The fear of abandonment can create lasting problems from childhood long into adulthood. Adults with abandonment issues may sabotage, consciously or subconsciously, personal relationships with others. This can take the form of pushing a partner away after a period of time to keep that person from eventually leaving first.
For example, a man with abandonment issues may leave his wife of ten years for another woman for fear that his wife would have eventually left him. Before the marriage ended, he may have emotionally pushed her away. In another five or ten years, he may repeat the behavior with his second wife due to his fear that she too will someday leave him.
Although these issues can stem from childhood neglect, abuse, or trauma, adults can develop a fear of abandonment as a result of traumatic experiences later in life.
Abandonment During Childhood
It is common for children to become teary-eyed and sad when their parent leaves them at daycare. A child may cry when their guardian leaves them in the church nursery for an hour or two while the adult worships in the sanctuary. However, children with healthy emotions will move on and play with toys after a while. Or, if they are new to daycare, they will adjust within a week or so of consistent attendance.
Children with emotional abandonment issues, on the other hand, may panic at the thought of the guardian leaving them. The child might develop a severe case of anxiety or refuse to sleep alone. Sometimes this behavior is due to the fear of being left alone. Other times, it is the result of a child having been abandoned.
Abandonment can come in many forms. The parent may physically leave, such as when one parent leaves indefinitely due to divorce or death. Or, it might be from emotional abandonment as when the parent refuses to meet the child’s basic needs for love, attention, and nurturing.
If the child comes from a poor family where the basics of food, running water, power, and heat are not provided consistently, the child may associate that with a lack of love. Loving parents try to provide for their children’s basic needs, and on some level, children instinctively know this.
However, it is not only children from low-income households at risk. Influential families can raise their children without meeting their emotional needs. Children who feel that their parents or guardians are withholding love and attention may develop abandonment issues.
Abused or neglected children from all social-economic backgrounds are at a higher risk of developing a fear of abandonment. These feelings of rejection can shape a child’s mind and their self-belief. This can lead to issues later in life as they try to manage personal relationships.
A child’s mind also perceives events differently than an adult would. A child might conclude that a parent leaving the family permanently due to divorce is because the parent no longer wanted the child in their life. They may believe that the parent felt their life would be easier (or happier, richer, etc.) without the child present. The child may begin to show signs of separation anxiety with the remaining parent.
Separation anxiety is common in children for whom one parent is gone due to death. The loss may have been forthcoming, such as a long illness, or sudden, like a tragic accident. The loss is still deep in either case. Some children suddenly become hyper-aware of the remaining parent’s presence and are afraid of losing them. Other children may feel a sense of betrayal, especially if the living parent is domineering, abusive, or emotionally distant.
During the aftermath of a parent’s death, the surviving parent must cope with their own emotions. Sometimes this means that they wind up neglecting their child’s emotional needs. This isn’t necessarily done on purpose; both child and parent are hurt.
If you are the parent or guardian of a child with abandonment issues, let the child know you are open to hearing how they feel. If it is your own child, they may feel awkward or afraid that they might hurt your feelings. Assure them that you will not overreact. Allow them to express their fears.
If you are worried about the child’s emotional health, seek professional help. You can speak to your child’s pediatrician or school counselor. Sometimes the act of sharing their fears and having someone reaffirm that they are wanted and loved can place a child in a better mental state. Your child’s doctor may refer you to a therapist if the anxiety from the fear of abandonment is extreme.
Abandonment Issues in Adults
Adults are at a higher risk for developing abandonment issues if they experience a traumatic event. This can include sexual assault, domestic violence or abuse, the end of a relationship, or another high-stress situation. It is not only the fear of physical abandonment or neglect but of emotional abandonment as well; the feeling of the other partner pulling away and leaving the person unloved and rejected.
These adults may leave relationships to keep from getting hurt. This fear of intimacy can also result in shallow relationships. The person wants a deeply committed relationship but is terrified of someone they love eventually leaving them. The hurt they will feel at the dissolution of the relationship (not on their own terms) is an emotion they need to avoid at all costs.
This person may sabotage their relationship by becoming emotionally distant, verbally abusive, or indifferent to their partner. They may engage in extramarital affairs or choose work over family life. They may start arguments and contradict their spouse when the spouse tries to confirm that they would never leave the marriage.
The adult with abandonment issues may accuse their spouse of infidelity or some other betrayal. Furthermore, to widen the emotional gap, they may tell others about this alleged betrayal, so that no one will blame them for leaving the spouse.
The behavior from the fear of abandonment causes a reaction from those involved. Unfortunately, the adult with these issues may get a sense of satisfaction from these reactions and the attention they garner and cycle through the behavior again. To the outside world, these people appear full of drama and consistently in new relationships. However, the truth is that the person is hurting with an emotional need that is still unmet.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, fear of abandonment can cause a person in a bad relationship to stay longer. The fear of loneliness outweighs the fear of staying in the relationship. Even if their partner is emotionally or physically abusive, the person with abandonment issues cannot break free for long. This “stuck” feeling can lead to additional mental health issues such as anxiety and depression.
Getting the Help You Need
If you recognize the symptoms of abandonment issues in your own life, seek the help of a licensed mental health care professional. Your primary physician can refer you to a psychiatrist, psychologist, or counseling center near you.
A faith-based counseling facility can help you overcome the fear of abandonment while reassuring you that there is One who will never abandon you. By relying on your faith in God, you can resist the urge to ruin and flee a loving relationship. You will find the necessary courage to leave an abusive relationship that does not adhere to your Christian values that love is patient and kind, not jealous, boastful, or proud (1 Corinthians 13:4).
A common treatment for emotional abandonment and the fears that accompany it is psychotherapy. This includes talk therapy which can be done in an individual setting with the therapist or in couple’s sessions.
The therapist will help you to identify the thoughts and emotions that accompany these issues and change your responses. It will take time to learn to react with the new behavioral patterns, but this is something you can do. It is not only for you but for the future of your relationship.
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