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Attachment Problems or Problematic Relationship?

Hi friends! I hope you are doing well. I'm back with an interesting topic that has come up multiple times in my career as a therapist: abandonment and the fear of it.

What is the fear of abandonment, you ask? It is a feeling of insecurity in a relationship, where negative thoughts contribute to a person's anxiety regarding the 'steadiness' of their current partnership or friendship. It is often irrational and does not respond well to logic. It can feel overwhelming, and frightening. It can make you feel like you're going 'crazy' if your partner or friend doesn't text back in a timely manner, gets upset with you, or forgets an important date. You might find yourself constantly scanning for signs that impending doom is on the horizon.

Fear of abandonment usually originates in childhood. John Bowlby, the founder of attachment theory, mused that children come into this world pre-programmed to form attachments (both physical and emotional) to their caregivers in order to increase their chances of surviving to adulthood. These bonds we form with our caregivers can effect how we relate to our intimate relationships presently. A fear of being abandoned is developed when our caregiver was inconsistent in responding to our cues and needs as infants and young children. For example, an inconsistent response might look like responding to a baby's cry the first three times, and then ignoring their cry and looking at one's phone the next two times. The baby doesn't know what to expect from their caregiver so often they will escalate their behaviors in order to get their need for attention met. I use the word 'need' there on purpose. Babies who do not get this need met suffer from smaller brain sizes and less neural connections, as seen here in this research study where they compared children from healthy homes and children from homes or orphanages with severe emotional/physical neglect.

Here's the thing though: adults need attention from our personal relationships, too. We don't function well when the lines in our relationships are blurry or otherwise unclear. This seems to show up a lot in my sessions with clients, where they will tell me they have a fear of abandonment, which may very well be true, but then they tell me all about their partner or friend who, either consciously or subconsciously, triggers this fear with their actions (or lack of action). So, today, I thought we could do a quick exercise to help us distinguish between a fear of abandonment or... actually being abandoned by people who claim to love us.

There's a few questions to ask ourselves to determine if our reaction is past-based (thus not really our partner's fault) or present-based (and possibly be because of our partner's behaviors).

  1. What are my requirements in a relationship to feel safe?

  2. Have I communicated these requirements to my partner?

  3. Is my partner willing to abide by these requirements or are they unable to do so?

In using these questions, you can then begin to determine for yourself what you need to feel supported by a romantic partner. I tell people that attachment requirements need to be specific, and attainable by both parties, and they must be agreed upon by everyone in the relationship.

Examples of safety protocols might be wanting a phone call from your partner before they head home from work, sharing passwords (if in a long term committed relationship), spending time together before bed, etc. These have to be determined by each individual, so they are typically very personalized. The important thing to remember is this: 'Is my partner capable and willing to do these things? Are they doing things that actively work against my emotional safety?'

Only you can know in your heart if the person you are with is able to help you manage your wounded attachment style gracefully. And the person you will always be in relationship with is yourself. If you are operating from a place of meeting your emotional needs, and are curious, open-minded, courageous and creative, then you already know the right answer for you. Don't convince yourself that it's always 'you' that is the faulty one.

Take exquisite care of yourself,

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