Fear of abandonment or enmeshment?

English: Robert Plutchik's Wheel of Emotions
English: Robert Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Despite my own issues with enmeshment (fear of becoming trapped in a relationship), there’s another issue far more popular–abandonment (fear of being abandoned). These two lovely dichotemies are the yin and the yang of childhood trauma. One is brought on by co-dependent, love-addict-like, emotionally involved parenting, and the other is brought on by neglectful, avoidant  parenting. Depending on which one you exhibit more, depends on who parented you and how.

If a love addict parented you, you might have enmeshment issues and grow up to become an avoidant.

If an avoidant parented you, you might have abandonment issues and grow up to be a love addict.

If you’re lucky, like me, you had the best of both worlds (and many of us do because a love addict woman, for example, is typically attracted to, and thus marries,  an avoidant man (and vice versa). In that case, you tend to exhibit both qualities of love addiction and avoidance, better known as ambivalence, which further means that you have both fear of enmeshment and fear of abandonment.

Too confusing?

OK, then let’s not get too deep into analyzing where our fear of [fill in the blank] came from, and instead, let’s talk about what to do about it.

For individuals who suffer from fear of enmeshment, our typical reaction to intimacy is to run, or push away. Intimacy scares us. It’s not something we learned to accept or deal with in a healthy way because, chances are, we were smothered by it–not real intimacy, mind you, but neediness disguised as love and attentiveness. So, we learned that intimacy means loss of freedom, emotional incest, crossed boundaries, and too much of the wrong kind of attention. In order for us to learn how to deal with our fear of enmeshment we need to:

  • trust that we can set our own boundaries, and that others do not determine what level of intimacy we can handle, we do
  • believe in our own sense of autonomy and that love does not have to feel overwhelming or claustrophobic
  • date people who don’t smother us, demand too much attention from us, or make us feel closed-in, over-analyzed or overwhelmed. When that happens, we are more apt to not be so afraid, and thus, can open up and get a little closer to those we ulitmately want to become intimate with
  • surround ourselves with people who allow us our alone time. When we are with people who recognize our need for alone-time, it sets a safe boundary for us. WHen we feel safe, we are able to come out of our “shell” so to speak, and feel rejuvenated and clear-headed
  • avoid love addicts. People who suffer from feelings of enmeshment are attracted to love addicts (the parent who raised them???) but need to date someone who has a far greater understanding and tolerance for space. Love addicts do not.
  • explore healthy levels of deeper intimacy with someone who does not threaten our freedom. WHat that means is that even though you may be scared of deeper intimacy, getting closer, and more involvement, try to take baby steps to closeness with someone you feel comfortable with. If you feel safe with someone–generally, speaking–but an argument or an intimate moment makes you want to run, sit with it for a bit. Go into a separate room. Get some breathing time to think and be alone. Ask yourself if it is a real or imagined threat. When we give ourselves time to be alone and figure things out, we are able to deal more healthy in situations.

For individuals who suffer from fear of abandonment, our typical reaction to real or perceived intimacy is to latch on for dear life and never let go. Intimacy also scares us, but for different reasons: we do not trust that it will last, so the more doubt we have, the tighter we hold on. We were raised by an avoidant mother or father (or both) who may have neglected us, or at least, did not do a very good job making us feel as though we could depend on their presence and love. We learned that intimacy is something that feels physically and emotionally wonderful when you have it, but that it’s something we can’t rely on. In order for us to learn how to deal with our fear of abandonment we need to:

  • trust that we are loved and important and valid, if for no other reason than we exist
  • learn that we have control over ourselves, but not others and that we cannot force love upon someone else
  • understand that fear of abandonment is an illusion. Children can be abandoned, but adults cannot. The reason we think we can be abandoned is because we are still “thinking” like a child who has not yet grown up to learn that he or she can take care of her himself or herself, and thus, feel secure.
  • date people who live close, have a reputation for being stable, reliable and trustworthy, and do not trigger feelings of abandonment (i.e., avoid people who tend to go out and party all night, with friends of the opposite sex, and don’t feel as though they should have to check in)
  • avoid avoidants. People who suffer from feelings of abandonment are attracted to avoidants (the parent who raised them???) but need to date someone who has a far greater understanding and tolerance for closeness. Avoidants do not. (Read: How to Avoid the Avoidant)
  • explore healthy levels of autonomy with someone who doesn’t threaten to leave the second we stand on our own or do something alone. What this means is learn to enjoy time alone without feeling threatened by it. Baby steps. Take walks in the park alone, take a class. Learn to build trust moment to moment with a new partner who is willing to allow for your personal growth. More importantly, start to build trust by refraining from love addict behavior (in other words, checking text message or emails constantly). If however, you start to feel threatened or the feeling of abandonment creeps in, self-talk “If this is meant to be, it will be. I cannot control it. I can only watch it unfold. Everything will be revealed whether I look for it or not.”

4 thoughts on “Fear of abandonment or enmeshment?

  1. Thank you for a clear and yes actually concise (given the complexities involved) description. Unfortunately one thing can be added, adults can be abandoned if they are involved in an abusive relationship which can easily happen in this scenario (again given the complexities involved) it is difficult with no phone, no money $ if left literally in the street or say kicked out of the house in the middle of night in the cold without shoes, or when bank accounts and money get hidden. However, these truths you’ve stated (to a degree) are helpful putting things into perspective.


    1. Thanks for your comment Priscilla! The scenario you described sounds horrible! And I can only hope it’s not a personal experience of yours. And yet, you’re right. This happens all the time. And it’s the reason I try to teach others the importance of learning to take care of yourself and never become too dependent on anyone, even a partner or spouse.


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