In relationships, people may be motivated by the fear of being abandoned or engulfed. Noted author/psychotherapist David Richo, Ph.D has written that we cannot actually be abandoned, only left. While an insightful and possibly comforting distinction, to release oneself from the grip of such a powerful internal mandate to stave off real or perceived threats of abandonment at any cost can be a mighty task.
Generally, the more neglectful the early environment- the more distant, preoccupied or disinterested we experienced our caregivers to be, the more we may be driven by the fear of abandonment. The more intense and pervasive the early abandonment experience, the more likely we are to unconsciously “set up,” via re-enactment, replication of the original situation over and again in our adult relationships.
For others, it is engulfment; an emotionally charged experience of being smothered, overtaken or even destroyed, that is the primary fear. Psychotherapist and noted speaker Dr. Mark Schwartz, Sc.D. stated in a lecture I attended that “we are all intimacy disordered.” While the term “disorder” troubles me, it stuck. It reminds me of the truism that none of us, by the time we get to adulthood arrives completely whole. Our lack of wholeness expresses itself most evidently in our interpersonal patterns.
Unless we were raised by wolves (in which case, we have a very different set of issues to contend with) the early relational environment forms our internal template for how we negotiate and navigate adult intimacy needs. Generally, the more rigid, controlling, invasive or punishing we felt our caregivers to be, the more we may be driven by the fear of engulfment in our adult relations.
Psychotherapy provides a path to uncovering, understanding, re-experiencing and ultimately releasing ourselves from the cycle of re-enactment and re-injury resulting from early abandonment or engulfment wounds. Breaking through the self-protective denial system through the establishment of trust and safety is the first step. From there, the strength of an empathic and corrective therapeutic relationship allows for the beginning of hope that, like history itself, we’re only destined to repeat what we fail to remember. Our abandonment or engulfment wounds are part of us, but they are not who we are and need not determine how we operate in the relational world. Through Psychotherapy we can realize this for ourselves.