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Dating Advice #63 - Fear of Abandonment

May 9, 2009 | by Rosie Einhorn, L.C.S.W. and Sherry Zimmerman, J.D., M.Sc.

He's afraid that she'll stop dating him. What's the psychology behind this fear -- and how can he fix it?

Dear Rosie & Sherry,

I like the woman I am dating so much that I fear she will leave me. What is your answer, please?


Dear Larry,

Well, you didn't give us too many details to work with!

Most people who are in a good courtship are not preoccupied with a fear that the other person will leave them. However, fearing abandonment doesn't mean that there is something seriously wrong with you. In all likelihood, you experienced a loss early in life and have not yet moved beyond the emotions that resulted from the loss.

For example, we find that a number of men and women who lose a parent when they are young, are afraid that someone else they love will die or leave them. Adults whose parents divorced when they were children may have similar fears. We cannot say why some people who experienced these unfortunate circumstances enjoy adult relationships without fearing abandonment, and why others are preoccupied with worry. We do know that in the vast majority of cases, however, therapy can help the fearful person overcome this difficulty.

Sometimes, an upsetting event in the more recent past may cause a person to be overly anxious. For example, if you recently experienced a loss or another traumatic event, you may be overly concerned about your current courtship. If this has happened to you, you have probably not fully mourned your recent loss. The grieving process is universal; people have to move through the stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance before they can move forward emotionally. We suggest that you read a book on the grieving process and perform the exercises. If you are still having trouble, you may need to consult with a professional therapist.

It is very important for someone who fears abandonment to deal with the problem, so that he/she can enjoy a healthy social life. When one of the partners in a relationship is plagued by a fear of abandonment, the relationship cannot achieve its potential. That's because the person who is afraid cannot give his/her partner the trust that is critical to a healthy relationship.

For example, if a man is afraid that his wife may leave him, he may bend over backwards to please her. This prevents the two of them from learning the crucial art of negotiation and compromise. And at the same time the man gradually looses his individuality.

Or, the man might try to hold on to his wife too tightly, by monitoring her phone calls, following her, and becoming jealous of her friendships with others. She, in turn, may feel so threatened by his paranoia, or so upset at his lack of trust, that she does exactly what he fears -- and leaves him! Occasionally, a person who fears abandonment will go to a perverse extreme of trying to control his spouse's actions and thoughts through intimidation, threats or violence.

You deserve credit for understanding enough about yourself to recognize that you are afraid of abandonment. Many people who are much older and wiser than you destroy one potential relationship after another without understanding how this fear has prevented them from having a healthy, stable marriage.

It will take time and effort for you to understand the root of your fear and to learn how to move beyond it. We hope that you have the courage to take the next step of working to eliminate that fear -- and toward a rewarding marriage.

Rosie & Sherry

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