A common and vexing problem keeping many of you on the outside of love is a condition of the heart that I call abandoholism.
It occurs when abandonment takes on a mind of its own and becomes a compulsion. You’ve heard of foodaholism, workaholism, shopaholism, and, of course, alcoholism. Well, here comes another addictive pattern—abandoholism.
Abandoholism is similar to the other -holisms, but instead of being addicted to a substance, you’re addicted to the emotional drama of heartbreak. So you pursue unavailable partners to keep the romantic intensity going and to keep your body’s love chemicals flowing.
What Makes Someone an Abandoholic?
Abandoholics are people who’ve been hurt in the past, and the abandonment fear they acquired conditions them to equate insecurity with love.
Unless they’re pursuing someone they’re insecure about, they don’t believe they’re in love. When someone comes along who wants to be with them, this suitor seems too easy to get to arouse that required level of insecurity they’ve come to associate with love. If they can’t feel those yearning, lovesick sensations, they aren’t feeling anything. So they keep pursuing unavailable partners who bring out craving, pursuing feelings.
The reason I call this pattern abandoholism is because it’s psychobiologically addictive. Many people have a compulsion to be abandoned because they’re addicted to the high-stakes drama of an emotionally challenging relationship—and the love chemicals that go with it.
One of the underpinnings of abandoholism is fear of abandonment.
Feeling attracted to someone creates a fear of losing that person. Fear of being abandoned can become so intrusive that it disrupts your ability to maintain your emotional balance while pursuing a new relationship. Try as you might to hide your insecurity, it drains your confidence.
You try to put your best foot forward, but your neediness and desperation show through, causing your partners to lose romantic interest. They sense your emotional suction cups aiming straight toward them and get scared away.
Another aspect of abandoholism is fear of engulfment.
Fear of engulfment is at the opposite end of the emotional spectrum. It occurs when someone is pursuing you and now it’s you who’s pulling back. You feel engulfed by the suitor’s emotional attraction toward you. When fear of engulfment kicks in, you zealously guard your autonomy at all costs and feel threatened lest your suitor take it away.
Fear of engulfment can erupt in mini-anxiety attacks. The panic is about the fear of losing yourself in becoming emotionally obligated to that person. Their needs and expectations might engulf you, causing you to abandon yourself.
Whether fear of engulfment sets in gradually or all at once, it effectively shuts you down emotionally and sexually. You want out of this relationship because you feel burdened by taking on the emotional responsibility of an available partner.
Fear of engulfment is one of the most common causes for the demise of new relationships, but it is carefully disguised in excuses like the following.
Check those that seem familiar:
· He just doesn’t turn me on.
· I don’t feel any chemistry.
· She’s too nice to hold my interest.
· I need more of a challenge.
· I feel nauseous whenever she tries to get closer.
Abandoholics tend to swing back and forth between these emotional poles.
Your pendulum swings between fear of abandonment and fear of engulfment. You’re either pursuing hard-to-get lovers, driven by a desperate urge to bond with them, or you’re feeling turned off because someone is genuinely interested in you. You’re always at opposite ends of the emotional spectrum, never on mutual ground, never secure, never at peace.
Some people are so afraid of rejection that they avoid relationships altogether. This is called abandophobism.
Abandophobics are closely related to abandoholics; in fact, they’re just another variety of the same difficulty. Abandophobics act out their fear of abandonment by remaining socially isolated or by appearing to search for someone, when in fact they are pursuing people who are unattainable, all to avoid the risk of getting attached to a real prospect—someone who might abandon them sooner or later.
There’s a little abandophobism in most abandoholics.
Many of you describe getting hooked on someone who dangles the possibility of a relationship in front of you but never emotionally follows through. What better way to avoid a real relationship than to pursue an eternally unavailable partner? To help you interact with these insights, here is a snap quiz.
Check off all that might possibly be true for you:
· I choose unavailable partners who keep me insecure.
· Insecurity is my favorite aphrodisiac.
· I am afraid to risk the closeness of a real relationship.
· I feel attracted only when I’m in pursuit.
· I need hot, fresh, new love to keep me always on the move for the next relationship.
· I feel engulfed when someone wants me.
· I have unrealistic expectations of my partners.
· I think I haven’t found the right person.
· I wouldn’t join any club who would have me as a member.
· I need an emotional challenge to sustain my interest.
How Do These Patterns Set In?
For both abandoholics and abandophobics, a negative attraction tends to be more compelling than a positive one.
The syndrome of self-sabotage underlying this was most likely cast in childhood.
You may have formed an insecure attachment to one or both of your parents. You struggled to get more attention from them, to get them to favor you, accept you, and treat you nicely, but they failed to provide what you craved most—unconditional love and attention.
The insecurity, yearning, and neediness you felt toward your parents caused you to doubt your self-worth and put them on pedestals. Over time, you internalized this need for approval and you idealized others at your own expense. It became a pattern.
Now, as an adult, you re-create this scenario by giving your love partners too much power.
By elevating them above yourself, you re-create that old familiar yearning you grew accustomed to as a child. Feeling emotionally deprived and “less-than” is what you’ve come to expect. It’s the only scenario you can feel. You’ve come to associate these needy, lovesick, insecure feelings with being in love.
Not all people who have an abandonment compulsion came from insecure attachments.
Some of you had loving, caring parents but felt insecure in your relationships with peers. You felt attracted to heartthrobs in high school but didn’t feel strong enough about yourself to negotiate mutual relationships with them. Adolescent relationships are notoriously fickle to begin with; their emotional dynamics are painfully unstable and scarring. Many of you internalized self-doubt during this volatile time and inculcated fears that continue to haunt the future.
Why Does the Insecurity Linger?
Rejection from your past and present heartbreaks is harbored deep within the self, conditioning your amygdala (discussed in chapter 1) to “fear” that what happened in the past will happen again. Recent scientific research shows that rather than dissipate, fear tends to incubate. It gains intensity over time.
The internal worry “Am I worthy?” grows louder each time you go through another rejection.
The mounting uncertainty compels you to look to others for something you’ve become too powerless to give yourself: esteem. When you seek acceptance from a withholding partner, you place yourself in a one-down position, re-creating the unequal dynamics you had with your parents or peers. You choreograph this scenario over and over, playing out a fantasy in which you try to win love and acceptance from a hard-to-get lover and remain enslaved by your own need for approval.
People develop these patterns after years of emotional conditioning.
Your losses, heartbreaks, and disappointments have a cumulative effect, causing you to respond most keenly to those who treat you less-than and stir up the old familiar feelings of want, need, and desperation. Conversely, you are unable to feel anything when someone freely admires or appreciates you as much as you do them.
It is helpful for therapists seeking to help people overcome these entrenched patterns to provide specialized support and prepare to vigorously challenge their client’s tightly held beliefs. These patterns do not give up without a fight because the roots of the problem run so deep.
Why Do We Elevate Those Who Hurt Us?
Being left by someone you love activates fear—primal abandonment fear—set deeply into your mammalian brain. Abandoners become powerful figures to your amygdala, owing to the pain they caused by leaving you. Pain is a powerful reinforcer, conditioning you to feel aroused whenever you think about or see this person. This ongoing reactivity (known as carrying a torch) confuses you into thinking that you must still love the person and that she must be very special to hold your interest for so long.
In fact, your ex may not have been special at all, but because she caused such intense pain, you confuse your lingering reactivity as proof of how irreplaceable and special she was. This may not be true at all. What you are experiencing is separation anxiety—a natural biological concomitant to breaking an attachment and adjusting to the rigors of being alone — regardless of the specialness of your former partner.
Feeling insecure and idealizing those who cause pain set the stage for developing abandoholism.
Once you make your abandoner special, your life is ruled by contradictions. You confuse calmness for boredom, tension for excitement, insecurity for love.
Abandoholics are in denial and extremely cunning at keeping the truth hidden from their friends, therapists, and themselves. What truth? That they appear to be looking for a relationship when in fact they are looking for emotional candy to feed their abandohol addiction.
As people learn about this concept, they find all kinds of ways to apply it.
“I’ve spent most of my thirties strung out on abandohol,” declares Roberta, having gained the awareness that her volatile emotional life has been the result of being attracted to abandoners.
The abandonment compulsion is insidious. You didn’t know it was developing. Until now, you didn’t have a name for it. It’s been unconscious. You didn’t realize that you’ve transferred unresolved feelings from your parents and old high-school heartbreakers directly into your current relationships. Yet little by little you’ve grown addicted to the roller coaster of pursuing abandoners, having become your own worst enemy. Millions are caught up in this drama, a passion play I call “The Agony and the Ecstasy.”
The Ecstasy is the opportunity to conquer that love challenge—the thrill of seduction.
The Agony is feeling rejected—the bittersweet tragedy of unrequited love.
When you meet people you think are better than you, you can’t resist going after them because they are a challenge. You imbue them with power, see them as special, and then feel immediately insecure. They respond by treating you as if you were not good enough. Now you’re hooked. You get conquest fever, drawn to the drama. You obsess about how to win them over. You’re incessantly craving a love fix.
The more your partners withhold, distance from you, and reject you, the more intense the craving. You feel ecstasy when you’re trying to seduce them and agony when they’re pulling away.
Abandoholics have learned to associate the Agony and Ecstasy with being in love. They get propelled into the drama full throttle.
Being with someone who is a challenge stimulates surges of catecholamines (adrenaline, norepinephrine), which, combined with your endogenous opiates and other hormones, cause you to feel infatuated. Infatuation is a cocaine-like emotional high that intensifies your sexual feelings and medicates the rigors of intimacy. Caught up in the heat of passion (mediated by these neurochemicals), two people just getting acquainted are able to be intimate without embarrassment.
To stay high, abandoholics keep seeking uncommitted partners.
When someone comes along who is available, your body doesn’t produce enough catecholamines to support this high. You experience this as having no chemistry and go into withdrawal from your addiction. Unless you’re inebriated on love chemicals, you can’t tolerate the intimacy of a real relationship. So you run.
Like a junkie desperate for a love fix, you search for another lover who arouses just the right dose of fear to get you emotionally loaded. You’re in denial: When your body is attracted (addicted), it tells you you’re in love. When your partner becomes available, your love-stress hormones stop flowing, and you fall out of love.
Insecurity is an Aphrodisiac
If you are a hard-core abandoholic, you’re drawn to a kind of love that is highly combustible. The hottest sex is when you’re trying to seduce a hard-to-get lover. Insecurity becomes your aphrodisiac. You can’t appreciate the Ecstasy without the Agony. These intoxicated states are produced when you sense emotional danger — the danger being your lover’s propensity to abandon you the minute you get attached.
At the other end of the seesaw, you turn off and shut down when you happen to successfully win someone’s love. If your lover succumbs to your charms — heaven forbid — you suddenly feel too comfortable, too sure of him to stay interested. There’s not enough challenge to sustain your sexual energy. You interpret your turn-off as his not being right for you.
Do Your Friends and Therapists Help or Hinder You?
Whether you’re a hard-core love-junkie or just a garden-variety abandoholic, the most common maneuver is to tell your friends, “I know she seems ideal for me, but there isn’t any chemistry” or “He’s a nice guy, but I’m not attracted to him.”
Your friends tend to believe in the mythology of the right chemistry and accept your excuses at face value (and so do many therapists). You’ve programmed them to agree with you. You get them to say, “You’re right not to settle” or “You just need to find the right person.” To break these patterns, you need to eject your old tapes and reprogram your friends. Be honest with yourself and realize that nobody is directing your life but you.
How About Following Your Gut?
Both ends of the spectrum—abandoholism and abandophobism—cause their victims to misinterpret self-help’s latest directive to follow your gut. In your case, following your gut most likely got you into these patterns. Your gut got you to pursue someone who made your heart go pitter pat, not because she’s the right one, but because she’s likely to abandon you. And your gut got you to avoid someone else because she didn’t press the right insecurity buttons.
Enrich your mind. Follow your wisdom. But until you overcome your abandonment compulsion, beware of your gut. Your earlier heartbreaks and disconnections have made it hard for you to read it correctly.
Gaining Self-Esteem by Proxy
Some people try to gain self-esteem by association, that is, by selecting a partner who has socially valued attributes that help you compensate for something you feel is lacking in yourself. Psychoanalyst and author Richard Robertiello referred to this type of choice as a narcissistic extension. The danger in seeking self-esteem by proxy is that your self-worth remains in someone else’s hands. This leaves you in a one-down position and perpetuates your cycles of neediness and low self-esteem.
As you’re working your way through the stages of abandonment, take advantage of the possibilities that are all around you for renewal, growth, and love. You need to learn more about yourself, come out of denial, cleanse your perspective of the negative-thinking tapes of the past, and transform your patterns.
The Abandoholic Checklist
Dig deep, be honest, and check all that apply:
If I've been looking for love in all the wrong places, could it be that...
· I’m unable to tolerate the sober dynamics of a mature relationship?
· I’m accustomed to being on the outside looking in — it’s an emotional state I’m familiar with?
· I’m a perfectionist and this causes me to reject imperfect, yet realistic, candidates?
· I prefer the ideal relationships in my mind to realistic flesh-and-blood ones?
· My inner child is so lonely it smothers my lovers with too much neediness?
· I obsess about my ex because it is the only way I can maintain any connection with her even though it keeps me in pain?
· I’m emotionally clinging to the past to avoid taking a new risk?
· I’m not able to handle the emotional responsibility of being needed and wanted?
· I’m unable to make decisions, to commit?
· I’m afraid of someone getting too close to me for fear he will engulf me with his needs and expectations?
· I have a poor self-image and can’t tolerate any obvious shortcomings in my partner, as if her flaws reflected directly on me?
· I seek unrealistically attractive partners to compensate for something I don’t like about myself, trying to gain self-worth by proxy?
· I don’t know how to appreciate a mutual relationship because without the lovesick feelings, I feel bored and empty?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, be assured that we will continue to identify the myths, false values, defense mechanisms, and patterns that keep you outside of love.
Excerpted from the book The Abandonment Recovery Workbook: Guidance through the 5 Stages of Healing from Abandonment, Heartbreak, and Loss. Copyright ©2003, 2016 by Susan Anderson. Printed with permission from New World Library — www.newworldlibrary.com.
About the author
Susan Anderson is the author of The Abandonment Recovery Workbook, as well as Taming Your Outer Child and The Journey from Abandonment to Healing. The founder of the Outer Child and Abandonment Recovery movements, she has devoted the past 30 years of clinical experience and research to helping people resolve abandonment and overcome self-sabotage.
Visit her online at www.abandonment.net.