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Relationships

Are Abandonment Issues Holding You Back?

If we were to simplify our emotional needs to the core, we’d discover that we’re always asking ourselves two questions: Am I safe? and Do I belong?

And when we’re abandoned—whether it’s through a parent’s divorce, neglect, a breakup, infidelity—the answer to both of those questions is a terrifying and resounding no.

While having abandonment issues isn’t a medical diagnosis, it does affect millions of people. And if you’re struggling to form meaningful relationships because of deep wounds from your past, hear me on this: There is hope. Beginning today, you can take specific steps to overcome your fear of abandonment and cultivate the relationships you long for.

What Are Abandonment Issues? 

Abandonment issues make it hard to trust people, form life-giving relationships, and develop intimacy with people. At the heart of abandonment issues is a persistent and debilitating anxiety that you’ll be left alone. You’re afraid that the people you care about will just up and leave. You’ve got an inner narrative running through your head that tells you, You’re on your own, kid.

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One thing I want you to know: I don’t like the term abandonment issues. It's commonly used, but the word issues implies that the person who was left and is struggling as a result is to blame. They’re not. It may sound like semantics, but instead, think of abandonment issues as neglect or trauma that will echo throughout your life until you’re intentional about healing.

Signs of Abandonment Issues or Neglect 

The way we cope with fear of abandonment looks different for each person. One approach is to push people away and maintain fierce independence. This is about retaining control where you can. You wall yourself off and control everything in your ecosystem so no one can hurt you. Signs of this type of coping include:

  • Mistrust
  • Fear of intimacy
  • A need to feel in control
  • Unhealthy independence
  • Difficulty forming deep relationships
  • Conflicting feelings about relationships and intimacy

Another approach might be to fuse who you are with others and desperately cling to the relationships in your life so separation isn’t possible. You do everything in your power to keep people close so you don’t ever feel the pain of being abandoned again. Those relationships are characterized by the following:

  • Intense jealousy
  • Peacekeeping
  • People-pleasing
  • Idealizing and worshipping others 
  • Toxic relationships
  • Separation anxiety
  • Pathological need for affirmation
  • Codependency (an unhealthy dependence on a partner)
  • Constantly needing reassurance in relationships

Whether you push people away or hold them too tightly, the problem is that these coping strategies don’t allow you to develop autonomy and connect with others. To truly be well, we must embrace relationships based on trust—not fear and manipulation.

Signs of Abandonment Issues or Neglect in Children 

Fear of abandonment can manifest in children at a very young age. Here are a few signs to look out for in kids and teenagers:

  • Clinginess
  • Aggression
  • Withdrawal
  • Separation anxiety
  • Fear of being alone
  • Constant worry about being left alone
  • Sleep disturbances (avoiding bedtime, difficulty falling asleep, nightmares)

What Causes Fear of Abandonment? 

Fear of abandonment often stems from a traumatic event. Trauma teaches us that life is scary and unpredictable and that people can’t be trusted. Sometimes those triggering events happen in childhood, and sometimes they happen to us as adults. The main thing here is that no matter when the event was, trauma is the physical reaction your body has to something it now perceives as a threat due to the past event or events.

Keep in mind that there are two main types of abandonment trauma. Acute trauma is big and memorable events—such as a death, a child being left by a parent, divorce (your parents’ or your own), abuse or infidelity. The other type is cumulative trauma, which adds up little by little over time—like a string of hurtful breakups, parents who were present physically but absent emotionally, or even caregivers who didn’t pay attention to your basic needs.

Whether it’s acute or cumulative, trauma plants the fear of abandonment deep in our hearts, and we must go on a search to uproot it.

How to Deal With Abandonment Issues 

Working through abandonment issues and changing your story is a lifelong process that will require intentional thought and action. Let’s begin with these simple steps:

1. Examine your story. 

Look back over your life and ask yourself where your fear of abandonment comes from. What events set it into motion? Was it when your mom walked out on you? Or when your friend stabbed you in the back? Did your parents pay more attention to their job, liquor or phone than you? Did your spouse leave you?

As we move through our lives, we all experience trauma and hurt in a variety of ways. I think about it like carrying bricks in a backpack. Did your dad fail to show up for your games again and again? That’s a brick. Did your fiancé call off the wedding at the last minute? That’s a big ol’ cinder block. Spend some time looking over your life and pulling out the metaphorical bricks in your backpack that have led you to believe you’re worth being abandoned. You need to look back at your story and ask yourself who said you weren’t worth being with and that people can’t be trusted.

2. Challenge your stories.

Now that you have all the bricks out on the table, you have a choice to make: Do you want to keep carrying them?

If we’re not careful, we allow our trauma to become part of our identity. For example—let’s say your parents went through a painful divorce when you were young. The two people on planet earth who were supposed to care for you and love you jumped ship. During a divorce, many children start to believe their parents’ divorce was somehow their fault. Deep-seated lies begin to form as they tell themselves a story to make sense of it all: It’s my fault. If only I had been a better kid. Or If I can’t trust my parents, how can I trust anyone?

You have a choice to make: Will you keep believing the story you’re telling yourself—that you’re not worthy of love? That no one can be trusted?

Or will you choose to write a new story? 

3. Commit to telling new stories 

Once you have a grasp on the stories and the trauma that are forming the narrative in your head, you can decide how you want to move forward. Yes, you’ve been hurt and rejected and walked out on. What now?

You get to choose. You get to decide to find people who accept you and love you—people who are committed to sticking around for the long haul. It’s time to replace the old stories with the truth.

And more importantly, you get to decide what kind of person you want to be. You can turn around, stare that generational trauma in the face, and say, No more. We’re done here. You don’t have to keep repeating the mistakes that everyone else in your life has made. You get to be the kind of person who is faithful and chooses to trust and take risks.

Part of telling new stories is changing your thoughts, and the other part is changing your actions. Are you going through life alone right now but actually wanting deeper relationships? Maybe changing your story looks like this: Instead of telling yourself people can’t be trusted and to stay away from them, tell yourself people can be trusted, and that life is better in relationships—even if it hurts. And then, do something different. Ask someone on a date, make a friend, forgive the person who hurt you.

4. Work with a professional.

The first three steps seem simple, but they are difficult. As you work through stories from your past, I encourage you to find a therapist who can help you navigate and make sense of it all. Therapy is a gift. It’s a valuable way to heal, learn new skills, and replace old stories with new ones.

5. Choose risk. 

All relationships begin with risk. Period. When you sign up to love someone for life—or heck, even to just be friends—you’re putting yourself in a vulnerable position. They might leave. They might hurt you. They might cheat.

But then again, they might not. Yes, you might get hurt by choosing to be vulnerable and close to others. But loneliness is far more dangerous. You were made for connection and community. And part of the deal is that you sign up for risk.

6. Serve and show up for others. 

At the end of the day, there are only two things on planet Earth you can control: your thoughts and your actions. If you want to enjoy thriving, stable relationships, you must commit to being the kind of person who cultivates those relationships. Don’t run for the hills when things get scary. Don’t cling and suffocate your partner or friends or family. Treat others the way you want to be treated. Show up for them. Learn to serve them out of love, not fear or obligation. Because at the end of the day, that’s the only thing you can control.

Get Commonsense Mental Health Advice 

If this article was helpful for you, it might mean it’s time to be intentional about changing your relationships and improving your mental health. Check out my new book, Own Your Past, Change Your Future, to learn about a not-so-complicated approach to mental health, relationships and wellness. My goal is to teach you how to grow yourself, deepen your relationships, and create a strong and rich emotional life.

Your Mental Health Matters

The weight you are carrying is real. Choose to set it down. Order Dr. John Delony's new book, Own Your Past, Change Your Future!

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Dr. John Delony

About the author

Dr. John Delony

Dr. John Delony is a mental health expert with two PhDs from Texas Tech University—one in counselor education and supervision, and the other in higher education administration. Before joining Ramsey Solutions in 2020, John worked as a senior leader, professor and researcher at multiple universities. He also spent two decades in crisis response, walking with people through severe trauma. Now at Ramsey Solutions, John is a syndicated columnist, and he writes, speaks and teaches on relationships, mental health, anxiety and wellness. He also serves as co-host of The Ramsey Show, the second-largest talk show in the nation that’s heard by 18 million weekly listeners, as well as host of The Dr. John Delony Show. In 2022, John’s book Own Your Past, Change Your Future instantly became a #1 national bestseller. You can also find John featured on DailyMailTV, Fox Business and The Minimalists Podcast. Learn More.

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