Fear of Abandonment Signs


In the 1940s, John Bowlby published his preliminary work on attachment theory. In the 1950s, Mary Ainsworth joined Bowlby to further research in this field. Ainsworth and Bowlby spent decades working together, independently sharing their findings, and together in therapy centres. The initial observation was the effect of separation from its mother on a child. They noticed the young child move from distressed protest to despair and then detachment (enhanced when the separation was for a week or more). With continued observation, it became clear to Bowlby and Ainsworth that when the child and mother reunited, the child’s bond to its mother did not disappear, but became anxious. Bowlby continued to publish research with the belief that attachment is a major part of human behaviour, as relevant as eating and sexual behaviour. Bowlby believed protection is the biological function of attachment and necessary throughout life.


Bowlby’s works claim separation anxiety occurs when absence of the attachment figure activates attachment behaviour. Although a different situation to fright, fright activates attachment behaviour in a baby as it attempts to escape and reach the haven of the attachment figure. Older infants capable of expectant anxiety experience attachment behaviour in harmful situations or when they expect an unavailable attachment figure. His work shows that separation and rejection from the attachment figure, or when the attachment figure gives major attention to someone else, causes hostility. Continuation of this activates primitive defence processes, which may cause the child to appear indifferent to its attachment figure. Sometimes incorrectly viewed as healthy independence.


Ainsworth’s Work


Ainsworth studied babies in Ganda. Observing 28 unweaned babies and their mothers over nine months. She noticed babies actively search for contact with their mother when alarmed or hurt, when the mother moved away or left briefly, and when they were hungry. Ainsworth viewed the mother as a secure base from which to explore the world and as a haven of safety. Ainsworth split the babies into three groups; securely attached, insecurely attached and non-attached. In the early 1960s, Ainsworth studied another group of infant mother pairs. She found that mothers who consistently respond promptly to infant crying early on have infants who by the end of the first year cry relatively little and have a secure attachment.


Congruent with Bowlby’s work, close bodily contact with the mother stops attachment behaviour. Therefore, it is not the total amount of time that the attachment figure holds their baby, but the response to the baby’s signal of need for contact. Ainsworth noticed that around the middle of the first year, the attached babies showed signs of distress when the mother left the room. The babies with secure attachment seemed to know the mother was available even when out of sight, and protested less at everyday departures. In addition, they greeted the mothers happily on return.


However, if a baby experiences stress due to an unfamiliar situation, even those with a secure attachment protest the mother’s departure. The researchers concluded that under stress of unfamiliar situations, a defence process activates, like detachment in young children undergoing major separations. Avoidant infants did not experience major separation, but rejection or insensitivity to their signals at home during the first year, especially when seeking contact.




Secure Attachment


Today, we recognise that other factors, such as trauma and environmental circumstances, affect attachment development, which continues into adulthood. Securely attached adults have relationships with disagreements and troubles. However, they feel confident that the other person is present, and every disagreement will not lead to the end of the relationship. Trust forms the basis of connection, and they know when to give space or reconnect. Intimacy is healthy, needs feel honoured, there is two-way respect, communication boundaries, enjoyment, compassion, and self-respect. Secure attachment develops when a child consistently receives a response to it’s signals for contact.


Avoidant Attachment


Adults with avoidant attachment build barriers to avoid getting hurt. They overly focus on themselves, but have difficulty expressing their needs, or maybe feel it is better to fulfil needs themselves. Those with avoidant attachment seek out faults in relationships or those they have a relationship with, and strict, unrealistic, or unequal boundaries. They might send mixed messages or avoid commitment and emotional closeness due to fear of getting hurt. Avoidant attachment behaviours stem from fear of rejection, shame, guilt, and true intimacy.


Avoidant attachment occurs when the primary caregiver is unavailable physically or emotionally. The child learns to disconnect and self-sooth, or ignore their own needs.


Anxious Attachment


Adults with anxious attachment feel a constant need for connection or closeness with a partner, feeling anxious or insecure when the partner is away. The anxious attached may give too much of themselves, then feel resentful if this does not get reciprocated or appreciated. Anxious attachment includes the fear of abandonment, and a crippling fear of losing others and the connections. Feelings of anxiety quickly change to anger or infuriation if a partner is unresponsive. There is a need to please others above themselves. Those with anxious attachment have a greater likelihood of feeling unlovable, with low self-esteem or confidence, especially in relationships.


Anxious attachment happens when the attachment figure is sometimes annoyed by the child’s calls for connection and other times responsive. The inconsistency means the child expends extra energy assessing the attachment figure’s mood, ignoring their own needs. Other children may have to care for younger siblings or live in emotionally complex situations they cannot understand. Some attachment figures seek fulfilment from the child for their own attachment needs, confusing their own need for love with love for the child.



Disorganised Attachment


Those with disorganised attachment flip between anxious and avoidant attachment behaviour. They may experience survival responses in relationships, which stops intimacy. There is self-absorption, and a need to feel in control. They feel on constant alert for danger or mood changes, and get easily startled or alarmed. People with disorganised attachment may experience symptoms of trauma.


Disorganised attachment occurs when the attachment figure is threatening, frightening or unsafe. This causes confusion, as the child seeks safety the only way they know how – from the attachment figure. Whilst also feeling in fear of the same person.


What is Fear of Abandonment?


As you can see, the fear of abandonment stems from anxious or avoidant attachment styles. It happens when your brain developed and learned that you will not necessarily get a response to your call for connection. If you fear abandonment, you may have many superficial relationships, sabotage relationships or cling to unhealthy relationships and need constant reassurance. If you experience abandonment anxiety, there is a way to repair it.


Recovering from a Fear of Abandonment


In Bowlby’s Attachment and Loss Volumes, he suggests guidelines for therapists.


  • The therapist begins by understanding the client’s current difficulties.
  • The therapist tries to create a secure base for the client. Helping the client build trust to explore current relationships, including that with the therapist.
  • The therapist helps the client explore early relationships, including ones with parents.


Recovery from fear of abandonment symptoms should include self-care. If you want help recovering from your fear of abandonment, we can work together, following the above guidelines. The free initial consultation I offer to all clients will help me understand your current difficulties. We will then work together, building mutual trust and respect, so you can explore your relationships, previous and current.