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Dating Advice #147 - Confronting the Fear

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

Is a brief encounter with childhood abandonment holding him back from a total relationship?

Dear Rosie & Sherry,

I think I might have a problem. When I was age 6, my parents separated for a while. It wasn't too traumatic of an experience, at least then it wasn't, and my parents have since gotten back together.

However, I am now 20 and think I might have some fear of abandonment. I often find myself being unable to trust other people, both male and female, for fear of rejection. There is also a history of mental illness in my family, and I'm not sure if I should be concerned about it or not.

I have a great family life in general. Please let me know whether my concerns are legitimate.


Dear Doug,

You are very astute to pick up on something that may be a problem for you in terms of both friendships and dating. A fear, such as that of abandonment, can be triggered by any event in a person's past, even something that seems innocuous, and even if the situation that triggered the event was later resolved in a satisfactory manner.

So the fact that you parents got back together after they separated, and that your family life has since been good, doesn't change the fact that the separation occurred in the first place and that you worry that something like it might happen again. This translates to your adult relationships with friends and dates in that even though something starts out well, you worry that at some point down the road the other person will end it or do something to betray your trust.

If you don't address this fear and learn how to deal with it, it can cripple your ability to form and maintain friendships and relationships, especially one that will lead to marriage. Fortunately, you have taken the first step toward conquering your fear of abandonment by acknowledging that it exists and arriving at an understanding about its origins.

The next step is learning how to deal with your fear and to minimize its affect on your life. Virtually all the self-help exercises that we suggest involve taking some quiet, private time, doing a lot of thinking, writing down one's ideas, and reading through them afterward. Writing can be very cathartic. In addition, seeing one's thoughts in writing, even in the form of a stream-of-consciousness, provides something concrete to refer to -- now and in the future.

So take some private time and write down your thoughts about your fears, including your worst ones. For example, you could write, "Betrayal. I am afraid that if I confide in someone, he will laugh at me." Then, review each fear individually and write down what you think is the worst thing that could arise from each of these fears. For example, you could write, "I will be embarrassed and feel foolish if he laughs at me. It will be even worse if he laughs at me in public, or shares what I have said with other people who will also laugh at me. I don't want people to make fun of me."

The next step is to think of different ways you can deal with each unpleasant situation, and write them down. It's a good idea to look at how you might react to such a situation immediately after it happens, and how you could do so over an ensuing period of time. For example, "At first, I will feel embarrassed, maybe even humiliated. I will also feel hurt and angry toward my so-called friend for betraying me in such a terrible way. I may stop speaking to him or, even better, after I have calmed down I may confront him to find out why he ridiculed me. He may have reacted this way because he didn't know how to react to what I told him, or he is incapable of empathizing with another person, or he could just be mean-spirited. I won't know until after I talk to him, and then I'll decide how to relate to him in the future. I realize that my embarrassment and hurt will lessen over time. It will be difficult to face the fact that other people know some confidential information about me, but most of them will forget about it in a few days."

Many people find that once they go through this exercise of identifying their fears and figuring out how to best react to them, they are no longer as fearful -- because they realize that every worst-case scenario has a resolution.

Sometimes, when Rosie works with a fearful client, she encourages them to save their notes from this first exercise and to add to them in the form of an ongoing journal. Whenever they are fearful in the future, they make a journal entry that describes what they are afraid of, how it makes them feel, and how they address the fear (both in ways that are beneficial and ways that are not helpful). She recommends that they read through their notes from time to time, to see how their thought processes are changing. Their fears generally become less frightening as they become more confident in their ability to deal with them.

Although we've suggested one method to address your fear, many people find this too difficult or painful to accomplish without guidance. If that is the case, we strongly recommend that you consult with a licensed mental health professional who can guide you through the process of addressing and overcoming your fear. It is definitely worth the investment in time and money. Moreover, addressing this fear at your young age will help you throughout your adult life. The fact that you are aware of this issue now is a blessing -- we have worked with so many people in their 30s and 40s who have missed out on some of life's greatest joys because they either cannot see, or will not admit, that they are handicapped by a fear.

Your letter also noted that you have a family history of mental illness and are worried about how this might affect you in the future. Yes, there is a genetic component to some mental illness, but others are triggered by events or environment, and others develop as a result of a combination of genetics and environment. Many forms of mental illness can be successfully treated, and people with those illnesses lead happy, productive lives and have good marriages.

If you are concerned, we suggest that you find out whatever details of your relative's diagnosis and treatment that you can, and discuss your concerns with a competent therapist or a psychiatrist.

We wish you all the best,

Rosie & Sherry

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