You can learn how to effectively deal with a fear of abandonment in any relationship. While a fear of abandonment may feel impossible to overcome sometimes, you can manage this anxiety and feel more secure by practicing therapeutic skills.
What Causes a Fear of Abandonment in a Relationship
Your fear of abandonment in a relationship makes sense. There are understandable reasons why now you are afraid of being abandoned, rejected, or betrayed. A fear of abandonment in a relationship is often tied to relational trauma.
Relational traumas are wounds you experienced in your relationships with others. This differs from other trauma which may occur from natural disasters or accidents. Relational wounds may have occurred in childhood or adulthood. Or your wounds may have happened in both childhood and adulthood leading to complex relational trauma.
Trauma and the Fear of Abandonment in a Relationship
In childhood, common traumas which lead to a fear of abandonment include abuse and neglect. These traumas are often clear but not always. At times, trauma can also include enmeshment growing up. This looks like a parent who may have used you to be their best friend or act as their parent. The fact this is too much pressure for a child is part of this wounding.
Other times, you may have been neglected but this isn’t clear. As clinical psychologist, Sue Johnson, explains that “an attachment figure can be physically present but emotionally absent.” This means your parent may have been there but not truly present with you.
Relational trauma in adulthood includes experiencing a divorce or being cheated on by a partner.
Attachment Styles and the Fear of Abandonment
The reason that trauma causes a fear of abandonment, in part, is because it impacts your ability to trust those closest to you. Without a sense of trust, you cannot feel safe or secure. This results in attachment issues. A person may develop an attachment style that’s anxious, avoidant, or a combination of both.
When you have a pervasive fear of abandonment, you likely have an anxious attachment style. Much more rarely, you may have an anxious-avoidant attachment style which means that you are terrified of being rejected yet when your partner is present you feel overwhelmed or even disgusted by the intimacy you share.
Secure Attachment is the Opposite of a Fear of Abandonment
A secure attachment style is ideal. This attachment style means you trust that you are worthwhile and that overall, you can trust others want to be in your life. You also know that even if a relationship does end, it is not a reflection of your worth nor does it mean that all other relationships are destined to end.
Secure attachment is also called interdependency. This is the opposite of codependency. There’s an irony in interdependency because as Sue Johnson explains “the more securely connected we are, the more separate and different we can be.” This means when you are securely attached you are not threatened if your partner is busy at work and takes awhile to text back or goes away with friends. You trust that you are a team but know you are two different people.
Building a Secure Attachment Style
At the heart of all relationships, and attachment styles, is the question “Can I depend on you when I need you?” A secure attachment style will lead you to pick partners you can depend on regularly. Whereas when you are anxious, or afraid of abandonment, you may pick partners who you can’t really rely on. Alternatively, a fear of abandonment may lead you to second-guess even trustworthy partners.
To heal, and have a secure attachment style, it’s necessary to learn how to deal with your fear of abandonment effectively.
Dealing with a Fear of Abandonment in a Relationship Tip #1: Identify Your Triggers
You may have predictable triggers in which your fear of abandonment is more intense. Common triggers include your partner going out with friends alone or taking a while to text you back.
When you know your triggers, you can be more mindful about coping well when these situations arise. For example, if you get overwhelmed when your partner wants to go to their weekly volleyball game with friends, you can plan for this. This is a skill called Coping Ahead from Dialectical Behavior Therapy.
How to Cope with Your Triggers
Coping Ahead is when you plan on how to cope well when this situation occurs. You can, for example, plan dinner with a friend on the nights your partner plays volleyball. Or you could distract yourself by cleaning. Or you could practice self-care these nights with a long bath and face mask.
The goal is to care for yourself during these stressful times in ways that truly calm you.
Dealing with a Fear of Abandonment in a Relationship Tip #2: Practice Self-Soothing Skills
A fear of abandonment can make you feel overwhelmed, like you can’t breathe, and panicked at times. When this happens, it’s natural to want to seek comfort from your partner. Yet, it’s important to not make this your automatic reaction or to interrupt this pattern. This is because if you always seek reassurance or comfort from your partner, you may inadvertently overwhelm them and push them away.
All people must cope with their own emotions. This is a part of healthy boundaries. To do so effectively, it’s important to learn self-soothing skills. Like the name suggests, these skills are designed to calm you down and soothe your nervous system.
Why Self-Soothing is Necessary
Naturally, when a fear of abandonment is triggered, you move into your fight-flight-freeze response. This is a traumatic reaction which occurs when your sympathetic nervous system is activated. To calm down, you need to activate your parasympathetic nervous system which is also called your “rest and digest” system.
This traumatic reaction makes sense. Clinical psychologist, Michelle Skeen, explains “Basic safety is a key component for the development of a secure attachment for anyone at any age. Which is why the fear of abandonment is incredibly powerful. It begins as a life-or-death need. As an infant if you are left – abandoned – you will not survive.”
How to Self-Soothe
Self-soothing skills calm you down and activate your parasympathetic nervous system. The most effective self-soothing first aid is deep breathing. However, it’s necessary to truly breathe into your diaphragm otherwise you will still feel anxious. To test your breathing, and ensure you are reaping the benefits of deep breathing, you may watch this video:
Also, anytime you can incorporate your senses this is going to be soothing. Aromatherapy is effective at calming people down. You may also want to consider movement a sense as things like gentle yoga are effective at calming the nervous system. And the more sense at once the better like a warm bath with scented candles while soothing music plays.
Dealing with a Fear of Abandonment in a Relationship Tip # 3: Set Yourself Up for Success
You may not have been able to depend on the people in your life in the past. However, to build a secure attachment style and overcome a fear of abandonment, it’s necessary to have corrective experiences. These experiences are when you ask the attachment question “Can I depend on you?” and the answer is “yes.”
To have these corrective experiences, it’s important to build relationships with people that appear trustworthy. Sometimes, when a person has a fear of abandonment their fear makes betrayal seem inevitable. When this happens, a person sometimes self-sabotages then by picking emotionally unavailable partners from the beginning.
Pay Attention to How People Behave
To protect yourself and effectively deal with your fear of abandonment, date reliable, consistent people. Otherwise, it’s healthy to not feel secure with someone who is untrustworthy i.e., always cancelling dates, unwilling to stay faithful, pressures you sexually, or lies.
The truth is some people are reliable while others are not. Unfortunately, when a person has a fear of abandonment, they sometimes take this truth personally. Instead, it’s important to work on seeing the facts and taking situations at face value. You may want to keep a journal to keep track of the facts if you tend to minimize others’ inconsistencies.
Dealing with a Fear of Abandonment in a Relationship Tip #4: Commit to Never Abandoning Yourself
The truth is that even with reliable people human relationships are impermanent. When you have a fear of abandonment, you often look to other people to feel important and like your life has meaning. This is an incredibly fragile way to live because even the most reliable people may not always be in your life. After all, people do die. To manage these fears effectively, it’s important to remember that there is one person though who no matter what will never leave you for your entire lifetime: You.
When you realize that you can never leave yourself, you can commit to fully showing up for yourself. A great way to do this is with reparenting work. In this work, you act as a healthy parent to your inner child. You commit yourself to never betraying yourself and to truly taking care of yourself. You know that each time you show up for you that you are building a secure attachment to yourself!
Coping Well with a Fear of Abandonment
A fear of abandonment is inherently overwhelming as it’s tied to your sense of survival and safety. However, it’s possible to deal with this fear effectively. The first steps to dealing with a fear of abandonment is to be aware of your triggers, Cope Ahead, and self-soothe. Next you will want to allow for corrective experiences by choosing reliable friends and people to date. Finally, you can deal with a fear of abandonment by remembering that you are empowered to never abandon yourself.
About The Author
Krystal Mazzola Wood, LMFT is a practicing relationship therapist with over a decade of experience. Currently, Krystal sees clients at her private practice, The Healthy Relationship Foundation. She has dedicated her entire career to empowering people to heal from unhealthy relationship processes. She does this by teaching the skills and tools necessary to have a life filled with healthy and loving relationships.
This passion led her to write her best-selling books and create courses. Her books, The Codependency Recovery Plan: A 5-Step Guide to Understand, Accept, and Break Free from the Codependent Cycle and The Codependency Workbook: Simple Practices for Developing and Maintaining Your Independence have helped many people heal.
She is currently working on her third book, Self-Love Made Possible: The 5-Step Guide to Stop Being Your Own Worst Enemy and Become Your Own Best Friend. To be notified of its release, please join the waitlist here.
Her course, Confidently Authentic: Stop People Pleasing and Start Being True to Yourself, provides the skills necessary to have a healthy relationship. This course features over a year of relationship skills you would learn in therapy. Students share this course has been “life changing.”
Each week, she answers your relationship questions from a place of expertise and compassion. To submit your relationship questions, please DM her @confidentlyauthentic.com or you may send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org to submit your question.