A fear of being abandoned can wreck relationships. Psychologist Stanislava Puač Jovanović explores the signs to look out for when it comes to abandonment issues and how you can work through them.


Fear of abandonment comes in more than a single shape. Many of those experiencing abandonment issues may not even recognise their nemesis. Sometimes, conversely, it is rather apparent. You may constantly be seeking reassurance from your friends, family or partner. 


However, some people avoid getting too close to others altogether — for the same reason. Emotional coldness and being distanced are often a manifestation of the fear of being abandoned. This article will help you understand and recognise fear of abandonment and its causes — as well as how to cope with it.


What is fear of abandonment?

Every relationship resides on a healthy balance of togetherness and individuality. In other words, we all have our borders, no matter how close the relationship may be. However, when people have abandonment issues, they cannot tolerate any distance from their loved ones. They interpret these boundaries as rejection and abandonment.


Fear of abandonment is essentially an attachment issue. We will get more into how it develops later. At this point, we need to understand that fear of being abandoned is usually deeply entrenched in one’s psyche. 


A fear of being abandoned can cause issues shutterstock/Red Umbrella and Donkey

It can make you irrationally scared of your loved ones leaving. As a result, you find yourself seeking reassurance. Yet, there is no consoling you. No matter what the other person does, you obsess over the possibility of them walking out on you.


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Fear of abandonment makes one clingy and needy. And, sometimes, to defend themselves from the prospect of getting hurt, people decide to withdraw from relationships. They grow distant and cold and never get into a deeper, meaningful connection with the other person. 


Is fear of abandonment a mental disorder?

Abandonment issues exist on a continuum. In some cases, fear of being abandoned surfaces only in stressful situations. It is mild and does not severely affect the person’s life. 


Nonetheless, even in those cases, it is an uncomfortable emotion to live with. On the other end of the scale, such a fear may overtake the affected person’s relationships. If it becomes excessive and lasts for over six months, it may be classified as a form of anxiety disorder. In fact, the fear of abandonment is quite prevalent and debilitating. To meet the diagnostic criteria, fear of abandonment needs to be recurrent, disproportionate and incapacitating.


Signs of fear of abandonment

It is perfectly normal to feel somewhat insecure in a relationship. Yearning for the feeling of safety and acceptance is natural. Asking for extra support from your friends, family or romantic partners when you need it is a sign of a healthy bond. 


However, there is a difference between the wish to feel supported and accepted and abandonment anxiety.


Here are a few signs that you – or perhaps someone you love – is living with fear of abandonment:

  • Thoughts of being separated from your loved one(s) cause terror and unbearable anxiety
  • You have obsessive thoughts about something horrible happening to your loved one or them leaving you
  • You have trouble functioning optimally because of the fear of being abandoned, and it is affecting your relationships, education or career
  • When your loved one reassures you about their devotion, it does not calm you for long
  • The constant reassurance-seeking stresses you and your loved ones, putting strain on your relationship


Fear of being abandoned most often tends to manifest itself in two situations, according to research. 


One is when you meet the right person — in this context, it means the partner who triggers your insecurities. When you get involved with such a person, a night out with their friends or business trip become the source of dread. You start obsessing over a myriad of ways in which you could be forsaken — from love affairs to planes crashing down. 


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The other situation with high potency in triggering abandonment issues is when one becomes a parent. You might be described as a helicopter parent. You are terrified that your child would hurt themselves. Deep inside, you are petrified because you believe they will not love you and would leave the moment they get old enough to do so. So, you hover and never leave their side. 


Causes of fear of abandonment

There is no single cause (or theory explaining) fear of abandonment. In most cases, our childhood experiences predisposed us to fear being abandoned as adults. Whether it was an enacted abandonment or an emotional one, it can leave a psychological scar. Anxiety associated with the initial trauma gets ingrained into the mind. It becomes a blueprint for how future relationships are going to be perceived. The pattern is then likely to be replayed throughout life. 


Sometimes, the abandonment happened because the caregiver had left (forever or for longer periods) or passed away. Such an early abandonment might have caused problems with developing object constancy. Unconditional love and the basic sense of emotional security are necessary for a child to learn that parents are there and care, even when they are not present. If the process is broken, the child never learns to trust their bond with another human being. 


“Fear of abandonment makes one clingy and needy. And, sometimes, to defend themselves from the prospect of getting hurt, people decide to withdraw from relationships.”


Inconsistent and emotionally distant parenting could also lead to the development of the predisposition for abandonment issues. If your parents were cold or withdrawn for any reason (such as in severely depressive parents or when substance abuse is involved), you might have felt abandoned. Even though they were physically present, your attempts to get them to become more affectionate had failed. You transferred the model to your adult relationships. 


However, childhood separation trauma is not the only trigger of adult abandonment issues. Severely stressful experiences in adulthood also have the power to induce separation anxiety. 


Clingy partners can push the other away shutterstock/Studio Romantic

Research revealed that adult refugees had developed separation anxiety due to the continual threats to them and their families. Other traumatic experiences can also lead to abandonment issues, even in adults who had idyllic relationships with their caregivers in childhood. 


As a result of past experiences of abandonment, you now need the consistent presence of your loved ones to be able to see and trust their commitment. If they do not pick up the phone or check in, you become flooded with fears, doubts, and anxiety. 


Coping with fear of abandonment

The need for closeness with the ones we love is an inborn human trait. We cannot get rid of the uneasiness when we imagine being deserted completely. Yet, when your fear of being abandoned grows out of proportion, you expose yourself to risk. Of what sort? 

  • Pushing others away As I mentioned in the introduction, some people try to fight off the fear of abandonment by preventing it. They minimise the chances of getting hurt by not allowing themselves to create a profound bond with others. However, if you end up doing this, you are robbing yourself of the opportunity to enjoy rewarding relationships. 
  • Abuse and dysfunctional relationships Unfortunately, those afraid of being abandoned sometimes bend over backwards to please the significant other. As a result, they are often involved with abusive partners and live in codependent relationships. Abuse is bound to have detrimental consequences in one way or the other. A study on incarcerated women determined a high prevalence of abandonment issues in those who ended up murdering their abusive partners. 
  • Emotional disturbances Abandonment issues make you vulnerable to emotional disturbances. High levels of depression, anxiety and stress are pervasive among those who experience severe fear of abandonment. Insecure attachment can even increase the risk of suicide, according to research.

So, how to prevent all of this from happening to you? Or how to heal from fear of abandonment and its aftermath? 


Here are a few possible routes for you to take:


1. Self-care and self-love

When you fear being abandoned, you might become a people-pleaser. You could be bending over backwards to ensure your loved ones are happy with you and would not leave your side. However, now you need to start taking care of yourself — and learn to love yourself unconditionally. Develop healthy habits. Nurture self-kindness and be compassionate to yourself. Love and forgive yourself. You are worthy. 


2. Challenging and transforming your self-image

Abandonment fears are based on a distorted self-image. You might be unconsciously evaluating yourself against unrealistic standards. For example, unless your partner adores you divinely — and shows this love incessantly — you might be convinced that you are entirely unlovable. This is simply not realistic. So, start journaling about your automated reactions and thoughts. Examine them. Are you truly loathsome if your partner does not respond to a message right away? Or is there another, more rational explanation? 




3. Change the way you see relationships

In a similar way in which you may be basing your self-respect (or lack thereof) on twisted self-image, your relationship expectations could also be coming from unrealistic convictions. Use the same journal you did in the previous step. Only now, explore your potentially erroneous beliefs about how relationships work. 


4. If you are on the receiving end 

Being the one who is on the receiving end of abandonment issues is challenging for sure. To try and build a healthy relationship for both, start with empathy. Understand where your partner’s or loved one’s fears are coming from. This article explained how this might be a pattern for which you are probably not responsible. Nonetheless, the fear is real, and it is reflected in your relationship. Therefore, be mindful of the triggers.


“Being the one who is on the receiving end of abandonment issues is challenging for sure. To try and build a healthy relationship for both, start with empathy.”


Ask your partner for some realistic ways in which you can help them calm down when they are feeling anxious. Devise a plan together. Also, do not forget to take care of your emotional and other needs too. Self-care is universal advice. We need to be well in order to help anyone feel better, too. 


5. Reach out to a psychotherapist

Lastly, but importantly — do reach out. Contact a therapist or a counsellor who can help you work through your abandonment issues. Sometimes, no matter how much we try, we are unable to see ourselves objectively. A psychologist will be able to provide a safe place for you to explore your insecurities. With their help, you will get rid of your fears once and for all so that you can enjoy fulfilling deep relationships and all that comes with them. 


Saying goodbye to your abandonment issues

Fear of abandonment may have been your companion for a long time. It probably feels familiar and safe. You put up with it even though it is ruining your chances of healthy relationships — with others, as well as with yourself. You do it because you feel that it protects you. However, as this article has shown you, abandonment issues merely expose you to pain, not prevent it. 


If you are ready to move on and abandon your fear of abandonment for good, make the first step today. Acknowledge the anxiety and its causes, recognise its outcomes, and decide to part with it. Seek professional help to support you on your path towards the new, confident and independent you — and you will get there sooner than you expected. 



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Written by Stanislava Puač Jovanović

bert.jpgStanislava Puač Jovanović has a master’s degree in psychology and works as a freelance writer and researcher in this area. Her primary focus is on questions relating to mental health, stress-management, self-development and well-being.



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A very enlightening insightful article, thank you!

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