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When you’re in a relationship, do you constantly fear that your partner will leave you? Are you unable to feel safe and secure, constantly haunted by the thought of abandonment in the back of your mind? If so, you might be experiencing abandonment trauma.
This is a unique type of trauma that results from being abandoned in one way or another during life. It can have a profound impact on how you approach relationships as well as your emotional well-being as a whole. Even if the trauma happened early in childhood, the abandonment wound can continue to affect you into adulthood, affecting your mental health and interpersonal relationships.
Here’s what you need to know about abandonment trauma: what causes it, how it affects relationships, and how to treat it.
What is abandonment trauma and how does it develop?
“Abandonment trauma is a profound fear-based response stemming from experiences of abandonment encompassing various forms such as the loss of a significant figure, unexpected breakups or divorces, or early-life neglect from primary attachment figures –– whether physical or emotional in nature,” says licensed clinical social worker Claudia Goldstein.
When you’re abandoned by someone who’s important in your life, this can leave deep emotional scars and result in serious consequences. Abandonment trauma is not just about feeling abandoned in the moment during this specific instance of someone leaving you –– it’s about how that past experience or multiple experiences continue to shape your perception of your interpersonal relationships and your overall mental health.
“The easiest way to put it into words is a fear of being left, or a fear that people will not stay, especially when a connection becomes deeper and requires more vulnerability,” says licensed mental health counselor Nicole Maselli. For example, you might be afraid that the closer you get to someone and the more they see the “real” you, the more likely they’ll be to leave you.
How abandonment trauma develops
Abandonment trauma can develop either due to instances in childhood or later in life. However, both Goldstein and Maselli say it’s most common for this trauma to originate from experiences in childhood.
In the case of childhood abandonment, it often arises from the actual loss of a primary attachment figure (meaning a parent) or neglect, meaning emotional unavailability and dismissive behaviors by caregivers, Goldstein says. The loss of a parent due to divorce, separation, or death can be a major trigger for abandonment trauma in childhood. When a child’s primary attachment figure, such as their mother or father, is suddenly no longer around, it can create a major fear of losing other loved ones.
On the other hand, childhood emotional neglect, where a parent is physically present but emotionally distant or unresponsive, can be equally damaging in its own way. When a child’s emotional needs are consistently ignored and denied, this can lead them to feel like they’re in a constant state of abandonment, even though they haven’t been physically abandoned.
Someone can also develop abandonment trauma due to abandonment later in life due to events such as an abusive relationship, a divorce, or the sudden death of a loved one, Maselli says. Even though these events happened during adulthood, they can still have a long-lasting impact psychologically, affecting future relationships.
The signs of abandonment trauma
Shame and self-consciousness
Abandonment trauma will show up differently for everyone. However, there are some general common signs, including:
You might aim to please others to a point where you disregard your own needs because you want to satisfy the other person to maintain the connection, Maselli says.
You may shy away from addressing conflicts or bringing up anything that bothers you due to the underlying fear of losing the person you care about, Goldstein says. In the same sense, you might have trouble setting healthy boundaries. As a result, you might let people get away with anything because you don’t want to offend them by addressing concerns.
Constantly seeking reassurance to validate the stability of their relationships is a common tendency of people with abandonment trauma, says Goldstein. You may constantly check in with your partner to make sure everything is all good and that they aren’t going to leave you to ease your fear.
Abandonment anxiety may cause you to be clingy to your partner, holding on super tight to the relationship because you don’t want to lose this person, Maselli says. This can be the case even if the relationship isn’t really serving you.
On the flip side of clinginess, you might purposefully act avoidant and self-sabotage the relationship, says Maselli. For example, you may avoid emotional intimacy, putting in the work and vulnerability required to deepen a good connection because it feels too risky.
Abandonment trauma can cause someone to have intense emotions and trouble with emotional regulation –– especially in cases of childhood abandonment where you may not have learned what you needed to take care of your emotions, Maselli says.
Shame and self-consciousness
Childhood abandonment and emotional neglect can lead to self-consciousness, shame, guilt, feelings of powerlessness, and more later in life. Goldstein says this can cause poor self-worth and an unrelenting inner critic.
In some cases of abandonment trauma, people may experience a phenomenon called dissociation, says Goldstein, which is basically a coping mechanism used by the brain in order to protect itself from intense emotional pain. Dissociation can make you feel detached or disconnected from your own body, emotions, or surroundings. You might feel like your brain is going “offline.” This may be more common in victims of long-term childhood abuse or neglect.
How can a fear of abandonment harm your relationships?
As you can see from the above list, many signs of abandonment trauma can directly impact relationships negatively.
It can be explained in the context of attachment styles, which are basically styles of how people behave in relationships. Your attachment style is typically determined by the connections you have early in life as a child with your primary caregivers.
The four main attachment styles are:
- Secure attachment style
- Anxious attachment style
- Dismissive attachment style
- Fearful-avoidant style
Maselli says people with abandonment trauma tend to go one of two ways: anxious attachment style or avoidant attachment style. These styles are quite different, but both come down to the same thing: the person has intense abandonment fear.
Anxious attachment leads to a need for constant reassurance and validation, clinginess, an overwhelming fear of rejection, and intense emotions. On the other hand, avoidant attachment can make people emotionally distant, avoiding vulnerability because they don’t want to get hurt, Maselli says. Either way, the anxious attachment style or the avoidant attachment style can cause conflict and frustration in romantic relationships. Behaviors linked to the fear of abandonment can ironically push partners away. That’s why it’s so important to recognize these patterns and address abandonment trauma.
How to heal from abandonment trauma
Therapy is key to healing from abandonment trauma and improving mental health overall. With the help of a trauma-informed therapist, you can explore your deep-seated wounds related to your trauma, understand the root cause of your fear of abandonment, and learn skills to approach relationships more healthily.
Oftentimes, therapy for abandonment trauma involves diving deep into the past, talking about what caused your abandonment fear, and addressing any early childhood trauma. You will have a chance to understand that abandonment wound and to grieve what happened in your life –– for example, grieving that you didn’t get to have an ideal childhood, Maselli says. Then, you will work towards reconnecting with yourself, shifting your narrative, and moving towards the life you want to live.
Some specific types of therapy that are helpful for abandonment trauma are:
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
Cognitive behavioral therapy is a popular therapy modality used as a first-line treatment for many mental health concerns, including trauma. CBT focuses on identifying and reframing negative thought patterns, beliefs, and behaviors that contribute to your distress.
In the context of abandonment trauma, people often hold deep-seated beliefs about themselves and relationships, such as “I’m not worthy of love” or “People I love will always abandon me.” A CBT therapist will help you reframe these unhelpful, unhealthy beliefs and teach you coping skills to use to help you manage difficult emotions.
Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT)
DBT is a therapy that focuses on three pillars: mindfulness, distress tolerance, and interpersonal effectiveness. It was initially created for people with borderline personality disorder, but it is helpful for people with various mental health conditions.This modality is especially useful for people with abandonment trauma because it teaches you practical, actionable skills to manage and regulate intense emotions and interpersonal challenges in relationships.
Mindfulness will help you develop an awareness of your emotions and thoughts, staying in the present moment rather than slipping backward and being overwhelmed by past trauma. Distress tolerance skills will help you learn to cope with emotional pain in healthy ways rather than in self-destructive or unhealthy ways. Lastly, interpersonal effectiveness will allow you to have healthier relationships with better communication and conflict-resolution skills.
Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR)
EMDR is a unique type of therapy used for treating post-traumatic stress disorder or addressing trauma in general. It uses bilateral (side-to-side) eye movements or another type of stimulation, such as sound or touch, to help process triggering emotional memories.
A trained EMDR therapist will have you recall traumatic memories, such as ones related to child abuse or emotional neglect, while engaging in bilateral stimulation. This can help you process trauma surrounding your abuse more quickly, storing them differently in your brain while making these memories evoke less visceral reactions.
Internal family systems (IFS)
IFS is a less common type of mental health therapy, but it can be useful in some cases. The modality says there are different “parts” within you that play unique roles in your emotional well-being. In the context of abandonment trauma, these parts often include the wounded inner child who carries the emotional scars of abandonment. “Internal family systems therapy allows a person to interact with the part of themself that’s feeling the weight or the burden of the abandonment,” Maselli says.
How Charlie Health can help with abandonment trauma
If you think you are struggling with abandonment trauma, Charlie Health is here to help.
Our virtual Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) provides personalized mental health services for teens, young adults, and families dealing with various struggles, including trauma. All of Charlie Health’s clinicians are trauma-informed, non-judgemental, and well-equipped to help you process your unresolved childhood trauma or other traumatic experiences in a safe space.
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