles. Although fears and pain often feel existential, therapists can help a person rationalize and accept past trauma in healthy ways. It is possible to learn new ways to live with those feelings without projecting them onto the people we love most.
Nafeesah Allen, Ph.D., is an American writer and independent researcher with a particular interest in migration, literature, gender identity, and diaspora studies within the global South. She completed her Ph.D. in Forced Migration from the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. She completed a postgraduate diploma in Folklore & Cultural Studies at Indira Gandhi National Open University in New Delhi, India. She completed a Masters of International Affairs at Columbia University in 2009 and graduated cum laude from Barnard College at Columbia University in 2006.
Originally from New Jersey, she has lived in Spain, India, Mozambique, Angola, and South Africa. She speaks four languages (reads in three), but primarily publishes in English. Her writing placements range from popular trade magazines like Better Home & Gardens, Real Simple, and Whetstone to academic journals like Harvard’s Transition Magazine, the Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy, and the Oxford Monitor.