Understanding Abandonment Fears

Rev. Sheri Heller, LCSW


Last night, I dreamt my husband abruptly discarded me. In the dream, we were younger, in our 30’s. He was cavalier and indifferent about dissolving our relationship. In the dream, his dismissiveness destroyed me. I wept and wandered aimlessly through a forested area. The pain I experienced was all too familiar, as was the callous persona he displayed. Only the persona wasn’t his.

The relationship I share with him is a drastic departure from what I’ve known. It is reliable, fun, inspiring, creative, committed, and loving. So why are these relational injuries rearing their ugly head?

Consciously, I know in every fiber of my being that he is an ethical and responsible man. Nevertheless, scars of emotional trauma from childhood and subsequent betrayals die hard. My unconscious fears of abandonment portend that I can lose the love I have. That he will do to me what so many others have done.

The depletion I felt upon waking aroused reflection. My mind wandered onto memories of loss and desertion and landed on a long term relationship with a man whose character matched what was personified in the dream. This former boyfriend exuded ambivalence and self-absorption. His wounds complimented mine. We were both terrified of our dependency needs. He embodied the avoidance and I embodied the anxiety.

Unfortunately, what my dream revealed was that being repeatedly discarded with no compunction and no forewarning becomes an anticipated fait accompli. Irrespective of abiding devotion, innate fears of abandonment can still stymie my ability to trust that love can be steadfast and loyal.

The absence of a secure regulating attachment template within the infant-caregiver relationship and sundry early ruptures in bonding results in developmental arrest in which innate fears of abandonment fester.Additionally, an absence of a core identity and pervasive feelings of not existing occurs. This state of perceived danger locks one into psychological defenses designed to protect the self from further harm.

This condition is referred to as relational trauma. Relational trauma pertains to a “violation of human connection” (Judith Herman 1992), which results in attachment injuries.

Since abuse and neglect within the child-parent attachment bond are absorbed as cellular memory, neural dysregulation results and consequentially, an imprint of trauma that may be reenacted throughout life. Impairments with relatedness to others, affect regulation, difficulties with emotional self-regulation and behavioral control, alterations in consciousness, self-destructive behaviors, and a nihilistic world-view embody the plight of those afflicted with complex relational trauma.

Hence, this traumatic attachment template leads to subsequent victimization in which painful scenarios of rejection and abandonment are routinely replicated. These betrayals can calcify into paranoid fears of abandonment.

Author A.A. Milne wrote, “Promise me you’ll never forget me because if I thought you would, I’d never leave.” These words capture the essence of our intrinsic need to be remembered.

Those whose lives have been beset by rejection, cruelty, and abandonment desperately long to matter, to be remembered and held in one’s consciousness even when apart, but because of the injuries incurred, they lack object constancy.

Object constancy is a term coined from Object Relations Theory. Object constancy is the sustaining experience of others as predictable and available even when they are not immediately present. It signifies the ability to tolerate the relational ambiguity that comes with distance, conflict, and differences. It is the omnipresent assurance that we matter to another through thick and thin, even when we are not in their presence and even when difficulties ensue. It is the psychological foundation of a loving secure attachment.

My history with a schizophrenic mother who was in and out of mental hospitals throughout my life and a father steeped in malignant narcissism set me up to lack object constancy. This meant I struggled with incapacitating anxiety over being forgotten, abandoned, abused, or neglected. Due to my relational template, I typically selected those who fulfilled this debilitating prophecy. It wasn’t until I entered long term treatment at eighteen and began a serious relationship the following year that I could even begin to conceptualize what my panic was really about.

To be expected, I resisted my first healthy caring courtship. I felt engulfed and ‘bored’ by the lack of chaos and intensity, but I persevered given my therapist’s prompting and the encouragement of a friend. The unexpected gift of an adorable hamster made me succumb to infatuation, and eventually love. Although our five years together was a corrective relational experience, when we parted neither one of us had the ‘blueprint’ or the emotional resilience to maturely navigate our ending. There was still much more work to do.

The ebb and flow of trial and error played out with many suitors throughout the years, often with harrowing repercussions.

Desertion of self is the most tragic consequence of deep-seated abandonment fears.

It is still humbling after all these decades, to experience these core wounds emerge. I am reminded of what the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard imparted; if it isn’t paradox it isn’t truth. This premise clarifies how embracing what I feared fostered my healing. So I spent time alone and willingly released others. I left my toxic family. This eventually helped me traverse and manage the experience of abandonment. Enduring unbearable loneliness, not giving up on myself, in fact discovering who I am, led me to cease abandoning myself to fears that kept me stuck in a traumatic enactment.

Desertion of self is the most tragic consequence of deep-seated abandonment fears. Accepting my imperfections and the truth of my fears and insecurities allows me to select love that welcomes all the facets of who I am, including that which is messy and broken. There is beauty in the ugliness and although I may always contend with these fears I am grateful to know they no longer paralyze me and they no longer shame me. They are part of my story, my reality and all that I’ve been through.

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As a survivor (and thriver) of complex trauma and a seasoned therapist specializing in treating complex trauma, narcissistic abuse syndrome and addictions, I am intent on creating content that affords informative insight, hope and healing from psychological disorders. I aim for my creative content to assist readers with tapping into the resiliency of the human condition while recognizing the countless challenges of being human.

New York City, NY

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