Having worries while in a close relationship is normal. Two common manifestations of this dreadful emotion are apprehension of being left alone and panic at the prospect of being swallowed whole. The fear of being left behind prevents us from fully committing to a romantic relationship. On the other hand, we worry that we won’t be able to escape if they get too close.
This piece focuses on abandonment anxiety, which, when taken to extremes, can manifest as emotional permanence, persistent feelings of insecurity, intrusive thoughts, emptiness, an unstable sense of a self, clinginess, neediness, extreme mood fluctuations, and the frequent conflicts in relationships. On the other hand, one option for coping is to withdraw entirely and become emotionally numb.
Neuroscientists have discovered that our worldview is encoded by our parents’ reactions to our attachment-seeking behaviors, particularly in first two years of life. In order to learn to trust others and ourselves, we need to form secure attachments with caring adults when we’re young. If our parents were always there to feed and comfort us, we’d grow up believing that people are generally kind and willing to lend a hand to those in need. We’d also develop the ability to remain composed under pressure, a skill that would prove invaluable later in life. And yet, our resilience to uncertainty, disappointments, and the ups and downs of relationships would be compromised if, from infancy on, we were taught that the world is very unsafe and that people cannot be relied upon.
Most people can tolerate social uncertainty without becoming overly preoccupied with fears of rejection. We can get over an argument with a loved one, and we can rest assured that even when they are not physically with us, they are still thinking about us. Object constancy, or the capacity to maintain an emotional bond with others despite distance and conflicts, is essential to all of these.
This ability to maintain mental representations of objects dates back to the age of two or three, when we first learn the concept of object permanence. The belief that things exist even if we cannot perceive them. As a result, babies find the game of peekaboo very entertaining because they mistakenly believe that your face disappears when you cover it. Psychologist Jean Piaget first proposed the concept, and he considered the acquisition of object constancy to be a significant developmental step.
Psychodynamic object constancy can be seen as the emotional analogue of object permanence. Learning this takes coming to terms with the fact that our caretaker is at once an unconditionally present source of love and a distinct person who may choose to leave us at any time. When we have a “internalized image” of parents’ love and care, we don’t feel the need to be with them all the time. That’s why it’s okay to feel secure in our love and support systems even when they are temporarily out of sight.
As adults, we can rely on object constancy to maintain faith in the integrity of our relationships with those closest to us, even when they are unavailable, unresponsive, or even angry with us. Absence in a persistent object does not indicate destruction or abandonment, but merely a change in proximity.
Everybody gets a little banged up as they learn to be independent and to stand on its own two feet, because no parent can be there for their child 100% of the time. On other hand, if a person had experienced of more severe early or even preverbal attachment trauma, had extremely inconsistent or emotionally unavailable caregivers, or had a chaotic upbringing, their emotional development may have been stunted at a vulnerable age, and they may have never had the chance to develop object constancy.
The core of borderline personality traits is an inability to maintain focus on an object. When people who are insecurely attached experience separation, even if it is only temporary and seemingly innocuous, they relive the hurt they felt when they were first abandoned. As a result of their anxiety, they may resort to defensive coping mechanisms like denial, clinging, avoidance, dismissal of others, or lashing out in relationships.
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When object constancy is lacking, people have a tendency to view others as collections of parts rather than as wholes. They have a hard time mentally holding the idea that they, like us, have both good and bad aspects, just as a child has trouble understanding the mother as a whole person who sometimes rewards and sometimes frustrates. Their perception of their partner seems to fluctuate from moment to moment, going from positive to negative, and they may view their relationships as unstable as a result.
It is difficult to feel the presence of a missing loved one if you can’t picture them as whole and stable, even in your mind’s eye. Intense, visceral, and even childlike emotions can surface in response to the sensation of being abandoned. As the anxious person’s abandonment fear is triggered, feelings of shame and self-blame quickly follow. As a result, these intense responses may come across as “irrational” or “immature,” even if their roots were often subconscious. The truth is that we can make sense of their extreme fear, rage, and despair if we consider that they are acting from a place of repressed or dissociated trauma and remember what it was like to be abandoned as a two-year-old or to be with an inconsistent caregiver.
Restoration through desolation
Ability to mentally hold paradoxes is a key component of developing object constancy. We must face the reality that no relationship or person is entirely good or entirely bad, just as caregiver who feeds us is the one who fails us.
We can avoid the need for the primitive defense mechanism of “splitting,” or black-and-white thinking, if we are able to acknowledge both the flaws and the virtues in ourselves and others. We need not discount our partner’s worth simply because they have let us down badly. We can also extend mercy to ourselves; being fallible occasionally does not make us faulty or unlovable.
It’s possible that our partner’s abilities are limited but sufficient.
They might care about us, but they might also hate us.
Even if they have to put some space between themselves and us from time to time, our relationship will always be built on a solid foundation.
The overwhelming power of abandonment anxiety stems from the fact that it reawakens the profound trauma we all carry from the time we were infants, when we were suddenly thrust into the world as defenseless, dependent beings. And yet, we have to face the fact that our worst nightmares no longer reflect the present. It’s true that nothing in life is ever completely safe or guaranteed, but we’re adults now with more options.
Now that we’re adults, it’s impossible for us to be “abandoned”; if a relationship ends, it’s because the two people involved no longer have compatible goals, values, or lifestyles. There was no longer any way for us to be “rejected,” as the worth of our lives is independent of what other people think. The ability to say “no,” establish boundaries, and withdraw means that we are no longer at risk of being engulfed or trapped.
We learn to stay in our bodies, even in fear, without dissociating, and to stay in relationships with others, even in the face of uncertainty, without retreating into avoidance and defenses; these abilities allow us to cradle the 2-month-old within us that was terrified of being dropped.
Finding the “missing piece” is replaced by a realization of one’s own completeness and wholeness.
Since the initial shock of being abandoned has worn off, we are free to start over.