Love Got You Down? Dealing With a Fear of Abandonment

Do you have a history of repeating the same pattern in romantic relationships – whether that’s being with emotionally unavailable partners, feeling jealous, or constantly worrying that your partner is going to leave you for someone ‘better’? Or perhaps you’ve avoided dating and relationships altogether because it feels too scary?

If you’ve faced these sorts of relationship difficulties, you may have a fear of abandonment, or what psychologists refer to as an Abandonment Schema. The Abandonment Schema is one of the most common reasons behind anxiety in relationships, and it can keep us unknowingly stuck in unhelpful and distressing patterns when it comes to love.

What’s an Abandonment Schema?

A schema refers to a strong belief or perception that we have formed about ourselves, others, and the world. Schemas are typically formed through early childhood experiences with our caregivers (typically parents, grandparents or godparents), peers and siblings. For example, if I asked you to think about what the words ‘school holiday’ meant to you, what images, memories and thoughts come to your mind? This is your own unique schema about what a ‘school holiday’ means to you. Of course, we can form schemas for more emotionally charged concepts other than school holidays, such as ‘romantic love’, or a ‘healthy relationship’.

Individuals who have an Abandonment Schema in particular hold a strong belief or expectation that ‘no one is there for me’ or ‘people I love will leave me’. You may have learned from a young age that people are unreliable and that close connections with others can be easily broken. Childhood experiences that can result in a fear of abandonment may include caregivers who were emotionally unpredictable (loving one minute, and distant or abusive the next) or emotionally unavailable (unable to meet important emotional needs such as warmth or validation) due to their own mental health issues or job demands. It can also result from experiences where we were separated from our caregivers due to divorce, boarding school, travel, or even hospitalisation or death. These types of experiences interfere with the development of a secure attachment to a caregiver, which is an essential building block for experiencing healthy relationships with others.

How can an Abandonment Schema affect our romantic relationships?

Because having our attachments with our caregivers disrupted as a child feels unsafe, our brain’s threat center—called the amygdala—becomes hypersensitive as a way to protect us from this danger. As adults, the amygdala remembers that forming attachments to others feels unsafe, and becomes activated once again in romantic (or family or friend) relationships, especially if we are with people who share similar characteristics to our caregivers such as emotional or physical unavailability. To protect us from the fear of abandonment, our amygdala triggers our body’s fight or flight response, resulting in feelings of anxiety, uncertainty and insecurity.

As a result of these emotions, we might try harder to hold onto a relationship through becoming clingy or excessively seeking reassurance, which can inadvertently push the other individual even further away. Alternatively, you might tolerate emotionally unavailable behaviors such as hot and cold signals, not putting in the same level of effort as you, or unreliability, because you were used to being treated this way by your caregivers. However, these experiences strengthen the core beliefs that we will always be alone or unloveable. Others may avoid relationships completely, or in the early stages of dating, prematurely end or self-sabotage a potentially healthy relationship because we find it too difficult to tolerate the anxiety associated with common situations such as waiting for the other person to message or the worry about ‘will they like me’. But, neither of these behaviors allow us the opportunity to form ‘correcting’ experiences that disconfirm our abandonment beliefs. Whichever way we act in response to the Abandonment Schema, they all make it very difficult to experience a healthy romantic relationship. As a result, the Abandonment Schema ultimately becomes stronger and self-perpetuating over time – it keeps us repeating our age old patterns.

Other common signs of an Abandonment Schema in romantic relationships include:

  • Have a ‘ reject before you get rejected’ mentality in dating
  • Worrying about saying or doing the ‘wrong’ thing
  • Being hypervigilant to signs your partner is upset with you
  • Feeling anxious if you’re not around your partner
  • Keeping your feelings and needs to yourself out of fear you might scare someone away
  • Feeling like it’s only a matter of time before the current relationship also ends
  • Finding it difficult to focus on your own life when you’re in a relationship

I think I have an Abandonment Schema – What can I do about it?

As a starting point, learning more about the Abandonment Schema (and other potential schemas) may be helpful. I recommend the book Reinventing Your Life by Dr. Jeffrey Young for a readable guide to understanding your schemas and their childhood origins. Working with a psychologist trained in Schema Therapy can help you to identify the experiences which led to the development of your schema, your own triggers in romantic relationships, and how to break these unhelpful patterns. Ultimately, the goal of Schema Therapy is to help you heal from these childhood wounds to help you establish more fulfilling relationships – not only with a potential romantic partner, but also with yourself.

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