Signs of Overcoming Abandonment Issues - Therapist How To

February 13, 2024

Sometime early on in my career I noticed something that was taking place with my clients during intake. I would go through all of my normal questions about what brought them into therapy, what they want to see happen in their life, how are their close relationships doing, etc. And when we got to the questions of early childhood experiences, I would hear a lot of the same answers.

"It was normal" or "pretty average" were some of the responses I'd get. I would also ask about childhood trauma or to detail really just any traumatic experiences that had occurred in their life time. Again, people would have trouble identifying them. As we dug deeper into therapy, sometimes in that intake or sometimes later in the therapeutic relationship, they would begin to disclose major attachment issues or the neglect from a primary caregiver. They would detail the emotional abandonment they experienced or abuse from a family member. Some of the things that I heard from people that they described as "normal" were blowing my mind.

I would eventually go back to our questions of trauma and childhood and reflect to them how they said their growing up experience was totally normal, but it was sounding far from normal to me.

And most people would reply to that with either a blank stare of letting me in on the understanding that they just didn't know any different. Which of course makes so much sense. How would you know any different if that's what you've always seen.

Allow me to illustrate another way. I am red/green colorblind. And for probably the first 34 years of my life I thought that red and green were right next to each other, the way that blue and purple were. People were shocked to hear me say this, but that's just what I'd always seen. I knew I was colorblind but I thought that I mixed up red and green because they were so close together. It took telling them to some close friends for me to learn that they indeed are not.

It's not a perfect analogy, but no analogy is. And I also want to state that I do not want to paint with such a broad brush stroke as to say that nobody is able to recognize if they have been through a traumatic event until a therapist tells them. You might be sitting here thinking that you are well aware of the abandonment trauma you've been through or easily see where healthy attachments didn't take place in your family. Thankfully people have become much more vocal about trauma and insecure attachment styles over the years and I have actually seen an increase in people's ability to identify emotional neglect on their own.

Understanding Your Book

Fear of abandonment normally surfaces in dating relationships or marriage as an adult. We become aware that we really care for somebody and these abandonment fears kick in, telling us that if the person really saw everything about us then they would probably leave. In order to gain a firmer grasp on why this is, I like to think of the little version of you taking notes on how to be in relationship with other people while growing up.

And the most important chapter in this book is the one on conflict. So you catalogue all of the ways that you are supposed to respond in conflict. If your parents were the type to yell, you might have learned to either yell back or just get really quiet. Or perhaps whenever dad was upset he would be very withdrawn and emotionally neglectful. This always strikes fear into young children as it can feel like their parent is going to leave. And at this point it wouldn’t just be the childhood loss of companionship, but the loss of the person you depend on for your survival and well being. It’s very important to make sure that they stick around! These adverse childhood experiences get ingrained into us and influence how we attach to another individual as we get older.

You might even give a subtitle to this chapter of the book: “How To Avoid Abandonment.”

One of the problems with this book is that it is not gospel. It’s just written based on your experiences. And here’s the other thing, your partner also has a book. And odds are, it says something quite different than yours.

Knowing Your Attachment Style

Here at Thrive we are all about your attachment style. Having a high understanding of attachment theory helps us to find secure relationships and understand where we are missing the mark in doing so. Sometimes people hear the idea of receiving some sort of label as being put in a box. But I prefer to see this as understanding what box our past experiences put us in and now having the knowledge on how to get out of it.

I think it’s important to note that both attachment styles we are going to discuss have abandonment anxiety to some regard. Unless you have already done quite a bit of work on yourself, signs of abandonment issues are going to rear their ugly head from time to time. Heck, I went and got a master’s in clinical mental health and still walked out of grad school with the impact of abandonment issues showing up in my relationships.

Anxious Attachment Style

Those who are of the anxious attachment type are often called the pursuer in the relationship. They have a much higher awareness of their emotional needs and from the outside it can look like they are the ones who are being the good communicators in the relationship. Their fears of abandonment are also a little bit easier to spot as they are consistently making sure that their partner is not going to leave them. This often stems from having a parent who was difficult to achieve emotional intimacy with and might have withdrawn their affection when their child did not perform or behave up to standards. This creates a form of anxiety in the pursuer as to where they feel a need to consistently check on the safety of the relationship for fear that their own needs will not be met if they come up short somehow. This can also often play out in criticizing their romantic partner for their withdrawing behaviors. But this criticism is a protective behavior that the pursuer is enacting to make sure their current relationship will stay in tact. It’s unfortunately not a very effective strategy and often leads to the withdrawer wanting to distance themselves more because this touches on how they believe that the conflict is going to create disconnection. In essence, the anxious one is conflict facing and the avoidant one is, you guess it, conflict avoidant.

Avoidant Attachment Style

Unlike their anxious counterparts, those with an avoidant attachment style tend to isolate more in the relationship. They have a much lower capacity for conflict and move into a hypoaroused state when they begin to feel overwhelmed. It can appear that this type does not have a fear of rejection as they seem more content to let the relationship go if things aren’t working out. But this is not true. The withdrawer believes if they can just be quiet enough, the storm will eventually pass and the relationship can return to homeostasis. They have a lack of trust that they will be able to navigate conflict as well as the pursuer and so they isolate and avoid conflict at all costs. This often stems from childhood experiences where conflict was either completely avoided, or having a parent that was extra critical. They learn at a young age that the best way to navigate these conflicts is to simply withdraw, isolate, and wait for the other person to calm down. They can also develop the idea that it is simply easier to not be seen in the relationship and expressing their own emotional needs could lead to the rise of discord.

What To Do

I like to see all fear of rejection as its own type of anxiety. And as with all anxiety, it lies in a level of uncertainty where the only thing that anxiety is trying to achieve is of course certainty. If we want to overcome the feelings of abandonment anxiety we must first learn to live with uncertainty. There is nothing that anybody can give you for you to have 100% certainty that your relationship will remain in tact. We must first learn to sit with the possibility that the relationship could end. Anxiety usually overestimates the possibility of detrimental circumstances occurring and underestimates our ability to emotionally respond. This normally touches on the trust issues we have with ourselves for how we are going to respond if the relationship does end. I try and tell myself that if my relationship were to end, I will find and enact the resources that I need to properly grieve and find my own footing once again.

The second thing to focus on is having a very high understanding of your attachment style and recognizing the moves that you want to engage in to protect the relationship. As you move these into the forefront of your mind you will have a better chance of not engaging in these behaviors and paradoxically achieving what you are trying to, which is protecting your significant relationships. If you are the pursuer, try taking more breaks in the conversation and allowing your partner space to process. When the relationship returns to a more connected place, you can focus on how allowing for some space was a positive thing. If you are the withdrawer, challenge yourself to stay present in conversations that feel uncomfortable. See what happens when you are more vocal about your needs and if this creates disconnection or connection.


If you are looking for a support group to aid in your healing process, Thrive offers two different trauma groups in person. Additionally I would recommend either our course on boundaries, the window of tolerance, or attachment as supplemental resources for your therapeutic journey.

Of course, if you are already signed up for Thrive's membership all of these courses are included at no additional cost to you.

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