Attachment Styles and The Fear of Abandonment

 

Emma, a talented graphic designer, always seems to excel in her professional life, but struggles deeply with personal relationships. Growing up with an emotionally unpredictable mother, Emma developed an anxious-preoccupied attachment style. This led her to constantly fear abandonment in her adult relationships. Every time her partner, Jake, is slightly late or seems distracted, Emma’s anxiety spikes. She bombards him with messages, seeks reassurance, and often accuses him of losing interest. Despite Jake’s patient reassurances, Emma’s fears overshadow their relationship, causing a strain that makes her worst fear—a breakup—seem inevitable.

 

The concept of attachment styles plays a crucial role in shaping your relationships. These styles develop during early childhood based on interactions with primary caregivers, and influence how you perceive and respond to intimacy and connection throughout your life. Understanding the nuances of attachment styles provides insight into why you may struggle with relationships more than others.

 

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Attachment Theory: An Overview

 

We credit John Bowlby (1907 – 1990), a British psychologist, psychiatrist, and psychoanalyst known for his work on childcare and child psychiatry, for the origins of attachment theory. In 1952, the World Health Organisation published his report on Maternal Care and Mental Health. In it he writes

 

“it is sufficient to say that what is believed to be essential for mental health is that the infant and young child should experience a warm, intimate, and continuous relationship with his mother (or permanent mother-substitute) in which both find satisfaction and enjoyment. Given this relationship, the emotions of anxiety and guilt, which in excess characterize mental ill-health, will develop in a moderate and organized way. When this happens, the child’s characteristic and contradictory demands, on the one hand for unlimited love from his parents and on the other for revenge upon them when he feels that they do not love him enough, will likewise remain of moderate strength and become amenable to the control of his gradually developing personality.”

 

A short while after, and alongside Bowlby, Mary Ainsworth also wrote about attachment, including the publication of her book (with three more authors) “Patterns of Attachment: A Psychological Study of the Strange Situation”. The book is a detailed study of the Strange Situation procedure, a structured observational method that used eight episodes, each lasting about three minutes. The researchers exposed an infant to mild stress, such as being left alone or with a stranger, and then reunited them with the caregiver. The purpose was to observe the infant’s responses to separations and reunions with the caregiver.

 

The study identified three main patterns of attachment: secure, avoidant, and resistant/ambivalent.

 

Secure Attachment:

 

Infants in this category (about 65% of the sample) use their caregiver as a secure base to explore the environment. They show distress when the caregiver leaves, but are easily comforted upon their return. These infants display confidence in the availability and responsiveness of their caregiver.

 

Avoidant Attachment:

 

Infants in this category (about 20% of the sample) are relatively indifferent to the caregiver’s presence or absence. They do not seek much comfort or show a significant preference for the caregiver over a stranger. These infants may avoid or ignore the caregiver upon return, indicating a lack of reliance on the caregiver for comfort.

 

Resistant / ambivalent Attachment:

 

Infants in this category (about 10-15% of the sample) exhibit significant distress when the caregiver leaves and are not easily comforted upon return. They may seek contact with the caregiver, but also show resistance, such as pushing away. These infants display ambivalence towards the caregiver, reflecting an inconsistent pattern of caregiving.

 

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Attachment Theory as Adults

 

Bowlby identified that the nature of these early bonds can predict how we approach relationships later in life.

 

Secure Attachment: Individuals with a secure attachment style typically had caregivers who were responsive and attentive to their needs. As a result, they grow up with a sense of safety and trust, allowing them to form healthy, balanced relationships. These individuals are generally less likely to experience fear of abandonment, because they believe in their own worthiness and reliability of others.

 

Anxious-Preoccupied Attachment: Those with an anxious-preoccupied attachment style often had inconsistently responsive caregivers. This inconsistency can lead to fear of abandonment. These individuals might be overly sensitive to signs of rejection and may constantly seek reassurance in their relationships. Their fear of abandonment stems from the belief that they are not enough to keep someone’s affection, and that their relationships are perpetually at risk.

 

Dismissive-Avoidant Attachment: People with a dismissive-avoidant attachment style tend to have had caregivers who were emotionally unavailable or unresponsive. These individuals learn to suppress their emotional needs and become self-reliant, often avoiding close relationships to protect themselves from rejection. While they may not outwardly show a fear of abandonment, it manifests through their reluctance to form deep connections, as they preemptively distance themselves to avoid potential pain.

 

Fearful-Avoidant Attachment: Also known as disorganised attachment, there is no clear way to deal with attachment needs. Often resulting from trauma or extreme inconsistency from caregivers, individuals with a fearful-avoidant attachment desire close relationships, but are simultaneously terrified of them. This internal conflict can lead to profound fear of abandonment, as they expect to be hurt if they let themselves get too close to others.

 

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The Fear of Abandonment: A Closer Look

 

A fear of abandonment is a powerful emotion that significantly impacts mental health and relationship dynamics. It can lead to behaviours such as clinging, jealousy, emotional volatility, or conversely withdrawal and self-sabotage. Understanding how attachment styles influence this fear can help address it constructively.

 

Anxious-Preoccupied Individuals: For those with an anxious-preoccupied attachment, the fear of being abandoned often makes you seek constant validation. You may become overly dependent on your partner, fearing that any sign of disinterest will lead to abandonment. Therapy typically focuses on building your self-esteem and developing a more secure sense of self-worth, independent of external validation.

 

Dismissive-Avoidant Individuals: As a dismissive-avoidant individual, you may not consciously acknowledge your fear of abandonment, but your avoidance of intimacy serves as a protective mechanism. Therapy can help you explore your suppressed emotions and gradually learn to trust others. Building emotional intelligence and fostering genuine connections are key steps in overcoming your hidden fears.

 

Fearful-Avoidant Individuals: If you have a fearful-avoidant attachment style, you face a dual challenge of craving intimacy while fearing it. Therapy can be particularly effective in providing a safe space to explore these conflicting feelings. Specific techniques can help you process past experiences and develop healthier relationship patterns.

 

Attachment styles profoundly influence how we navigate the fear of abandonment. By understanding the roots of these styles and how they manifest in adult relationships, you can gain insight into your own behaviours and work towards building more secure, fulfilling connections. Whether through self-reflection, therapy, or supportive relationships, addressing and understanding your attachment-related fears can lead to healthier and more resilient bonds.

 

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Fearing abandonment can generate feelings of anxiety. To read more about anxiety and how to manage it, click here.

 

Ainsworth, M.D.S. et al. (2015) Patterns of attachment: A psychological study of the strange situation, https://mindsplain.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/Ainsworth-Patterns-of-Attachment.pdf. New York, NY: Psychology Press/Taylor & Francis Group.

Bowlby, J. (1971) Attachment and loss, volume 1. Harmondsworth: Pelican Books.

Bowlby, J.  (1951) ‘Mental health and maternal care’ Public Health, 65, p. 128. doi:10.1016/s0033-3506(51)80146-x.