How A Fear Of Abandonment Can Affect A Relationship

Medically reviewed by Andrea Brant, LMHC
Updated May 23, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include abuse which could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is experiencing abuse, contact the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Support is available 24/7. Please also see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

A fear of abandonment can cause significant challenges with emotional connection in relationships throughout life. Although the fear of abandonment is not normally considered a mental health condition, it’s typically treated as a type of anxiety.

Some people who experience abandonment anxiety have a near-constant worry that their partner will leave them, which can ultimately drive them away. Some people with this fear even leave their partner just to avoid being left by surprise. 

No matter the reason you fear abandonment, you have options to get help and enjoy meaningful intimacy without sabotaging your interpersonal relationships. Below, we’ll explore how fear of abandonment can affect relationships and how to move forward with less fear and a greater sense of empowerment.

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Understand your fear of abandonment and move forward

Addressing fear of abandonment

This phobia may begin in childhood, sometimes manifesting as separation anxiety disorder, and moving beyond it may take some time. 

However, with the guidance of a licensed therapist who has training and experience in abandonment issues, you may discover a new way of thinking, which can bring about a greater sense of freedom and may even lead to healthy, long-lasting romantic relationships.

One of the first steps is identifying your fear. Once you recognize it, you can begin to equip yourself with a set of tools to address this fear when it arises. There are several steps you can take to overcome being afraid of abandonment and improve your relationships, including rebuilding your confidence, learning to trust again, and letting go of the past. Various types of therapy can help facilitate this process.  

Who does fear of abandonment affect?

A fear of abandonment is a common concern that exists to varying degrees in many people. Most of us can relate to this feeling and have experienced it at some point in life. 

This fear can rob you of your inner peace and make it difficult to thrive in a relationship. However, there is hope. With the help of a therapist who has training in abandonment and traumatic events, many people experience freedom from this fear and ultimately find fulfilling long-term relationships.

How childhood impacts our attachment

According to a medically reviewed Forbes article, an abandonment phobia may stem from an insecure attachment style, anxious attachment styles, or from traumatic or emotional abandonment in childhood. For example, it can be caused by inadequate physical and emotional care or childhood sexual abuse. Anxious attachment can also result from inconsistent parental care and childhood trauma.

If you experienced the loss or absence of a parent or primary caregivers when you were little, you may have experienced first-hand the damage that this can cause. It can affect the entire family—parents and children—and throw off the balance of the home.

Children who experience abandonment trauma can sometimes develop a mistrust of adults, among other abandonment issues related to mental health. This can grow as they begin to worry who the next person to leave them might be. In contrast, children who experience consistent, loving care from their guardians typically develop a secure attachment style.

Being afraid of abandonment might affect your ability to form trusting bonds. You may begin to feel as though you're incapable of being loved, and this, in turn, may negatively affect your self-esteem and self-image. People with a fear of abandonment may also be at risk for intimate partner violence as the combination of low self-esteem and a challenging childhood might lead them to stay in an unhealthy relationship.

Borderline personality disorder, separation anxiety disorder, and more

While anyone can become afraid of abandonment, sometimes this occurs as part of certain mental health conditions.

People who have both a mental health condition and a fear of abandonment tend to have diagnoses such as avoidant personality disorder, bipolar disorder, dependent personality disorder, borderline personality disorder(a type of personality disorder), or generalized anxiety disorder, which can prompt excessive worry about any aspect of life. That said, many people who are afraid of abandonment may not have a broader disorder. Borderline personality disorder usually involves a group of other symptoms as well, such as an unstable sense of identity and frequent feelings of emptiness. However, like other personality disorders, borderline personality disorder can only be diagnosed by a licensed professional. 

If you believe you’re living with separation anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, or another condition, consider seeking the medical advice of a healthcare provider. A professional can administer screenings and rule out other mental and physical health conditions. They can also provide, if necessary, treatment advice, diagnosis, and referrals to other professionals. 

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Exploring how the fear of abandonment affects different relationships

Although it might seem logical to think being afraid of abandonment can dissolve in the presence of a committed relationship, that's not always the case. This can manifest in such a way that the person firmly believes their partner will leave them. To them, it may feel like it’s just a matter of when—not if. This fear may play into all of their interactions with other people.

They may live each day worrying about being abandoned and not being able to give all of themselves to their relationship. They also may accuse their partners of cheating or make attempts to leave them. They might feel unable to trust their partner's word if their trust was broken by unhealthy relationships in the past.

This can create a rift between them and their partner and lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy. When this pattern repeats from past relationships, it can feel like everyone really is abandoning them.

By living as if their relationship were ending, they might unintendedly sabotage the relationship, and they may not see how they contributed to their relationship's demise.

They may develop some cognitive distortions, thinking that they are "doomed" in a relationship, they are unlovable, or everyone in their life leaves them without explanation. Without insight into this pattern of thinking, they may move on to the next relationship with the same challenges.

Some people who experience a fear of abandonment do not exclusively experience this fear with a romantic partner. It can also manifest with parents, friends, and children. As previously stated, this often develops throughout a person's childhood, such as when a parent leaves. 

Sometimes, this parent may have come and gone throughout the child's life, and they may not trust anyone else to stay around.

In the teenage years, a person with a fear of abandonment may tend to cling to their friends. They may want to always be around their friends and experience emotional distress if a friend makes a new friend for fear they'll be left behind. If their friend knows their family history, they may understand this behavior, but it may also become off-putting.

If that's the case, they may end the friendship. That would then become a loss, and to that teenager, it can further reinforce their fears. Without having insight into how they contributed to that loss, the cycle may continue.

In adulthood, this person may be in and out of relationships due to their fear. They may become involved with a person whom they have difficulty trusting and who they think will abandon them. They may fear intimacy and feel afraid to love or need constant reassurance. Without reciprocated feelings, their partner may leave. The person may continue to not recognize any responsibility for the downfall of yet another relationship, and the cycle may continue.

This can continue for all relationships in a person's life until they finally realize how they may be contributing to this cycle of "everyone leaving” them.

While they were not responsible for the behaviors of their parent, recognizing that this is where these feelings may have begun and that they do not need to continue can lead to a healthy path forward. Once this is realized, the process of rebuilding may begin, and they may find that they can live a happy life with healthy relationships that last.

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Understand your fear of abandonment and move forward

One of the steps to overcoming being afraid of abandonment may be to rebuild your confidence in yourself and your relationships.

One way to build confidence may be through self-care strategies that help you meet your physical and emotional needs. By improving your self-esteem, you may develop a deeper understanding that you deserve love and that you can find someone who is worthy of your love. Learning how to build healthy relationships may be easier with the guidance of a counselor who has helped other people work through this process. 

Talking to a mental health professional

While people can grow and make strides in overcoming their fears on their own, it may be easier to address your fear of abandonment with the help of a licensed therapist. A therapist may be able to help you understand attachment theory and healthy human development to learn where your rejection sensitivity and fears are coming from. If you find it difficult to talk about this fear at a therapist’s office, you might consider online therapy, which has been shown to be just as effective as in-office talk therapy.

With BetterHelp, you can talk to a therapist via phone, live chat, or videoconferencing from the comfort of your home. You can also contact your therapist at any time via in-app messaging, and they’ll get back to you as soon as they can.

Takeaway

Fear of abandonment is a common concern that affects many people at some point in life, but it doesn’t have to last forever. If you’re experiencing behavior patterns that indicate you may have a fear of abandonment, you can connect with a licensed therapist in your community or online. BetterHelp has a network of more than 25,000 therapists, and you can be matched with someone who has experience addressing fear of abandonment and related concerns. Take the first step toward learning how to overcome abandonment issues and reach out to a mental health professional at BetterHelp today.

It is possible to overcome phobias
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