People with abandonment issues struggle with a deep fear of being hurt, rejected or abandoned. Usually, a fear of abandonment develops in responses to specific painful or traumatic experiences like childhood abuse, neglect, or the loss of a loved one. Abandonment issues are closely linked to insecure attachment styles which are characterized by difficulty forming close, stable relationships with others.
If you or a loved one is struggling with abandonment issues, therapy may be able to help you move forward. If you are currently in a relationship that is being affected by your abandonment issues, consider seeking out a therapist who specializes in couples therapy.
Understanding the Fear of Abandonment
Fears of abandonment can usually be traced back to specific painful experiences of being betrayed, hurt, or abandoned by someone. Often, abandonment issues stem from early childhood traumas involving a parent or caregiver. Early interactions between a child and their parent or caregiver impact all aspects of a child’s physical, cognitive, social, and emotional development, and abandonment issues stemming from childhood often persist into adulthood.3
When parents and caregivers respond in consistent warm, attentive ways to the feelings and needs of children, children develop a “secure attachment” and are able to develop normally. When this does not happen, the child remains in a state of chronic stress and fear, stunting their development and preventing specific important social and emotional milestones from being reached. This leads to the development of an “insecure attachment style.”2,3
Attachment styles are relevant to several aspects of a child’s development, and continue to impact a person across the lifespan.7 Attachment styles affect a person’s ability to develop healthy, trusting relationships and to connect with others. Attachment styles also influence the way that a person perceives themselves and others, helping form core beliefs that inform their actions and choices. The ability to communicate feelings, wants and needs is also influenced by attachment styles, as is the way a person responds to conflict and stress.3,7
Types of Insecure Attachments Related to Abandonment Issues
According to Attachment Theory, credited to the work of John Bowlby, early childhood interactions between a child and their caregivers is a primary determinant of whether a person develops a secure or insecure attachment style. According to the theory, children with warm, consistently responsive caregivers will go on to develop a secure attachment.3
A secure attachment style represents a person who learns to trust and open up to others, is responsive and warm to others, and can form healthy and close relationships. Those without these experiences may go on to develop an insecure attachment.3
Most researchers agree that there are three distinct types of insecure attachment styles. Each of the insecure attachment styles is believed to stem from relational trauma, and more specifically from early interactions with caregivers who were unresponsive, unpredictable, or abusive. Each insecure attachment style features distinct patterns of behavior, defense mechanisms, and ways of coping with the fear of abandonment.
The three insecure attachment styles are:1,5
Avoidant Attachment Style
People with an avoidant attachment style tend to cope with abandonment issues by not allowing people to get close to them, and not opening up and trusting others. They may be characteristically distant, private, or withdrawn. They often fear commitment and avoid conflict by either shutting down, leaving, or even ending the relationship.
Anxious Attachment Style
People with an anxious attachment style cope with fears of abandonment by latching on to others and developing intensely close and dependent relationships. They often are needy, persistent, and have difficulty separating themselves from their partner in healthy ways. They tend to be emotionally reactive, interpreting conflict or arguments as a signal that their partner will leave them and engaging in fear-based behavior to avoid being abandoned.
Disorganized Attachment Style
People with a disorganized attachment style tend to be uncomfortable with intimacy and closeness, and often lack empathy. This attachment style is distinguished by inconsistencies in the way a person behaves and responds in relationships, sometimes exhibiting features of either anxious or avoidant styles.5 Disorganized attachment is sometimes associated with antisocial, narcissistic, or borderline personality traits and disorders.
Signs of Abandonment Issues
Abandonment issues show up in a person’s relationships, and tend to impact romantic relationships the most. People with abandonment issues are more likely to have developed specific defense mechanisms that make it more difficult to form close, healthy relationships. The particular types of defense mechanisms a person with abandonment issues develops can be different. These are categorized as different “attachment styles.”
Signs of Abandonment Issues in Children
In children, abandonment issues often show up as anxiety, especially when separating from a caregiver. Children with abandonment issues may be more easily upset and often have difficulty regulating their emotions. They may exhibit negative attention-seeking behaviors and have outbursts or tantrums.
They can either demonstrate avoidant or antisocial behaviors, withdrawing from peers or bullying others. They might also be either very fearful of adults or overly trusting, developing fast dependencies.3,5,7
Signs of Abandonment Issues in Adults
Adults with abandonment issues will display similar unhealthy patterns in their relationships. Some will push people away, withdraw and avoid trusting or opening up to people. Others will become overly needy in relationships, and will develop patterns of codependency, relying on the other person to meet all of their emotional needs.
Others with abandonment fears will allow people to get close, but become volatile, aggressive, or emotionally reactive with their partner when they feel threatened or upset. Each of these distinct patterns represents a specific type of insecure attachment.5,7
Causes and Triggers of Abandonment Issues
Experiencing abuse, neglect or a traumatic loss of a loved one is the most common cause of abandonment issues, especially when these occur in early childhood. It is generally believed that the first year of life is especially impactful to a child’s development, and that a child’s attachment style is formed by age 5.3
Abandonment issues which begin in childhood are almost always the result of Adverse Childhood Experiences (or ACE’s), which describe different types of stressful and traumatic experiences.
These experiences lead to the development of negative beliefs about oneself and others that form the basis for insecure attachments and abandonment fears. These beliefs can include self-worth issues like believing one is unlovable or unworthy, beliefs that others are untrustworthy, or believing people will always end up leaving. These core beliefs are referred to as “Internal Working Models” in Attachment theory, and are believed to drive insecure attachment patterns, even in adulthood.3,7
Some of the childhood experiences that can lead to abandonment issues and insecure attachment styles include:4,7
- Having a caregiver who is neglectful or unresponsive to the feelings and needs of a child (more likely to lead to an avoidant attachment style)
- Having a caregiver who is physically or emotionally abusive or intimidating
- Having a caregiver who is inconsistent, sometimes warm and attentive and other times cold and unresponsive or abusive (more likely to lead to anxious attachment style)
- Being the victim of sexual abuse, especially as a child or teen
- Having a caregiver who is separated or absent (death of a parent, incarceration, or a parent who is not an active caregiver)
Abandonment fears can be caused by any of these experiences, and are not always the direct result of one particular event, but instead a pattern of not consistently meeting a child’s physical and emotional needs. Sometimes, this is caused by certain environmental factors or circumstances, instead of parenting deficits.
These environmental and social risk factors include things like being exposed to violence in the community or within the home, coming from a low socio-economic status, or being a minority.4 Children who are raised in adoptive families or who are placed in foster care also often struggle with fears of abandonment and insecure attachments.3
Even children from loving stable homes could have developed abandonment issues if a parent was frequently working or traveling, or if one parent struggled with a chronic health or mental health condition.
While experiencing trauma in childhood is more likely to lead to insecure attachment, experiences later on in life may also cause insecure attachments and abandonment fears. For instance, being in an emotionally, physically or sexually abusive relationship, being cheated on or betrayed, or experiencing rejection as an adult could trigger these fears.
While not everyone who has these experiences will go on to develop abandonment issues, some will. This happens when the person’s unresolved trauma from one relationship is carried over and impacts a person’s future relationships.
The Long Term Effects of Abandonment Issues
Because abandonment issues are closely linked to childhood traumas, research done on the long term effects of childhood trauma may also apply to those with abandonment issues. One of the most widely referenced studies on these topics was a study on the long-term effects of Adverse Childhood Experiences.
This study found that people who reported these traumatic childhood experiences were:4,6
- At higher risk for a range of chronic health issues including cancer, diabetes, autoimmune conditions, obesity and heart disease
- At higher risk for depression and suicide, as well as anxiety, PTSD, addiction, and developing any mental health condition
- An increased risk for developing personality disorders or borderline, narcissistic or antisocial traits
- More likely to show signs of delayed development including poorer attention spans, memory and learning skills
- More likely to experience problems and difficulties in their interpersonal relationships
- Less able to regulate and control emotions, self-soothe, and use healthy communication and coping skills
Statistics on Abandonment Issues
Because of the interrelatedness between abandonment issues, Adverse Childhood Experiences, and insecure attachment styles, some of the following statistics provide a better understanding of abandonment issues:4,6,8
- 50% of children in the US will experience adversity before the age of 18
- Children who experience adversity (ACE’s) are 3-4 times more likely to develop mental health conditions by the time they become adults
- Worldwide, one third of mental health conditions can be traced back to Adverse Childhood Experiences
- The most common types of Adverse Childhood Experiences reported are:
- Physical abuse (28.3%)
- Substance abuse in the home (26.9%)
- Parental separation or divorce (23.3%)
- Sexual abuse (20.7%)
- Mental illness in the home (19.4%)
- Out of all substantiated cases of child abuse and neglect in 2018:
- 60.8% were cases of neglect
- 10.7% were cases of physical abuse
- 7% were sexual abuse
- 21.5% cases involved more than one kind of maltreatment
- Children under the age of one year old are at highest risk of mistreatment, making up over 15% of all substantiated cases of abuse or neglect
- In 91.7% of all substantiated cases of child abuse and neglect, the perpetrator is one or both parents
When & How to Seek Help for Abandonment Issues
If you or a loved one is struggling with abandonment issues, you may benefit from seeking professional counseling.
Some of the signs that could indicate a need for professional help include:
- Difficulty forming close romantic relationships or friendships
- Intense anxiety about commitment that impacts a significant relationship
- Difficulty being open, vulnerable, or trusting others because of past experiences
- Intense emotional responses towards a partner during conflict, disagreements, or when engaging in separate activities
- Patterns of choosing partners who are abusive, controlling, needy, emotionally unstable or unavailable
- Patterns of unhealthy communication, conflict styles, or behaviors that damage or end important relationships
- Consistent feedback from others that you are too needy, emotionally unstable, or reactive
- A pattern of “losing yourself” in relationships, changing important parts of your life, or behavior or personality to be loved or accepted by a partner
- An inability to tolerate any degree of independence or separation in relationships
- Perceiving any disagreement, critical feedback, or issues in a relationship as a sign the person will leave or the relationship is ending
- Significant past traumas or unhealed emotional wounds that continue to bother you or impact your relationships or behavior in unwanted ways
If your abandonment issues stem from unresolved trauma or Adverse Childhood Experiences, consider seeking a counselor who is experienced in treating trauma. Because abandonment issues and attachment styles are interrelated, consider seeking a therapist who has training in Attachment theory.
If you are currently in a relationship that is being affected by your abandonment issues, consider seeking out a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist who specializes in couples therapy.
Where to Find a Therapist
Often, using an online directory is a good starting place for finding a counselor. In addition to filtering your search according to the specialities listed above, consider taking these additional steps to ensure you find a counselor who is a good match for you:
- Check with your insurance company about your mental health benefits and, if applicable, make sure to filter your search to find a therapist who is in-network with your plan
- Come up with a short list of possible counselors and request a free consultation with each to ask questions and discuss your treatment needs
- Make sure to consider logistical needs like your availability, the location of the counselor, and whether they offer online counseling
- Schedule an initial intake appointment with a counselor, and remember that if you decide it is not a good fit, you can request a referral or switch to a new counselor
Tips to Help Overcome Abandonment Issues
In addition to working with a counselor, there are also some things you can do on your own to help overcome your abandonment issues, including:
Determine Your Attachment Style
To determine if you have a secure or insecure attachment style, you can use the Adult Attachment Scale, which can be used to identify whether you have a secure or insecure attachment (Note that this scale does not include the 4th “Disorganized” attachment style).
If you are trying to determine if your child has abandonment or attachment issues, consider learning more about the Ainsworth Strange Situations assessment.
Learn More About Your Style, Specific Defenses, and What Triggers Them
The next step is to learn more about your specific attachment style and identify some of your own patterns. Consider this list of books to help you do this research.
Next, note some of the specific ways your attachment and abandonment issues show up, so that you can be more aware of them.
Some patterns to identify include:
- What past or childhood experiences these issues stem from
- How these experiences affected your view of yourself, others, and relationships
- What situations trigger these memories or insecurities now
- How you typically respond when triggered (what you do/say)
- How these responses cause problems or act as a barrier in relationships
Practice More Effective Responses
While you cannot change the traumas or painful experiences that caused your abandonment issues, you can work to heal from them and change your patterns. While these old defenses and ways of coping with your fear of abandonment may have helped protect you in the past, they may be getting in your way now.
If so, work to identify new, healthier, and more effective responses during times when these fears are triggered.
These responses might include:
- Learning when “old” feelings and fears are being triggered and taking a break to cool off or process through these feelings before reacting
- Learning to have difficult conversations in calm, respectful ways
- Talking about how you feel with your partner and asking for what you need
- Asking for and accepting help when you need it, even when it’s scary
- Learning not to act on your fears, but instead to act in ways that protect the relationships you care about most
- Becoming more independent and having healthy amounts of separate time and space in relationships, while still maintaining closeness
- Avoiding becoming automatically defensive when someone hurts, upsets or offends you
Additional Resources on Abandonment Issues
- Attachment and Trauma Institute: This institute provides resources, training and counseling for trauma survivors who are looking to heal old attachment wounds.
- Trauma Resilience Model (TRM): This model helps trauma survivors learn about how their brains and nervous systems are impacted by trauma, and the trainings teach skills on how to regulate these responses.