Fear of abandonment is the overwhelming worry that people close to you will leave.
Anyone can develop a fear of abandonment. It can be deeply rooted in a traumatic experience you had as a child or a distressing relationship in adulthood.
If you fear abandonment, it can be almost impossible to maintain healthy relationships. This paralyzing fear can lead you to wall yourself off to avoid getting hurt. Or you might be inadvertently sabotaging relationships.
The first step in overcoming your fear is to acknowledge why you feel this way. You may be able to address your fears on your own or with therapy. But fear of abandonment may also be part of a personality disorder that needs treatment.
Continue reading to explore the causes and long-term effects of a fear of abandonment and when you should seek help.
You may fear that someone you love is going to physically leave and not come back. You may fear that someone will abandon your emotional needs. Either can hold you back in relationships with a parent, partner, or friend.
Fear of emotional abandonment
It may be less obvious than physical abandonment, but it’s no less traumatic.
We all have emotional needs. When those needs aren’t met, you may feel unappreciated, unloved, and disconnected. You can feel very much alone, even when you’re in a relationship with someone who’s physically present.
If you’ve experienced emotional abandonment in the past, especially as a child, you may live in perpetual fear that it will happen again.
Fear of abandonment in children
It’s absolutely normal for babies and toddlers to go through a separation anxiety stage.
They may cry, scream, or refuse to let go when a parent or primary caregiver has to leave. Children at this stage have a hard time understanding when or if that person will return.
As they begin to understand that loved ones do return, they outgrow their fear. For most children, this happens by their 3rd birthday.
Abandonment anxiety in relationships
You may be afraid to let yourself be vulnerable in a relationship. You may have trust issues and worry excessively about your relationship. That can make you suspicious of your partner.
In time, your anxieties can cause the other person to pull back, perpetuating the cycle.
If you fear abandonment, you might recognize some of these symptoms and signs:
- overly sensitive to criticism
- difficulty trusting in others
- difficulty making friends unless you can be sure they like you
- taking extreme measures to avoid rejection or separation
- pattern of unhealthy relationships
- getting attached to people too quickly, then moving on just as quickly
- difficulty committing to a relationship
- working too hard to please the other person
- blaming yourself when things don’t work out
- staying in a relationship even if it’s not healthy for you
Abandonment issues in relationships
If you fear abandonment in your current relationship, it may be due to having been physically or emotionally abandoned in the past. For example:
- As a child, you may have experienced the death or desertion of a parent or caregiver.
- You may have experienced parental neglect.
- You may have been rejected by your peers.
- You went through a prolonged illness of a loved one.
- A romantic partner may have left you suddenly or behaved in an untrustworthy manner.
Such events can lead to a fear of abandonment.
Avoidant personality disorder
Avoidant personality disorder is a personality disorder that can involve fear of abandonment resulting in the person feeling socially inhibited or inadequate. Some other signs and symptoms are:
- poor self-esteem
- intense fear of being negatively judged or rejected
- discomfort in social situations
- avoidance of group activities and self-imposed social isolation
Borderline personality disorder
Borderline personality disorder is another personality disorder in which intense fear of abandonment can play a role. Other signs and symptoms can include:
- unstable relationships
- distorted self-image
- extreme impulsiveness
- mood swings and inappropriate anger
- difficulty being alone
Many people who have borderline personality disorder say they were sexually or physically abused as children. Others grew up amid intense conflict or had family members with the same condition.
Separation anxiety disorder
If a child doesn’t outgrow separation anxiety and it interferes with daily activities, they may have separation anxiety disorder.
Other signs and symptoms of separation anxiety disorder can include frequent:
- panic attacks
- distress at the thought of being separated from loved ones
- refusal to leave home without a loved one or be left home alone
- nightmares involving being separated from loved ones
- physical issues, like stomachache or headache, when separated from loved ones
Teens and adults can have separation anxiety disorder too.
Long-term effects of fear of abandonment can include:
- difficult relationships with peers and romantic partners
- low self-esteem
- trust issues
- anger issues
- mood swings
- fear of intimacy
- anxiety disorders
- panic disorders
Here are a few examples of what fear of abandonment can look like:
- Your fear is so significant that you don’t allow yourself to get close enough to anyone to let that happen. You may think, “No attachment, no abandonment.”
- You worry obsessively about your perceived faults and what others may think of you.
- You’re the ultimate people pleaser. You don’t want to take any chances that someone won’t like you enough to stick around.
- You’re absolutely crushed when someone offers a bit of criticism or gets upset with you in any way.
- You overreact when you feel slighted.
- You feel inadequate and unappealing.
- You break up with a romantic partner so they can’t break up with you.
- You’re clingy even when the other person asks for space.
- You’re often jealous, suspicious, or critical of your partner.
Fear of abandonment isn’t a diagnosable mental health disorder, but it can certainly be identified and addressed. Also, fear of abandonment can be part of a diagnosable personality disorder or other disorder that should be treated.
Once you recognize your fear of abandonment, there are some things you can do to begin healing.
Cut yourself some slack and stop the harsh self-judgment. Remind yourself of all the positive qualities that make you a good friend and partner.
Talk to the other person about your fear of abandonment and how it came to be. But be mindful of what you expect of others. Explain where you’re coming from, but don’t make your fear of abandonment something for them to fix. Don’t expect more of them than is reasonable.
Work on maintaining friendships and building your support network. Strong friendships can boost your self-worth and sense of belonging.
If you find this unmanageable, consider speaking to a qualified therapist. You may benefit from individual counseling.
Here are a few strategies to try if someone you know is dealing with fear of abandonment:
- Start the conversation. Encourage them to talk about it, but don’t pressure them.
- Whether it makes sense to you or not, understand that the fear is real for them.
- Assure them that you won’t abandon them.
- Ask what you can do to help.
- Suggest therapy, but don’t push it. If they express a desire to move forward, offer your assistance in finding a qualified therapist.
If you’ve tried but can’t manage your fear of abandonment on your own, or if you have symptoms of a panic disorder, anxiety disorder, or depression, see a healthcare provider.
You can start with your primary care physician for a complete checkup. They can then refer you to a mental health professional to diagnose and treat your condition.
Without treatment, personality disorders may lead to depression, substance use, and social isolation.
Fear of abandonment can have a negative impact on your relationships. But there are things you can do to minimize those fears.
When fear of abandonment is part of a broader personality disorder, it can be successfully treated with medications and psychotherapy.