Tools for Couples Happiness — 13 June 2004
How to deal with worries love brings

Committed loving relationships often bring great joy to the partners. Unbeknownst to the mates, this happiness creates two very troubling and uncomfortable concerns. Each partner fears abandonment and engulfment by his or her lover. Why would a happily coupled individual be concerned with these issues and how can s/he deal with them?

Intimacy is a desired state. A love connection in which one is loved, accepted, admired and cherished is a state of bliss. It feels so good to be loved that the idea that this state could end is an automatic, frightening thought. Some people express it this way: “I feel so happy – I can’t believe it could last” or “How did I luck out to find such a terrific catch?” These words imply that this intense happiness must be temporary and that luck generated my union. Neither luck, nor ecstasy is seen as very durable.

The inevitable conclusion is that this state of bliss is temporary and may be lost. Since the speaker is so thrilled with the partner, he or she assumes that it will be the other mate who may terminate this state of happiness and the speaker will be abandoned. Though most people who are asked would deny concerns about abandonment by the mate, it is an active overriding concern for partners.

Jealousy, over vigilance, excessive attempts to please, discontent about insufficient attention, and unmerited insecurity about the relationship, are a few of the common manifestations of the fear of being abandoned. Some partners voice their concerns by questioning their mates about other people, assuming that the mate’s less than enthusiastic mood on a particular day is an indication of loss of interest, or complain of not receiving enough attention. Some even state his or her worse fear that “sooner or later you will find someone else and leave me.”

Hearing the concerns of the partner fearing abandonment is most uncomfortable for the spouse. The thought of leaving, finding a better mate, being inattentive or unloving toward their partner is the furthest thing in his or her mind. The listener often finds these accusations as ludicrous and unreal. He or she is often at a loss for words in assuaging the partner’s fears. It is so foreign to the listener that s/he often dismisses the concerns as “crazy”. This only exacerbates the speaker’s fears and leaves him or her feeling unheard and unloved.

The sensitive and effective way to deal with a partner’s fears of abandonment is by listening respectfully (not defensively) and asking him or her what behaviors will help alleviate these fears. An attempt to heed those needs is a reassuring loving response.

The fear of engulfment is the concern about loss of autonomy, space, time and individual freedom. Some people postpone getting married because they fear that marriage is a limiting and confining arrangement. They are concerned about having to give up their friends, hobbies, exercise, or free time to accommodate their spouses.

Some partners worry that matrimony requires more time and attention spent with the mate than one may be comfortable giving. Even if the partner does not seem too demanding or clingy the fear persists. If courtship is the preface for what is to come, the amount of energy spent on “togetherness” required for life does feel overwhelming.

A partner of an autonomy seeking mate needs to honor these concerns, ask for the behaviors wanted, and agree to provide them. Helping to reassure the partner that his freedom will not be curtailed and coming to certain agreements about it will help the partner feel safe and committed.

Both partners worry about abandonment as well as engulfment. Yet, one of these concerns is the stronger more compelling one for each mate. A person, who fears abandonment and receives excessive attention, may reach a point of feeling suffocated. Similarly, a person who fears losing his or her freedom and is easily granted that privilege may end up feeling abandoned by the partner’s lack of interest in being together.

Women more commonly fear abandonment while men more often fear engulfment. However, both feelings are seen in various degrees in both genders. It is also true that life circumstances may alter one’s primary concern. For example, a career woman was concerned that after marriage her husband will expect her to be home early, not see her women friends in the evenings, and travel less. Her fear of engulfment changed when she became a homemaker and mother. She then felt abandoned when she was left home alone with the child.

Another factor that affects our primary fear about our relationship has to do with childhood experiences. People who were not given sufficient attention or were left alone as children may be fearing abandonment in their love life. Similarly, adults who were raised by intrusive, overprotective, or over-involved parents may guard against the repetition of enmeshment in their romantic connection.

Regardless of the reasons, what is important is that both partners understand and respect each other’s concerns and act to minimize aggravating the partner’s fears. Each spouse should openly talk about his or her issue and be specific about which behaviors of the mate are helpful and which ones are detrimental to one’s comfort.

Consider the following:

  • Fearing abandonment and/or engulfment are normal, self-preservation needs.
  • Neither concern is superior, healthier or better than the other.
  • Converse openly about your concerns and treat your mate’s fears with respect.
  • When asked for certain behaviors to help your partner, be accommodating and do it lovingly.
  • The goal is for both partners to feel more secure, safe and comfortable within the relationship.
  • With greater understanding and cooperation, you can both stay at a high level of blissful intimacy.

May 30, 2004

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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