Abandonment anxiety is fear of being abandoned in a relationship. People with abandonment anxiety have one of two insecure attachment styles: attachment anxiety and attachment avoidance. Attachment anxiety is characterized by a need for attention from others and fear that a partner is going to leave. Attachment avoidance is characterized by a persistent need to be self-reliant and fear of dependence.
Origin of Attachment Theory
Modern attachment theory arose out of the work of psychiatrists John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth in the 20th century. Both researchers were influenced by the Austrian psychiatrist and founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud. In one of Bowlby's first empirical studies, he examined 44 boys at the London Child Guidance Clinic who were unable to express affection and empathy. In all of the cases, the lack of affection was grounded in maternal deprivation or abandonment. In the 1950s, Ainsworth joined Bowlby's research team, and together they examined numerous cases of childhood abandonment and affection deprivation, which culminated in what is now known as "attachment theory."
According to Ainsworth, attachment is a strong, affectionate tie that binds together two individuals emotionally and that continues over time. Attachment theory holds that these emotional ties between people are crucial to healthy development mentally, socially and emotionally. The crucial time period for this development is the first six years of childhood. For healthy child development to take place, child and caregiver must form a bond in which the caregiver provides a secure environment for the child and shows emotional affection and support. These first attachments constitute the foundation for future interpersonal relationships.
Events and conditions such as divorce, illness or the inability to express affection can interfere with or disrupt the natural bonding process between child and caregiver, says California family therapist Daniel Sonkin. When a caregiver does not or cannot respond affectionately to a child's fears, the child will grow up in one of two ways. He may continue to seek the affection and bonding he was missing in childhood, or he will become excessively self-reliant, distrusting others and having an intense fear of dependence on others. How an abandoned child develops depends on which coping styles has been most effective for him and the severity of the abandonment, say relationship experts Gwendolyn Stevens and Sheldon Gardner.
People whose fear of abandonment has resulted in attachment avoidance shy away from closeness and affection in their relationships or avoid committed relationships altogether. They usually prefer casual sex that does not have any emotional impact. People who fear abandonment so much that they shy away from all deep emotional connections with others are at a greater risk for developing life-threatening illnesses, reports University of Washington psychiatrist Paul Ciechanowski. In one study, Ciechanowski and colleagues found that diabetics who demonstrated an avoidant attachment style had significantly shorter life spans than diabetics who were not afraid of reaching out.
People whose fear of abandonment has resulted in co-dependence and fear that partners will leave may be reluctant to enter a long-term committed relationship, but once they enter one, they become deeply attached to the other person and will be excessively worried that the relationship may end. According to University of Illinois psychologist Chris Fraley, people who fear abandonment are highly attuned to the emotional expressions of others. Fraley tested how people with different attachment styles reacted to changing faces and found that people with attachment anxiety were more accurate interpreters of nonverbal communication, but only when they took the time needed to make a decision.