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.