Understanding Abandonment

Sad young man with his head in his hands is sitting on the floor

A fear of abandonment is a powerful negative emotion that often seems overwhelming. It most often comes from childhood experiences – and for many people, this unbearable sense and feeling haunt them throughout their life.

Experiencing emotional and/or physical abandonment in childhood is most often behind it. This can make someone feel not good enough, anxious, and ashamed.

For the rest of their life, it can affect people – particularly in their relationships. This is chiefly with romantic relationships but also friendships and business or work connections. As well, it can be part of the reason for some mental health issues. This includes especially alcoholism, addiction, anxiety, and depression.

What are the main causes behind abandonment issues?

sad depressed child sitting alone

If someone didn’t receive enough emotional and/or physical care while growing up, it can lead to them developing a fear of abandonment. This can be due to a parent or parents addicted to alcohol, or drugs, or a behavioral addiction. 

Also, it could be that a parent or both parents were suffering from a mental health condition such as depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder. Or it could be due to the loss of a parent through divorce/break-up, imprisonment, or death.

A fear of being betrayed is normally extremely strong in people who have been abandoned in some way in childhood. Sometimes a betrayal from a romantic partner in adolescence can play a major part in this too.

What is emotional abandonment?

While physical abandonment is often clear to see – a lack of adequate shelter; heating; meals; clothing; supervision; as well as physical and/or sexual abuse – emotional abandonment is much more difficult to notice.

Emotional abandonment is when:

  • A child is not seen as a distinct person with their own healthy boundaries. 
  • Parents do not give their children consistent gentle love and caring attention.
  • A child can never live up to parental expectations – some of which are unattainable and inappropriate for their age.
  • Parents see their children as an extension of themselves.
  • Parents pressurize their children to be perfect.
  • Disapproval towards a child is aimed at all of who they are rather than specific behavior.
  • Parents ignore and/or ridicule their children.
  • A child feels they need to hide a part or all of who they really are to not be rejected and so to survive in the family unit.
  • Parents treat their child as a peer – with no parent/child distinction.
  • A child is frequently blamed for the negative feelings and behavior of their parents.
  • A parent’s self-esteem comes from their child’s achievements and behavior.
  • Parents don’t allow children to emotionally express themselves.

What are the key signs someone has abandonment issues?

young couple fighting with each other

For people with childhoods in which they were emotionally and/or physically abandoned, any sign of something similar happening in adulthood can stir up almost the exact same feelings. These will be of terror and aloneness that can seem too much to bear. 

So they can react and behave in ways that are extremely emotional. Sometimes these are seemingly irrational for an adult.

Major signs that someone has abandonment issues:

  • Trouble trusting their partner.
  • Strong feelings of insecurity about relationships.
  • Having difficulty in being emotionally intimate.
  • Having a need to control (or sometimes be controlled) by their partner.
  • Separation anxiety.
  • Jealousy issues.
  • Get into relationships too swiftly.
  • Rejecting a partner before they can be rejected.
  • Cheating in case they are cheated on, so they have ‘won’.
  • Being a people-pleaser.
  • Staying in an unhealthy or abusive relationship in preference to being on their own.
  • Seemingly unable to have any healthy relationships.
  • Tendency to push people away if they are getting too close.
  • Expecting a partner to treat them in a similar way as they were treated by their parent/s. 
  • Displaying needy behavior in relationships.
  • More likely to suffer from depression, anxiety, and get addicted to alcohol, and drugs, or struggle with a behavioral addiction.

Abandonment and attachment styles

Transformational process of rehabilitation

Many relationship experts believe our relationship attachment styles are formed depending on how we interacted with our parents as children. Abandonment issues clearly affect relationship attachment styles.

In the 1950s, psychiatrist John Bowlby started looking in detail at relationships. He identified four attachment styles that develop due to our child-parent relationships.

  • Anxious attachment

Someone with abandonment issues is most likely to have an anxious attachment style. Also sometimes known as ambivalent attachment, ambivalent-anxious, or anxious-preoccupied, this attachment style arises when a child experiences a parenting pattern that’s inconsistent. 

Consequently, they are often very needy in their relationships, find it hard to trust, and continually feel unloved. They can also feel anxious if they are ever apart from their partner.

  • Avoidant attachment

The second attachment style that can develop is from experiencing parents who didn’t show responsiveness or care beyond providing the basic essentials, like food and shelter. The child learns to disregard their own needs in order to keep the peace and stay connected.

Somebody with an avoidant attachment style struggles with letting anyone get close to them, rarely asks for help, and can often appear withdrawn. They are also likely to have trouble showing their feelings and appear fiercely independent to avoid being hurt.

  • Disorganized attachment

Someone with abandonment issues can also have a disorganized attachment style, known as fearful-avoidant attachment in adults. This is essentially a combination of avoidant attachment style and anxious attachment style.

It typically arises when a child experiences physical, verbal, emotional, or sexual abuse from a parent or witnesses the parent harming others. Inner turmoil is created as they learn that someone who loves them can also ignore their needs or cause them harm.

Disorganized attachment style means they will either be very close or very distant in a relationship. They have a strong desire to develop intimate connections but put up walls to protect themselves from potential harm, often displaying mistrust, fear, and inner conflict.

Thankfully, therapy can help someone to understand and deal with abandonment issues and heal from their past. Our friendly, experienced team of carefully selected experts has helped people with all emotional issues and types of mental health problems.

Call us to find out how we can help you or someone you know, starting today.

David Hurst - Tikvah Lake Recovery

About David Hurst

David Hurst has four books published on mental health recovery, including 12 Steps To 1 Hero, The Anxiety Conversation and Words To Change Your Life. He has written for national newspapers and magazines around the world for 30 years including The Guardian, Psychologies, GQ, Esquire, Marie Claire and The Times. He has been in successful continual recovery since January 2002.

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