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Working with Abandonment and Engulfment Fears

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Modalities: Spiritual Growth and Well-being

Abandonment and engulfment are normal fears. Both arise in all of
us—though one usually predominates in intimate relationships. It is only
when these fears become so intense as to affect our judgment and behavior
that they become problematic for us.

Adult relating is in the capacity to commit ourselves without being
immobilized by the fear of abandonment if someone pulls too far away, or by
the fear of engulfment if someone gets too close. It will seem as if these fears
result directly from the behavior of our adult partner, but these are phantom
fears from childhood. What is hurting us is gone but still stimulates. We are
reacting to the inner landscape of our own past, a landscape ravaged by
archaic plunder that has never been acknowledged, restored, or forgiven.

Fears of abandonment and engulfment are cellular reflexes, and we
are wise not to take our partner’s display of them too personally. These fears
are not rational so we cannot talk someone out of them or blame someone for
them. Compassion from one partner and work to change by the other partner
is the most effective combination. Actually, an adult cannot be abandoned,
only left, cannot be engulfed, only crowded! Once we live in the present,
things become so much more matter-of-fact and we drop the blame-filled

FEAR OF ABANDONMENT                                     FEAR OF ENGULFMENT

    “THE PURSUER”                                                    “THE DISTANCER"

Fear of being alone so that one:                        Fear of closeness so that one:

Cannot easily pull back when a partner                  Cannot easily make a commitment

needs space.                                                       when a partner needs assurance.

Clings or cannot seem to get enough                     Distances or cannot seem to get enough

contact.                                                               space.

Is overly attentive, overly accepting                       Takes a partner’s attentions for granted

overly allowing.                                                    or feels smothered by them.

Willingly shares about oneself.                               Maintains secrets or a secret life and

                                                                           may become angry at being asked


Takes more care of a partner than                          Feels entitled to be taken care of

oneself.                                                                without reciprocation.

Feels one can never give enough.                           Construes giving and receiving as

                                                                            smothering or obligating.

Goes along with a partner’s agenda or                     Insists on being in control and on

timing.                                                                  making the decisions.

Has poor boundaries and tolerates abuse                 Maintains rigid boundaries and has no tolerance

or unhappiness or infidelity.                                    for abuse, disloyalty, or deficiency.

Is addicted to the partner and keeps                        Seduces the other and then withholds.

giving more.

Yearns for continual affection and assurance.           Is embarrassed or angered by such displays.

Is encouraged by exuberance.                                Is threatened or annoyed by exuberance.

May settle for sex as proof of love or use                 May use frequent sex as a substitute for

it to purchase feelings of security.                           closeness or may withhold sex to manipulate.

May give up appropriate sexual booundaries            May use sexual distance or lack of interest

to please the other and be defenseless                    as a way of maintaining independence, a

against predation.                                                  defense against vulnerability.

Needs a partner to be a constant companion:           Needs a partner to stay put while I come and go:

“Stay with me.”                                                      “Let me be.”

Seeks connection and closeness.                             Seeks connection not closeness.

Feels at a loss without the presence of the                Becomes anxious with extended togetherness.


Rationalizes, i.e., makes excuses that enable           Intellectualizes, i.e., substitutes feelings with 

coping.                                                                  logic.

Shows fear, hides anger.                                        Shows anger, hides fear.

Walks on eggshells, always compromising.               Acts hostilely, creates uproar, or picks fights to

                                                                            establish distance.

Has distress in comings/goings.                               Has distress in giving/receiving.

Lets needs become neediness.                                Makes needs into expectations.

Looks like the one reaching out and that                  Looks like the cold one and that seems unloving

looks like love but may really be fear.                     but may really be fear.

May be the one more likely to leave!                       May be the one who feels abandonment fears

                                                                           when left.

The left side may indicate the co-dependent and borderline styles, the right side the narcissist style.


Since every fear is maintained by a belief that we are victims, choice
releases its grip. Jung describes the healing power of paradox in this way: “If
there is a fear of falling, the only safety consists in deliberately jumping!”

• Admit your fears to your self and to your partner.

• Allow yourself to feel your fears fully, cradling them acceptantly.

• Act as if your fears were not obstacles to closeness or safety:

• If you fear engulfment, stay a little closer and let a hug last a little
longer for one minute more than you can stand each day. If you fear
abandonment, let the other go a little farther away than you can stand for a
little longer time than you can stand each day. Repeat this over and over,
adding more time and more space each time.

• Bust yourself on despair:
This is how I am/or how he is.
This is how I always was/or how he always was.
This is how all my family is/or how he is.

• Say this to your partner: “I may not shield you from the fear of
abandonment or engulfment and I do not ask you to shield me. Let’s accept
such fears as conditions of human existence, as givens of relating. I choose to
acknowledge fear of abandonment or of engulfment and work through them.
This is how I go on living effectively rather than evading my fear and thereby
go on fearing. Will you join me?”

• To fear engulfment is to believe that closeness takes something
away from you. Deal with this fear of losing yourself paradoxically by freely
giving yourself. Make a self-disclosure, admit a vulnerability, or show a
feeling. Thus you stop losing by letting go.

• To fear abandonment is to dread being left alone. This is a fear not
of loss of self but of gain of self by self-confrontation. Setting time aside for
yourself daily means choosing the very thing you fear. This paradoxical
reversal leads gradually to your enjoying your aloneness.

• The actual fears are not of abandonment or engulfment. You are
really fearing the possibility of powerlessness in the face of them. But every time
you choose to work on fear, you become defense-less and resource-full. This
restores trust in your own organismic capacity for self-nurturance and safety
when people get too close or go too far.

You know a relationship matters to you in a healthy way when you are
willing to endure and even choose the awkwardness of the small but scary
steps that lead to change. Commitment in a relationship means that we are
willing to admit our fears and use state of the art techniques to get past them.

To have such willingness is to be ready for intimacy and to become more
endearing to others. At the same time we feel better about ourselves because
we have not been stopped by our fears but have passed through them. We are
proud of ourselves and grow in self-respect. This is the connection between
self-esteem and successful relating.

From: How Be To An Adult in Relationships

Author: David Richo.

Last Updated Saturday, 18 August 2012 03:17
This article was written by VitalityLink Finder

Comments Refresh  

Keron Martin 2012-08-18 14:28
When I read this earlier today on Facebook I knew that it all sounded so familiar. Then while swimming it dawned on my that I know that authors name. It is familiar because I have the book!
' How To Be An Adult' A handbook of Psychological and Spiritual Integration by David Richio. My copy was copyrighted in 1991 and is at least several years old. Think it is the same book
I am not sure who authored This article but it was a really good synopsis of a very great resource. I often read quickly and not always every word so I am sure that my archived recollection of it all is rusty. Thank you so much for reviving and sharing on the Facebook.
All of the psychological perspective is nicely integrated with the spiritual and invites the soul so that it is like one very tasty meal to eat slowly and mindfully.
I would just like to add that the above mentioned book is easy reading. It is short and can definitely help to transform any relationships. I think it should be kept in direct view in the library as a resource.
From the ' forward ' of that book - " We have ever more perfect eyes in a world in which there is always more to see " Teilhard de Chardin
Excellent to read again and thank you for sharing
Keron Martin 2012-08-18 16:06
I referenced a different book above perhaps - oops
' How to Be An Adult In Relationships - The Five Keys to Mindful Loving. ' is the one I believe the article is based on.
The book I referenced does have same overlapping material about relationships and is a great read.
I look forward to reading anything by David Richio

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