Anxiety is a normal part of being in an intimate relationship. It usually comes in two forms — the fear of abandonment, and the fear of engulfment. Part of us worries that if we dive in to love, we will be abandoned. On the flip side, we fear that if someone gets too close, we will be swamped or never able to leave.
This article focuses on the fear of abandonment, which, to its excess, could show up as a lingering feeling of insecurity, intrusive thoughts, emptiness, unstable sense of self, clinginess, neediness, extreme mood fluctuations and frequent relationship conflicts. On the flip side, one might also cope by cutting off completely, and become emotionally numb.
Neuroscientists have found that our parents’ response to our attachment-seeking behaviors, especially during the first two years of our lives, encode our model of the world. If as infants, we have healthy attachment interactions with an attuned, available, and nurturing caregiver, we will be able to develop a sense of safety and trust. If our parent were able to respond to our calls for feeding and comfort most of the time, we would internalize the message that the world is a friendly place; when we are in need, someone will come and help us. We would also learn to calm ourselves in time of distress, and this forms our resilience as adults.
If, in contrast, the message that we were given as an infant was that the world is unsafe and that people cannot be relied upon, it would affect our ability to withstand uncertainty, disappointments and relationships ups and downs.
Most people can withstand some degree of relational ambiguity, and not be entirely consumed by worrying about potential rejection. When we argue with our loved ones, we can later bounce back from the negative event. When they are not physically by our side, we have an underlying trust that we are on their mind. All these involve something called Object Constancy, the ability to maintain an emotional bond with others even where there are distance and conflicts.
Object Constancy originates from the concept of Object Permanence — a cognitive skill we acquire at around 2 to 3 years old. It is the understanding that objects continue to exist even when they cannot be seen, touched, or sensed in some way. This is why babies love peekaboo — when you hide your face, they think it ceases to exist. According to psychologist Piaget, who founded the idea, achieving Object Constancy is a developmental milestone.
Object Constancy is a psychodynamic concept, and we could think of it as the emotional equivalence of Object Permanence. To develop this skill, we mature into the understanding that our caregiver is simultaneously a loving presence and a separate individual who could walk away. Rather than needing to be with them all the time, we have an ‘internalized image’ of our parents’ love and care. So even when they are temporarily out of sight, we still know we are loved and supported.
In adulthood, Object Constancy allows us to trust that our bond with those who are close to us remains whole even when they are not physically around, picking up the phone, replying to our texts, or even frustrated at us. With Object Constancy, absence does not mean disappearance or abandonment, only temporary distance.
Since no parent could be available and attuned 100% of the time, we all suffer at least some minor bruises in learning to separate and individuate. However, when one had experienced more severe early or even preverbal attachment trauma, have extremely inconsistent or emotionally unavailable caregivers, or a chaotic upbringing, their emotional development might have been stunted at a delicate age, and they never had the opportunity to develop Object Constancy.
The lack of Object Constancy is at the heart of Borderline Personality traits. For the insecurely attached individuals, any kind of distance, even brief and benign ones, trigger them to re-experience the original pain of being left alone, dismissed, or disdain. Their fear could trigger coping survival modes such as denial, clinging, avoidance and dismissing others, lashing out in relationships, or the pattern of sabotaging relationships to avoid potential rejection.
Without Object Constancy, one tends to relate to others as “parts,” rather than “whole.” Just like a child who struggles to comprehend the mother as a complete person who sometimes rewards and sometimes frustrates, they struggle to hold the mental idea that both themselves and ourselves have both good and bad aspects. They may experience relationships as unreliable, vulnerable, and heavily dependent on the mood of the moment. There seems to be no continuity in the way they view their partner — it shifts moment to moment and is either good or bad.
Without the ability to see people as whole and constant, it becomes difficult to evoke the sense of the presence of the loved one when they are not physically present. The feeling of being left on their own can become so powerful and overwhelming that it evoke raw, intense and sometimes child-like reactions. When abandonment fear is triggered, shame and self-blame closely follow, further destabilizing the anxious person’s emotions. Because the origins of these strong reactions were not always conscious, it would seem as though they were “unreasonable” or “immature.” In truth, if we think of them as acting from a place of repressed or dissociated trauma — and consider what it was like for a 2-year-old to be left alone or be with an inconsistent caregiver — the intense fear, rage, and despair would all make sense.
Healing from the Void
A big part of developing Object Constancy is to have the ability to hold paradoxes in our mind. The same way the caregiver who feeds us is also the one who fails us, we must come to grapple with the truth that no relationship or people are all good or all bad.
If we can hold both the faults and the virtues in ourselves and others, we would not have to resort to the primitive defense of “splitting,” or black-or-white thinking. We do not have to devalue our partner because they have disappointed us completely. We could also forgive ourselves. Just because we are not perfect all the time does not mean we are, therefore defective or unworthy of love.
Our partner could be limited and good enough at the same time.
They could love and be angry at us at the same time.
They might need to distance themselves from us sometimes, but the foundation of the bond remains solid.
Fear of abandonment is over-powering because it brings back the deep trauma that we carry from when we were a little child, being thrown into this world as helpless beings, utterly dependent on those around us. But we must acknowledge that our fears no longer reflects our current reality. Although there is never absolute certainty and safety in life, we are an adult now and have different choices.
As adults, we could no longer be “abandoned” — if a relationship comes to an end, it is the natural consequences of a mismatch in two people’s values, needs, and life paths.
We could no longer be “rejected” — for the value of our existence does not depend on the opinions of others.
We could no longer be engulfed or trapped. We can say no, set limits, and walk away.
As a resilient adult, we could cradle the 2-month-old inside of us that was terrified of being dropped, we learn to stay inside of our bodies even in fear without dissociating, and we could stay in relationships with others even in the midst of uncertainty, without running away into avoidance and defenses.
Rather than getting stuck in a search for the “missing piece,” we come to recognize ourselves as a whole and integrated being.
The trauma of being dropped and left alone has passed, and we are given the opportunity for a new life.