Being in an intimate relationship can sometimes cause anxiety. Both the fear of abandonment and the fear of engulfment are common manifestations. A part of us fears that if we fall in love, we will be left behind. On the other hand, we worry that if someone approaches too closely, we will be overwhelmed or unable to escape.
This article focuses on the excessive fear of abandonment, which manifests as a pervasive sense of insecurity, intrusive thoughts, emptiness, an unsteady sense of self, clinginess, neediness, extreme mood swings, and recurring interpersonal conflicts. On the other hand, one might also learn to cope by completely cutting off and developing emotional permanence.
Neuroscientists have discovered that our worldview is encoded by how our parents react to our attachment-seeking behaviors, particularly in the first two years of life. We can establish a sense of security and trust as infants if we have healthy attachment interactions with an attentive, available, and nurturing caregiver. We would internalize the idea that the world is a friendly place and that when we are in serious need, someone will come and help us if our parents were able to respond to our cries for feeding and comfort the majority of the time.
In times of stress, we would also learn how to calm down, which helps us become resilient as adults. Contrarily, if the message we received as infants was that the world is dangerous and that people cannot be trusted, it would have an impact on our capacity to handle ambiguity, disappointment, and the ups and downs of relationships.
Most people can handle some relational ambiguity and won’t be completely consumed by fear of being rejected. When we argue mostly with our loved ones, we are able to move past the negative experience later; even when they are not physically present, we have an underlying confidence that they are thinking of us. All of these involve a concept known as object constancy—the capacity to uphold an emotional connection with others despite distance and conflicts.
Object constancy derives from the idea of object permanence, a cognitive ability we develop between the ages of 2 and 3. It is the knowledge that things can still exist even if we are unable to see, touch, or otherwise sense them. Babies enjoy peekaboo because they believe that when your face is hidden, it vanishes. A developmental milestone is achieving object constancy, according to the idea’s creator, psychologist Piaget.
We can think of object constancy, a psychodynamic concept, as the emotional equivalent of object permanence. We mature into the knowledge that our caregiver is both a loving presence and a separate person who might walk away in order to develop this skill. We don’t necessarily need to be with our parents all the time because we have a “internalized image” of their love and concern. As a result, we continue to feel loved and supported even when they are momentarily hidden.
In adulthood, object constancy enables us to have faith that our relationships with those who are important to us are complete even when they are not present physically, are not returning our calls or texts, or are even irritated with us. Absence does not imply abandonment or disappearance when an object is constant; it simply denotes a temporary separation.
We all experience at least a few minor bumps as we learn to separate from our parents and become our own person because no parent could be available and tuned in all the time. A person’s emotional development may have been stunted at a young age and they may have never had the chance to acquire object constancy if they had more severe early or even preverbal attachment trauma, highly inconsistent or emotionally unavailable caregivers, or a chaotic upbringing.
The core of borderline personality traits is the absence of object constancy. Any kind of separation, even one that is brief and benign, causes people who are insecurely attached to relive the pain of being abandoned, dismissed, or treated with contempt. Their anxiety may cause them to engage in coping mechanisms like denial, clinging, avoidance, and dismissal of others, as well as act out in relationships or develop a pattern of sabotaging relationships in order to prevent possible rejection.
One tends to relate with others as “parts” rather than “wholes” when object constancy is absent. They struggle to hold the mental concept that both themselves and ourselves have good and bad aspects, just like a child struggles to understand the mother as a complete human who sometimes gives rewards and sometimes frustrates. Relationships may seem unstable, flimsy, and highly reliant on mood swings to them; there seems to be no consistency in how they perceive their partner; it fluctuates from moment to moment and is either good or bad.
It becomes challenging to invoke the sense of the loved one’s presence when they are not physically present when one lacks the capacity to see people as whole and constant. Being left alone can cause an individual to react in a way that is unfiltered, unrefined, and occasionally even childlike. Shame and self-blame quickly follow when abandonment fear is triggered, further agitating the anxious person’s emotions. It would appear that these strong reactions were “immature,” or “unreasonable,” because their causes weren’t always conscious. In actuality, the intense fear, rage, and despair would all make sense if we considered that they were acting as a result of repressed or dissociated trauma and thought about what it likes for a 2-year-old to be left alone or be with an unpredictable caregiver.
From the void, healing
Possessing the capacity to hold paradoxes in our minds is crucial to the development of object constancy. We must learn to live with the reality that no relationship or person is completely good or entirely bad, just as the person who feeds us can also be the one who fails us.
We wouldn’t need to use the archaic defense of “splitting,” or black-or-white thinking, if we could hold both the flaws and the virtues in ourselves and others. Despite the fact that our partner has completely let us down, we do not need to diminish them. We could also be kind to ourselves; just because we aren’t perfect all the time doesn’t make us flawed or unlovable.
Our partner might have flaws but still be adequate.
They might love us and still be upset with us.
Although they may occasionally need to put us at a distance, the foundation of our relationship is still strong.
Fear of being abandoned Fear is overwhelming because it triggers the intense trauma we still carry from our early years, when we were thrust into this world as defenseless beings wholly reliant on those around us. But we have to admit that our fears don’t accurately reflect the world as it is right now. Even though there is never complete safety and certainty in life, we are now adults with more options.
Adults can no longer be “abandoned”; rather, a relationship’s dissolution is the result of two people’s differing values, needs, and life goals. We could no longer be “rejected” because the worth of our existence is independent of other people’s perceptions. We can now set boundaries, say no, and walk away instead of being engulfed or trapped.
We learn to stay calm inside of our bodies even in fear without dissociating as a resilient adult. We also learn to stay in relationships with others people even in the midst of uncertainty, without running away into avoidance and defenses. We can cradle the 2-month-old inside of us who was terrified of being dropped.
Instead of getting bogged down in the hunt for the “missing piece,” we learn to see ourselves as a complete, integrated being.
We now have the chance to start a new life after the trauma of being abandoned and alone.
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