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Fear of Abandonment vs Fear of Engulfment

Anchor Light Therapy Collective

Apr 11, 2023

Both Are Intimacy Issues

Most of us say that we want to find a loving partner. Connection and belonging are vital to our human existence. but many have deep-seated fears of intimate personal relationships that make it difficult to be in a close relationship. Intimacy issues cause difficulties in developing meaningful romantic relationships with others.

It may come as a surprise, but fear of intimacy usually rears its head in relationships that a person cherishes—not those that are superficial. The experience of real love often increases our self-defense and raises anxiety as people become vulnerable and open themselves up to another person.

Types of Intimacy We Can Fear

  • Intellectual Intimacy: The ability to share your thoughts and ideas with another
  • Emotional Intimacy: The ability to share your innermost feelings with another
  • Sexual Intimacy: The ability to share a physical relationship
  • Experiential Intimacy: The ability to share experiences with another
  • Spiritual Intimacy: The ability to share your beliefs beyond yourself, in a higher power, or individual connection to others and the world
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What Causes These Fears

These fears are generally rooted in past childhood experiences where we formed insecure bonds with our caregivers. Insecure attachment styles are the relational patterns that cause a person to feel insecure about their relationships with others.

When these past experiences have not been healed, they are still actively triggered by present-day adult intimate relationships.

For example, betrayal, neglect, abuse, and lack of safety from a significant person earlier in life may lead to insecure attachment and mistrust of others. Physical or emotional abuse and physical or emotional neglect are commonly reported by those with insecure attachments.

What is Fear Of Abandonment

That fearing abandonment comes to expect that relationships have an expiration date and they will continually lose meaningful connections. Those with a fear of abandonment may not have had a consistent parent or another significant relative because of divorce, separation, incarceration or death. Parents or caregivers may have been selfish, uninvolved, or left the young child to fend for themselves.

People who experience fear of abandonment could not depend on caregivers to be available to provide consistent care. They often experienced emotional neglect and experiences of rejection like being ignored or even kicked out of their home before the age of 18.

Trauma experienced due to abandonment may impact the way people think about themselves, their worldviews, and how they perceive others

Signs of Fearing Abandonment

  • Preoccupied with thoughts of losing their relationship
  • Attach quickly in a new relationship
  • Seek relationships that are unhealthy and filled with red flags
  • A constant need for reassurance
  • Serial dating
  • Have had very few long-term relationships
  • Move on quickly just to ensure that they don’t get too attached
  • Aim to please
  • Feel undeserving
  • Engage in unwanted sex
  • Stay in relationships no matter how unhealthy they are
  • Hard to please and overly critical
  • Feel insecure and unworthy of love
  • Find it hard to trust people
  • Often jealous of everyone their partner meets
  • Experience intense feelings of separation anxiety
  • Feelings of worthlessness
  • Excessively neediness or clinginess
  • Difficulty trusting others
  • Wanting to control others
  • Codependent behaviors, or going to extreme lengths to preserve a relationship

What is Fear Of Engulfment?

Those who fear engulfment are afraid of being controlled, dominated, or “losing themselves” in a relationship

Similar to a fear of abandonment, a fear of being engulfed is also learned in childhood, except it’s the flip-side of the same coin. Here, a child may have grown up with parents or family members that had bigger needs than the child; mental illness, disability, substance use, etc. The larger needs of the parents and family overshadow their experience of childhood. Children in these circumstances may have had to provide emotional or physical support to the caregiver, which is called parentification.

Other factors causing this fear are enmeshed families. This is where the children were not allowed their own space, and boundaries were overstepped (or completely avoided). These children are left feeling trapped, like they don’t have a self-identity and that their needs and wants do not matter. These children often felt misunderstood or unsupported in their dreams and goals.

This fear can also stem from caregivers being too constricting, controlling, and domineering or persistent physical or sexual abuse. As verbal abuse and crisis are common with these types of caregivers, fear of criticism/perceived criticism is sometimes enough to keep folks out of relationships

Signs of Fearing Engulfment

  • Ambivalence or avoidance
  • Fear that kindness and love have strings attached
  • Suffocated by affection
  • Keeping others at an arms distance
  • Feel like they are being intruded on even in healthy relationships
  • Exhaustion when a partner shares emotions or other needs
  • Want to flee when things get hard for their partner out of fear of becoming their caretaker
  • Assume that they will not be heard or seen
  • Fears of exploitation and deprivation
  • Intimacy feels like a trap
  • Desire to have more than one relationship vs. committing to just one person
  • Fear needs of others will usurp theirs
  • Numbness towards partner or relationship
  • Resentment of relationship or partner
  • Difficulty expressing emotions


How These Fears Can Ruin Your Intimate Relationships

These fears prompt people to do things that cause problems to form that threaten the success of their relationship. Such a thing does not sound like it makes sense, but both fear of abandonment and fear of engulfment cause behaviors that alternately pull the partner in and then push them away again. People can do this by directly sabotaging the relationship or indirectly through self-sabotage to make themselves less desirable. Sabotaging relationships is another way of confirming self-fulfilling prophecies that all relationships are unsafe

Relationship-sabotaging actions:

  • Unrealistic expectations for closeness
  • Intentionally starting arguments
  • Not addressing negative emotions
  • Micromanaging your partner’s actions and whereabouts
  • Criticism toward your partner
  • Engaging in unhealthy behaviors
  • Holding grudges
  • Putting energy into everything except your relationship
  • Not following words with actions
  • Creating situations with the intent of making your partner jealous

Mental Health Symptoms Caused By These Fears

Having these adverse events early in life that now cause distress in your intimate relationship are risk factors for many mental health symptoms.

  • Anxiety
  • Low self-esteem
  • Depression
  • Engaging in self-harm behaviors
  • Substance use disorders
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Developmental challenges
  • In extreme cases, personality disorders such as borderline personality disorder or narcissistic personality disorder
  • Social anxiety
  • Irritability or anger

How to Cope with These Fears

Look at Your Past: Think about the messages you received in your family and compare these with the messages you should have received.

Accept Uncertainty: It’s important to accept the fact that there are no guarantees in life or in human relationships.

Express Self-Compassion: If you truly know and accept your own value and worth as a person, then you know that rejection is not as crushing as it may seem.

Silence Your Inner Critic Rather than accepting that criticism, try to catch yourself casting negative self-judgments. Ask yourself if your inner dialogue is actually yours (vs. a bad lesson learned in childhood). Ask yourself if there is evidence for the thought actually being true. Is it a reaction, or is it fact?

Give Yourself Time: inevitably setbacks will happen. Grant yourself forgiveness when this happens and speak kindly to your inner self.

Therapy: Individual therapy can enable the cultivation of a stable holistic self-identity along with the capacity to realistically accept others’ strengths and flaws.

Therapeutic Implications

Once you identify that you and your needs have value, you will feel more secure in your relationships. Relational disappointments can be endured and do not have to result in immediate ruptures, fears, or self-sabotage

The adult, unlike the child, can articulate needs, and grievances, erect boundaries, and define limits in their adult relationship.

What to Do If Your Partner’s Fear of Intimacy Is Causing Issues In Your Relationship

If you want to stick it out, support them as they are on their healing journey. You can set a boundary that you would like your partner to go to therapy to work on their fears. As they are healing, practice patience. Setbacks are perfectly normal and to be expected, as long as there is accountability from your partner.

Establishing safety and trust for your partner is of utmost importance so that your loved one can begin to open up.

Try to not react personally or with anger if your loved one tries to push you away. Don’t assume your partner “feels” loved. Rather, create an environment that supports the fact that they are deserving of it.




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