Stephanie met a man for their first date together, and it went very well. They talked for three hours, exchanged eye contact, laughed together, and had great chemistry. At the end of the evening, they agreed, “This was fun! Let’s meet again!”
Although everything seemed to have gone smoothly, when her date failed to text Stephanie the same evening, the wheels in her head started turning, allowing the fear of rejection to prematurely occupy her mind. Questions and doubts—such as, "Why hasn’t he texted yet?" "Did I say something he didn’t like?" and, "What did I do wrong?"—circulated throughout her brain. Feeling anxious or nervous while dating someone is normal, but Stephanie’s angst was getting increasingly worse and started to feel intrusive.
Stephanie had a few more wonderful dates with this man, but the time in between his e-mails and texts seemed too long. She tended to think that a whole week had passed since he had contacted her, only to realize that the date on his last e-mail was just a few days ago. Each time Stephanie waited for a response, she reviewed prior conversations, trying to figure out if she had said anything wrong that could possibly have driven him away, and prepared herself for rejection. Unfortunately, the time between his contacts with her started to drag out longer and longer.
Then Stephanie started having nightmares. The whole experience felt like a psychological hangover. She felt exhausted and down, developed a headache, and started having difficulty concentrating during the day. Although Stephanie was very confident in other areas of her life, she increasingly felt insecure while dating. Finally, the rejection became real—no contact at all—and her anxiety escalated to a debilitating level. Her head started spinning to the point where her inner critic took her apart by shaming her, putting her down for feeling this way, and declaring that she would never find anyone. Her despair became very painful, and a sense of panic came over her. Now she not only had to deal with his rejection, but also her own.
Stephanie was dealing with abandonment anxiety caused not by her date, but by her childhood trauma. Although many people feel reassured with more contact, they don’t react with high levels of anxiety when there isn’t the desired level of contact, and they might just move on.
When did Stephanie’s abandonment anxiety develop? While growing up, Stephanie had experienced neglect, for example, being left alone for too many hours on many occasions. Children need to experience a bond with their parents or caregivers that they can depend on. If this bonding doesn’t provide the safety they are supposed to experience, due to a parent’s abuse or neglect—or if it was interrupted or lost due to death, divorce, illness, or parental depression—an insecure attachment might be formed. As a result, some people develop an anxious attachment style (while others develop an avoidant attachment style) that may show up when they start dating or are in a relationship.
In addition, due to the fact that during their early developmental stages, children believe that everything is their fault, they blame themselves for divorce, abuse, or even the death of a parent. Such children start to believe that they are unlovable, and they may internalize self-blame, as reflected by an inner critic.
Sure enough, when Stephanie took the online “Relationship Attachment Style Test,”1 her scores revealed that she had an anxious attachment style expressed through anxiety around the fear of abandonment.
What to do
At first, the great shame Stephanie felt upon realizing she had abandonment anxiety caused her to want to avoid relationships altogether. The best step for her to take would not be to avoid being in relationships or to over-identify with the feeling that something is wrong with her but, rather, to work through the anxiety. Upon learning this, Stephanie decided to accept where she was and to see it as an opportunity to grow, rather than abandon herself. She determined that although gaining this new awareness was painful, she could take it as a challenge to be kind and compassionate to herself instead. This was difficult, because Stephanie had no role model who comforted her during her childhood. However, she knew that with practice, she would get better at comforting herself.
Stephanie now knows that she needs to choose a relationship or date a man who will foster a consistent connection and effective communication. Interestingly, J. Alan Graham2 points out that an anxious person might not feel that special romantic chemistry with someone who is actually available, responsive, and attentive and, therefore, might misinterpret as love the feelings of nervousness and obsession that someone who’s not really emotionally available might arouse. Graham suggests giving someone who initially seems boring a chance because that person might be the one, after all.
Now Stephanie is also aware that she will have to learn to convey her needs to her partner. Understanding the steps she needed to take empowered Stephanie such that her anxiety subsided. The choice to work on her anxiety in therapy, along with her newfound ability to identify which fears were from the present and which were from the past, helped Stephanie develop an understanding of what feelings might come up for her in a romantic relationship. To counteract self-abandonment, she nurtured herself in whatever ways she could, by meeting with good friends, eating healthy meals, exercising, and staying present with feelings and sensations.
Last but not least, Graham points out that an anxious partner and an avoidant partner can shift their dynamic to feeling secure with one another as a couple if they both work on their interactions. They do not have to stay stuck in their old patterns.
Psychology Today, “Relationship Attachment Style Test” (2015), http://psychologytoday.tests.psychtests.com/take_test.php?idRegTest=3265.
J. Alan Graham, “On Relationships: The Anxious Style” (no date), http://www.dralangraham.com/Office/Relationships__Anxious_Style.html.