Abandonment Issues Can, but Don't Have to, Damage Your Relationship
No matter how much we try to protect our mental health, there are always situations where others inflict pain on us, intentionally or not. This pain can come in many forms, including abandonment, which is far more common and far more complex than you might think.
"Abandonment can be defined as any time you need someone's support and, for whatever reason, they're not present for you," said Amelia Roeschlein, a family therapist who holds a doctorate in social work and works as a consultant with the National Council of Mental Wellbeing in Washington, D.C. "This makes a deep wound, but the research shows it is possible to heal from this."
Processing these events and learning how they impact your emotional connections with other people is an important healing process that creates healthy relationships in all areas of life.
The root of fear
When you spend your days thinking your partner is trying to push you away or abandon you, it's very difficult to be present in your relationship. This behavior can unintentionally cause you pain, which could lead to broken and toxic relationships built on miscommunication.
Typically, the first step in addressing these concerns is to identify the root of your fears.
"Originally, we thought that these were only created in childhood through the classic archetypes of your parents, but this idea has changed," Roeschlein said. "We now know that these damaging experiences can happen at any time in your childhood or adult life."
Intimate partners, as well as close friends and family members, can be the source of abandonment fears. The emotional shutdown that may ensue is a survival response, which works in the short term. However, it's virtually impossible to shut down even a small part of ourselves without seeming distant, closing ourselves off to all emotional connections, both positive and negative.
Another important consideration is that no matter how much you dig through your past, it might be impossible to find one specific cause or even a string of causes that created these fears. Fortunately, you don't have to identify the source of your pain to learn how to deal with it.
Overcoming a pattern of abandonment requires self-reflection and learning to ask questions to better understand your partner's intentions and to alleviate any irrational fears.
Unfortunately, as Roeschlein pointed out, the hurdle to this approach is we don't naturally communicate to understand, but rather communicate to respond. This means we hear our partner's words but provide our own translation for something we didn't fully comprehend instead of asking what they actually meant.
"You might receive a text and react to the information," Roeschlein explained. "This format of communication is ripe for misunderstanding already, but rather than calling our partner or responding by asking for clarification, we jump to a conclusion, which is typically based on our fears of rejection."
In this situation, mentalization can be a helpful tool. "Mentalization" was coined by Peter Fonagy, a psychoanalyst who described the strategy as the ability to think about what another person is feeling by putting ourselves in their perspective instead of making assumptions.
"When we miscommunicate, we jump to conclusions because our brain takes shortcuts to better understand the conflict, and typically, these assumptions are wrong," Roeschlein said.
Someone who acts out of the fear of abandonment often assumes their partner is on the verge of leaving them. They may avoid asking clarifying questions because they fear the answers will confirm their worst fears.
Using mentalization to repair relationships
"When you're facing these issues [of abandonment], it's a nuanced reaction where fear comes in and drives impulsivity," said Kimberly Pisarcik, a licensed clinical social worker in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. "Instead, we must input critical thinking, where we ask how this behavior is serving us and then consider appropriate responses rather than reactions."
People often react impulsively in situations with heightened emotions—such as an argument or a stressful situation where abandonment may feel imminent—and they can likely continue the conflict and hurt their partners.
"It's important to be explicit in our communication, and this needs to begin with the curiosity and desire to learn more," Roeschlein explained. "This starts with regaining control of rational thinking by first overcoming our emotions and then taking a step back and reflecting on the situation."
'It can take years for us to correct this behavior, but until we do, we can actually continue this pattern of abandonment into our relationships.'
One recommendation from Roeschlein for dealing with this situation is to physically walk away to cool off, regroup and consider how best to address the conflict and move forward together. This allows us time to separate the conflict from our fears. We can then use mentalization to consider exactly what our partner is telling us. Part of the purpose of this process is to acquire more information to better analyze the conflict, asking the questions that will help us to understand the situation without letting our fears take over.
"When we carry past trauma with us, we need to realize that we share this with others, which can leave those others in a similar position of making their own assumptions about our behavior," Pisarcik said. "It can take years for us to correct this behavior, but until we do, we can actually continue this pattern of abandonment into our relationships because we cannot be emotionally available if we are too busy protecting our emotion."
Improving communication is a learned trait that can help you open up to your partner, family and friends and recondition yourself to look at others as a source of love rather than pain.