Fear of abandonment is not a clinical diagnosis in and of itself. It is a form of anxiety and a symptom of several clinical disorders, including both mood and personality disorders. Individuals who experience abandonment are also more likely to have long-term mental health issues (Schoenfelder et al., 2011).
Those who struggle with abandonment issues have a persistent fear of rejection or isolation. It is often characterized by codependency, insecurity, and maladaptive views of power, competence, and intimacy, which makes interpersonal relationships and daily functioning difficult (D’Rozario & Pilkington, 2021).
There are several clinical disorders directly associated with abandonment fears.
Anxiety is a foundational component of abandonment fear. Individuals who struggle with generalized anxiety disorder or other anxiety disorders are more likely to experience fear of abandonment in close relationships (Conradi et al., 2016).
Anxiety disorders are characterized by general insecurity; distorted thinking patterns, such as making irrational assumptions of others, ruminating negative thoughts, and catastrophizing; and avoidant behaviors (Conradi et al., 2016). These characteristics are harmful to relationships and further instill a fear of abandonment.
Also known as major depressive disorder, depression involves feeling sad, a loss of interest in pleasurable activities, changes in sleep or weight, loss of energy, feeling worthless or guilty, and difficulty concentrating or making decisions.
Individuals with depression may push people away, question if they are loved or worthy of love, and fear rejection from others. Depression can be both a cause and effect of abandonment fears. People who have experienced neglect or abandonment may struggle with depression, and people who are depressed are more likely to have fears of abandonment.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
As with depression, PTSD is closely tied with fear of abandonment. Symptoms of PTSD include disturbing memories, dreams, feeling emotionally numb or cut off from others, irritability, emotional dysregulation, and difficulty concentrating (Pilkington et al., 2020).
Difficulty controlling emotions and feeling distant from others naturally lead to feelings of isolation and fear of being alone or abandoned. Trauma can also be caused by being abandoned, neglected, or abused, creating a vicious cycle if left untreated.
Borderline personality disorder (BPD)
Borderline personality disorder is a mental health condition that includes difficulty managing emotions, instability, and difficulty maintaining relationships.
One of the defining symptoms of BPD is codependency and a fear of abandonment. Individuals with BPD will often turn to self-harm and destructive behavior to deal with unstable moods and intense emotions.
While BPD was once considered nearly impossible to treat, Dialectical Behavior Therapy has now shown to be an effective option for managing symptoms and learning to develop healthy relationships.
7 Signs of Fear of Abandonment
As mentioned, fear of abandonment can manifest as anxiety, insecurity, and isolation.
Symptoms of abandonment issues can begin in childhood and extend throughout the lifespan if left untreated.
Signs of abandonment issues in children include:
Acting “clingy” or experiencing emotional dysregulation when left alone
Excessively worrying or panicking about losing someone close
Generally fearing being alone
Getting sick more often due to stress
Children may get anxious in new settings, situations, or when dropped off at school or daycare. Symptoms may also lead to isolation, low self-esteem, and unhealthy coping mechanisms such as substance abuse and eating disorders (Mack et al., 2011).
In adults, signs of abandonment issues include:
Pushing people away
This presents as withdrawal, exhibiting trust issues, and the inability to be open and honest with loved ones.
Codependency is when individuals rely on other people to meet all their emotional needs. People who become overly needy and possessive in relationships are often codependent.
People with abandonment issues might allow others to get close to them but then become aggressive, reactive, or volatile if they feel threatened or upset.
Long-term effects of abandonment often lead to general anger, mood swings, and lack of confidence (Mack et al., 2011). Fear of abandonment is primarily characterized by the inability to establish or maintain healthy relationships.
Fear of abandonment in relationships
Fear of abandonment can negatively affect any relationship (Fraley, 2002). These include professional, intimate/romantic, and social relationships, as well as casual acquaintances.
People who experience fear of abandonment may have ruminating and irrational thoughts (anxiety), question other people’s motives (mistrust), or make false assumptions about how another person interprets an interaction.
For example, a partner might have irrational or excessive fears that their spouse is having an affair because they had been cheated on in the past. The partner constantly accuses their spouse, creating arguments and conflict. The lack of trust and discord creates distance between them, and the couple stops communicating and grows apart.
Signs that abandonment fears are negatively affecting a relationship include (Fraley, 2002):
People-pleasing or one partner always giving too much or reaching out
Envy or jealousy of other people’s relationships
Inability to trust another person
Constant feeling of insecurity in the relationship
Needing to control all decisions and aspects of the relationship
Inability to provide or accept physical or emotional intimacy
These detailed, science-based exercises will equip you or your clients to build healthy, life-enriching relationships.
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What Causes Abandonment Issues?
A variety of experiences play a role in fear of abandonment and abandonment issues.
These include (Mikulincer & Shaver, 2010):
Physical or emotional abuse or neglect
Any trauma experienced because of abandonment
Feeling rejected by caregivers
The death of a parent or primary caregiver
Being emotionally or physically abandoned by a friend or loved one
Fear of abandonment generally begins in childhood and results from adverse childhood experiences (or ACEs). ACEs describe different types of stressful and traumatic experiences, such as neglect, abuse, or traumatic loss (Feriante et al., 2023).
The first year of life is impactful to a child’s development, and a child’s attachment style is formed by the age of five (Feriante et al., 2023).
Abandonment issues are closely linked to insecure attachment styles and the inability to form close, stable relationships. People will often choose partners or be drawn to relationships that fit patterns from their past, based on attachment styles.
Are you afraid of abandonment? - Kati Morton
This video explains other causes of abandonment fears, including its relationship with fear of manipulation and disappointment. It also provides easy, practical tips for dealing with the emotional distress of abandonment issues.
Fear of abandonment and attachment styles
Bowlby (1969) defines attachment as a lasting psychological connection between two human beings. As the founder of attachment theory, he believed that parent–child interactions early in life determine cognitive and behavioral social connectedness throughout the lifespan.
Secure attachment styles are demonstrated by a person who can trust and be open to others (Bowlby, 1969). A securely attached person is responsive, warm, and can form healthy close relationships. On the other hand, insecure attachment results when children have caregivers who are either inconsistently available and nonresponsive or completely unavailable and neglectful (Mikulincer & Shaver, 2010).
The three types of insecure attachment styles are avoidant, anxious, and disorganized (Bowlby, 1969).
Avoidant attachment styles are seen in those who cope with abandonment issues by not allowing others to get close. Individuals with avoidant attachment are distant, withdrawn, and not trusting of others. They fear commitment and shut down or end relationships to avoid conflict.
Anxious attachment styles are seen in those who latch on to others and create intensely close, codependent relationships to cope with fears of abandonment. People with this attachment style seem needy and have trouble separating themselves from their partner. They are emotionally reactive and perceive conflict as a threat that their partner will leave them.
Individuals with disorganized attachment styles are uncomfortable with closeness and intimacy and may lack empathy. Disorganized attachment is often associated with antisocial, narcissistic, or BPD traits.
Fortunately, even if insecure attachment styles are developed in childhood, the problematic behaviors and fear of abandonment associated with them can be treated and, ultimately, changed.
How to Overcome Fear of Abandonment
While fear of abandonment is associated with many mental health and mood disorders, it is highly treatable.
Individuals who seek help can improve personal wellbeing and interpersonal relationships.
5 Therapy treatment options
Attachment-based therapy uses a supportive client–therapist bond to address issues with mental health, such as depression and anxiety. It targets thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and interpersonal communication that clients avoid or over-amplify based on early-developed attachment styles (Pilkington et al., 2021).
Behavioral therapy incorporates talk therapy to root out unhealthy behaviors and habits that are related to the mental health conditions underlying the fear of abandonment.
Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) helps clients identify faulty thinking patterns or cognitive distortions and replace them with more adaptive thinking patterns. This evidence-based form of therapy is effective at treating anxiety and depression and improving relationships through changing perspectives and communication patterns.
Psychodynamic therapy encourages clients to identify and resolve unhealthy unconscious and conscious thoughts about past experiences. Through improving self-awareness and understanding, clients can see how their past may influence present thoughts and behaviors and make changes.
Psychoeducation provides information to a client regarding a diagnosis, treatment options, and underlying theories (such as attachment theory) that may contribute to abandonment fears. Often, understanding and labeling problematic behaviors and fears can be one of the most helpful steps in healing.
4 Worksheets for Your Therapy Sessions
There are many worksheets that can help clients identify anxiety and fear surrounding abandonment and relationships.
The Anxious Attachment Patterns worksheet helps clients identify attachment styles. By reflecting on negative experiences with relationships and identifying behaviors and triggers of stressful events, clients gain insight that can elicit behavior change.
Often, when clients struggle with fear of abandonment, their anxiety and depression can lead to emotional dysregulation and dysfunctional responses when triggers occur. This Emotion Regulation worksheet can help individuals identify stressful situations, interactions, and how to respond appropriately.
Self-awareness is a great first step in overcoming the fear of abandonment. This Self-Awareness for Adults worksheet can help clients identify strengths, weaknesses, skills, and abilities, which can lead to less anxiety, more confidence, and the ability to form healthy connections with others.
This Loving Others Better worksheet walks clients through steps of developing and maintaining healthy relationships. Through appreciating others, interacting with others, showing integrity, and learning to forgive, clients can find healing from abandonment fears and create a healthy social support system.
In addition to using worksheets to help clients navigate abandonment issues, assessing aspects of relationship distress, codependency, and attachment styles can provide a useful starting point in therapy.
Assessing Fear of Abandonment: 4 Tests
The fear of abandonment and attachment styles associated with this fear have been extensively studied and assessed throughout the years.
The following assessments are a few good options that mental health practitioners can use as baseline and progress measures.
The Experiences in Close Relationships-Revised Questionnaire
This 36-item questionnaire is a validated measure of attachment styles for adults. Participants will rate themselves on a Likert scale (1–7) of how much they agree with statements regarding how they feel about intimate relationships.
The Abandonment Core Belief Self-Assessment
This assessment measures the belief of how much emotional and social support an individual feels they have in their life. It assesses their level of trust and fear of being abandoned.
The Codependency Questionnaire
The Codependency Questionnaire lists 20 symptoms of codependency and has clients identify which symptoms reflect their own thoughts and behavior.
This informal quiz can provide a general starting point and idea of how likely a person is to have abandonment issues. It is based on self-report responses that assess how an individual generally acts and feels in relationships.
Most Fascinating Books on the Topic
There are a variety of books and workbooks on relationships, the fear of abandonment, and the underlying attachment issues that lead to abandonment issues. In this brief selection, we highlight a few recommendations.
1. Love Me, Don’t Leave Me: Overcoming Fear of Abandonment and Building Lasting, Loving Relationships – Michelle Skeen
This book, written by a therapist, uses Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Dialectical Behavior Therapy concepts to help readers identify the root cause of their fears that sabotage relationships.
By identifying maladaptive coping behaviors and causes, individuals can learn to create healthy, long-lasting, intimate relationships. This book helps provide insight to the irrational thoughts that lead to mistrust and helps readers develop a better understanding of the thoughts and behaviors of others.
2. The Journey From Abandonment to Healing: Surviving Through and Recovering From the Five Stages That Accompany the Loss of Love – Susan Anderson
TheJourney From Abandonment to Healing builds on the neuroscience of loss and grief to help readers move past the hurt. It is designed for people who have had a recent loss or long-term grief or who simply sabotage their own relationships.
The book outlines five universal stages of abandonment: shattering, withdrawal, internalizing, rage, and lifting.
It includes practical, hands-on exercises that can help individuals heal and move into healthy relationships. There are biochemical and behavioral origins of abandonment issues that can be addressed and overcome.
4. The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook: Practical DBT Exercises for Learning Mindfulness, Interpersonal Effectiveness, Emotion Regulation, and Distress Tolerance – Matthew McKay, Jeffrey C. Wood, and Jeffrey Brantley
Dialectical Behavior Therapy is a form of therapy that is particularly helpful for borderline personality disorder and insecure attachment styles.
This workbook is a practical guide to using DBT to decrease anxiety and fear of abandonment and learn to create healthy self-image and relationships.
A step-by-step guide leads clients through introductory and more advanced exercises to develop the skills to manage emotions and learn radical acceptance, mindfulness, and the DEARMAN method for interpersonal competence.
5. Insecure in Love: How Anxious Attachment Can Make You Feel Jealous, Needy, and Worried and What You Can Do About It – Leslie Becker-Phelps
Insecure in Love uses compassionate self-awareness to recognize negative thoughts and behavior patterns.
It teaches individuals how to move away from these patterns and into healthy thoughts, behaviors, and relationships.
Read this book to learn how insecurity negatively impacts communication and connection between two people. Explore anxious perceptions and learn to shift them to cultivate secure attachment with others.
These resources from PositivePsychology.com provide more information and practical activities to help clients with abandonment issues.
The Shifting Codependency Patterns Worksheet allows clients to contrast and compare the codependent patterns of denial, low self-esteem, compliance, avoidance, and control. By identifying unhealthy patterns and looking at healthy ways to approach situations, individuals can learn to change maladaptive patterns that destroy relationships.
This PositivePsychology.com article Attachment Styles in Relationships delves deeper into attachment styles and provides a wealth of information and resources that can be helpful for individuals with abandonment fears.
The DBT acronym DEARMAN is an effective tool for helping individuals with abandonment fears, particularly those who struggle with borderline personality disorder. This Interpersonal Skills Acronyms worksheet walks clients through the DEARMAN approach to learn effective interpersonal skills and develop healthier relationships.
Fear of abandonment can be overwhelming and lead to serious mental health disorders, such as depression and anxiety, and a general level of distrust. Because we as humans depend on others for protection and survival, it is crucial that we develop healthy bonds and relationships.
Creating healthy relationships is difficult in the face of abandonment issues. These issues can stem from a range of negative and stressful experiences in either childhood or as an adult. Experiences such as abuse, neglect, loss of a loved one, and other forms of trauma can lead to fear of abandonment.
Fortunately, there are options to seek help and find healing. A variety of therapeutic approaches can help individuals identify the root cause of abandonment issues and effectively treat symptoms. Overcoming fear of abandonment can lead to fulfilling personal growth and satisfying connection in relationships.
Symptoms of abandonment trauma include insecurity, low self-esteem, feeling inadequate, checking out of relationships, or staying in abusive ones. Individuals with abandonment trauma will often over- or under-act in stressful situations. Abandonment trauma can lead to unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as self-harm, suicidal behavior, and addictive tendencies (D’Rozario & Pilkington, 2021).
Are abandonment issues a red flag?
Abandonment issues can be a red flag when starting a relationship. A healthy partner can help foster a sense of belonging and create confidence and security, but the best option is to seek professional treatment and get individual help before entering a serious relationship.
What attachment style is fear of abandonment?
Fear of abandonment can be a symptom or part of any insecure attachment style. The three insecure attachment styles are anxious, avoidant, and disorganized (Bowlby, 1969).
Can a fear of abandonment be overcome?
Luckily, fear of abandonment can be treated and overcome. Professionals trained in CBT, DBT, attachment-based therapies, and psychodynamic therapies can help treat symptoms and the underlying causes of abandonment issues.
Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and loss: Vol. 1. Attachment. Basic Books.
Conradi, H., Boertien, S., Cavus, H., & Verschuere, B. (2016). Examining psychopathy from an attachment perspective: The role of fear of rejection and abandonment. Journal of Forensic Psychiatry & Psychology, 27(1), 92–109.
D’Rozario, A., & Pilkington, P. (2021). Parental separation or divorce and adulthood attachment: The mediating role of the Abandonment Schema. Child Psychology Psychotherapy, 29, 664–675.
Feriante, J., Torrico, T., & Beristen, B. (2023). Separation anxiety disorder. StatPearls. Retrieved July 20, 2023, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK560793/
Fraley, R. C. (2002). Attachment stability from infancy to adulthood: Meta-analysis and dynamic modeling of developmental mechanisms. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 6, 123–151.
Fraley, R. C. (2019). Attachment in adulthood: Recent developments, emerging debates and future directions. Annual Review of Psychology, 70(1), 401–422.
Mack, T., Hackney, A., & Pyle, M. (2011). The relationship between psychopathic traits and attachment behavior in a non-clinical population. Personality and Individual Differences, 51, 584–588.
Mikulincer, M., & Shaver, P. (2010). Attachment in adulthood: Structure, dynamics and change. Guilford Press.
Pilkington, P., & Bishop, A., & Younan, R. (2020). Adverse childhood experiences and early maladaptive schemas in adulthood: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy, 28, 569–584.
Pilkington, P., Younan, R., & Bishop, A. (2021). Early maladaptive schemas, suicidal ideation and self-harm: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Affective Disorders Reports, 3, 1–9.
Schoenfelder, E., Sandler, I., Wolchik, S., & MacKinnon, D. (2011). Quality of social relationships and the development of depression in parentally-bereaved youth. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 40(1), 85–96.
About the author
Dr. Melissa Madeson, Ph.D., believes in a holistic approach to mental health and wellness and uses a person-centered approach when working with clients.
Currently in full-time private practice, she uses her experience with performance psychology, teaching, and designing collegiate wellness courses and yoga therapy to address a range of specific client needs.