Fear of abandonment may affect how you experience relationships, but understanding where it comes from could be the key to fulfilling connections.
While abandonment anxiety is often painful, you can overcome it.
The first step may be to get to the root of your fear of being abandoned and gain a deeper understanding of yourself that helps you form secure and meaningful connections with others.
It’s natural to fear losing someone you love. But if you persistently worry about others leaving you, even when there’s no evidence they will, you may be living with abandonment anxiety or fear of abandonment.
Fear of abandonment isn’t a mental health diagnosis, but it’s sometimes related to mental health conditions such as borderline personality disorder (BPD).
Fear of abandonment is deeply connected to emotions like shame and anxiety.
You may experience fear of either emotional or physical abandonment. Here’s the difference:
- Emotional abandonment refers to emotional distance. If you’ve been emotionally neglected in the past by parents, a caregiver, or a partner, you might fear that other people will neglect you too.
- Physical abandonment happens when an important person exits your life. For example, you might live with fear of abandonment today that is connected to a parent leaving in your childhood.
Fear of abandonment may lead you to experience what some people call “commitment issues,” an intense fear of getting permanently close to somebody else.
If fear of abandonment plays a big role in your life or the life of a loved one, it can show up in how you manage your emotions and behaviors.
Emotional signs of fear of abandonment:
- panic or anxiety about being alone or not coupled
- sensitivity to criticism or rejection
- shame and self-blame when something goes wrong in the relationship
- fear of intimacy or closeness
- worry when a relationship seems to be going “too well”
Behavioral signs of fear of abandonment:
- using comfort foods or substances to cope when stressed about a relationship
- tendency to pull away physically or emotionally when feeling criticized
- codependency, or placing the needs of a partner over your own
- history of relationships that haven’t supported your mental and emotional health
- tendency to become attached quickly in a new relationship
Children can also show some unique signs of abandonment fear, such as:
- crying when separated from primary caregivers
- stress and withdrawal in new situations
- either more clinginess or more detachment from parents than usual
- anxiety about going to school or day care
It’s natural to have doubts or concerns sometimes in an important relationship. But unlike temporary insecurity, fear of abandonment tends to be a pattern of responses and behaviors that doesn’t go away unless you address it.
Fearing others will abandon you may impact your interactions and how you interpret your partner’s reactions and behaviors.
You may feel you have to act a certain way to keep your partner, or you may have trouble being intimate and expressive out of fear of rejection.
In some cases, you may even spend a lot of time looking for flaws in your partner or the relationship.
While this can sometimes lead to the end of the connection, it can also serve as a form of emotional self-defense.
When fear of abandonment overlaps with a personality disorder, your relationships might be more severely affected. Research from 2017 focusing on abandonment fear in people with BPD suggests that women with the disorder were more likely to do things they didn’t want to do — like have sex — for fear of losing their relationship.
Psychologist John Bowlby developed attachment theory, which suggests that the way we connect with our caregivers in early life shapes how we form attachments with people as adults.
Mary Ainsworth, a psychologist who built upon Bowlby’s theory, created categories for different types of attachment style. Today, we generally recognize four types:
- secure attachment
- avoidant attachment
- anxious attachment
- disorganized attachment
Avoidant, anxious, and disorganized are all known as insecure attachment styles, which can make it harder to form close and mutually beneficial relationships.
Research suggests a link between fear of abandonment and insecure attachment styles, especially anxious attachment.
Separation anxiety disorder
While separation anxiety is fairly common in young children, you can experience it at any age. Some symptoms of separation anxiety disorder are:
- fear of being separated from loved ones that isn’t developmentally typical of your age
- recurring worries and distress about losing someone important
- distress when left alone or separated from a loved one
- physical symptoms like nausea, headaches, and stomachaches when thinking about or experiencing separation
Research from 2014 suggests that certain parts of the brain may help explain why abandonment fear is a common part of separation anxiety.
Specifically, having a hyperactive amygdala made people with separation anxiety more tuned to clues that someone was about to leave them.
Trauma and past experiences
Childhood trauma or traumatic events can increase your likelihood of experiencing fear of abandonment in current relationships.
A personality disorder is a condition that affects your thoughts, feelings, and behavior and can make many aspects of your daily life — like your job, self-care, and relationships — more difficult.
Some personality disorders can lead to fear of abandonment, such as:
- Borderline personality disorder. For people with BPD, abandonment anxiety often feeds into unstable relationships and fear of being alone. Research from 2018 highlights that emotional neglect and trauma and genetic traits could be at the root of abandonment fear for those with BPD.
- Avoidant personality disorder. A
2015 studysuggests that attachment anxiety and fear of abandonment both play key roles in avoidant personality disorder.
- Dependent personality disorder. Fear of abandonment is a common symptom of dependent personality disorder. People with this personality disorder are more likely to express this anxiety by trying to stay close to those they’re most connected to.
Depending on what’s contributing to your abandonment anxiety, you can try different approaches to manage it.
A therapist can help you recognize and overcome your fear of being abandoned by empowering you to:
- discover your attachment style and how it impacts your relationships
- learn how to form secure attachments with others
- develop your emotion regulation skills
- find out whether a personality disorder or anxiety disorder is causing your abandonment anxiety
- heal from trauma or childhood experiences that contribute to your fear of abandonment
Talk therapy with a professional you trust can help with fear of abandonment in multiple ways.
Some specific types of therapy may be especially helpful for sorting out where your abandonment anxiety comes from and how to cope with it:
- Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). In DBT, you can learn emotion regulation skills and self-soothing techniques. It’s also a common treatment for BPD.
- Emotionally focused therapy (EFT). EFT focuses on helping you identify your attachment style and how it influences the way you relate to others.
- Psychodynamic therapy. This approach
could helpyou manage some personality disorders, including BPD. Psychodynamic therapy may also help you recognize behavior patterns linked to your abandonment anxiety.
Learning about yourself can help you identify how abandonment anxiety impacts your thoughts and actions — and, as an extension of those things, your relationships.
While self-discovery is often a part of therapy, you can also practice it on your own by:
- keeping a log of your feelings and events that might be causing them
- curiously checking in with yourself when you feel a surge of emotion — you can start with something like, “Wow, this is a strong feeling. What memories or fears could be at the root of this?”
- reading up on attachment theory and considering what attachment style you’ve developed
- using a workbook (like this one) to identify situations that induce your fear of abandonment so you can be better prepared with coping techniques
Community and connection can be important parts of healing from trauma.
You might find a support group helpful if you:
- experienced a traumatic abandonment in the past
- grew up with emotionally unavailable or distant parents or caregivers
- find yourself repeating patterns in relationships that you’d like to change
Some support groups for abandonment fear are local, and many focus on abandonment in the context of romantic relationships. You can also check out this online community.
Self-compassion, a way of viewing yourself first with kindness instead of judgment, can help you combat shame and other thoughts that might come up alongside your abandonment anxiety, like:
- “I’m not good enough for my partner.”
- “I deserve to be left on my own.”
- “I’m not loveable.”
Fear of abandonment can cause distress in your life and impact your relationships. Trauma, attachment style, and personality disorders may all contribute to this anxiety.
Overcoming abandonment anxiety often involves recognizing how thoughts and feelings influence your behaviors. With the right approach and support, your chances of overcoming this fear are promising.