The fear of abandonment often leads to abusive behavior. When a person suffers from object constancy (due to an underdeveloped attachment style originating in childhood emotional neglect),(1) this can cause such intense fear that the subconscious mind seeks relief by attempting to forcefully control the situation in the form of domestic violence. An underdeveloped attachment style is formed during the earliest years of an individual’s life when their primary caregivers (usually mother, father, or both) fail to meet their needs. When they cry, instead of being comforted they’re ignored or told to “stop acting like a girl,” or “don’t act like a baby.” When they show emotion—regardless of whether it’s positive, negative, or vulnerable—their feelings are dismissed or disdained. They’re emotionally neglected and, as a result, emotionally starving—but they can’t find any nourishing emotional food outside the self, and so they don’t know how to find it within the self. Without someone to show them the way, how can they learn? This results in “a core psychic wounding which stems from the experience of shame. Given a childhood in which the ‘vulnerable’ narcissist was devalued and discarded by primary attachment figure(s), the NPD individual grows up associating pain with love.”(2)
A consequence of the lack of emotional development is that as an adult the stunted individual is gripped with a terrifying fear of not being loved or worthy of love. He or she “becomes severely depressed over the real or perceived abandonment by significant others and then enraged at the world (or whoever is handy) for depriving [him or] her of this basic fulfillment.”(3)
It’s paradoxical that an individual whose core fear is that of abandonment actually causes his fear to come true by pushing away his loved ones through verbal, emotional, psychological and sometimes physical abuse. His fear blinds him; it engulfs and overpowers him until his cognitive abilities and logical skills are tossed out window in one big, messy heap.
It’s paradoxical that an individual whose core fear is that of abandonment actually causes his fear to come true by pushing away his loved ones through abuse.
All he can focus on is controlling the situation. His rage fuels his actions and causes Mr. Hyde to strut into the open in all his roaring ferocity. Someone in this state becomes “as unpredictable as they are frightening. Violent scenes are disproportionate to the frustrations that trigger them … thrown dishes are typical of borderline rage. The anger may be sparked by a particular (and often trivial) offense, but underneath the spark lies an arsenal of fear from the threat of disappointment and abandonment.” (4)
A desperate fear of abandonment is the primary trait of someone with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), which (along with its close sibling, Narcissistic Personality Disorder, NPD) is a common disorder amongst certain types of domestic abusers.(5) Other characteristics of individuals with BPD, according to the DSM-V, may include
The fear of abandonment has a flipside: fear of engulfment. This creates emotions to swerve and veer within the individual like an out-of-control Lamborghini; he longs to get intimately close and is terrified his loved one will leave him, while at the same time he’s petrified of personal vulnerability, for fear he’ll get hurt. This causes him to lash out at the person he’s supposed to love the most (his intimate partner), so he can hurt her before she can hurt him.
As a target of this roller-coaster behavior you’re left depleted, exhausted, confused, and hopeless. You’ve loved and forgiven, again and yet again; you’ve given everything you have and more, yet it’s still not enough. Nothing is ever enough. You’re not enough (or so it feels); your love is inadequate to fill his deep, bottomless well of desperate, clinging-and-pushing need. But then, suddenly, the next day or even the next hour (as your head spins yet again), you’re once more the love of his life, his precious soul mate whom he can’t live without. By the way, this is another classic trait of BPD—to see someone, including self, as “all good” or “all bad,” constantly careening between the two extremes.(7)
You’re either an angel or a devil in his eyes, but never anything in between—in other words, you’re not allowed to be a normal human being. When you make a mistake, it’s the end of the world and he resents you for your infraction, no matter how minor it may have been (or even one he imagined). When you go out for an evening with girlfriends, he feels as if you’ve abandoned him and will likely lash out at you in a jealous rage when you return home. When you grovel apologetically for something you didn’t even do, just to restore what little the peace is left in your household (because a single apology isn’t ever enough for him), you’re his adored soul mate yet again.
You’re either an angel or a devil, but never anything in between. When you make a mistake, no matter how minor it may have been (or even one he imagined), you're demonized. You become a whore, manipulative, cold or cruel--whatever his mind imagines you to be.
It’s not possible to maintain a healthy relationship or a solid sense of self in such an environment. Being abused is never acceptable, regardless of the circumstances. “Furthermore, abuse has a nasty habit of escalating slowly over time” as you become more brainwashed, as your self-esteem crumbles away, and as he realizes, consciously or not, how much he can get away with.(8)
If, finally, you’ve had too much and no hope of change is in sight, and you decide to leave the abusive relationship, you may be forever stuck in “demon mode” in his mind. There’s no more swinging and swaying between angel and devil; he can’t see or recognize his abuse or empathize with what you’ve endured, but instead believes himself to be the victim. He feels you’ve abandoned him, just like his mind told him you would. He’ll forget everything good you’ve ever done for and with him, along with all your love, devotion, and self-sacrifice. The deep narcissistic wound that your leaving causes him will likely impel him to launch a war of slander against you as he pitches himself as the wounded one and you the mentally-deranged, cold-hearted bitch. A future post will discuss the heartbreaking and slanderous, yet all too common, smear campaign, also called a distortion campaign.(9) Not all abusers engage in this deranged tactic — but sadly, most do.
(1) Jeffrey E., Young, Ph.D. and Janet S. Klosko, Ph.D, Reinventing Your Life: The Breakthrough Program to End Negative Behavior … and Feel Great Again, 30; Anthony Tasso, “Review Of: Dutton, D.G. (2007). Abusive Personality: Violence and Control in Intimate Relationships (2nd Ed.),” https://www.researchgate.net/publication/241743444_A_Review_of_Dutton_D_G_2007_Abusive_Personality_Violence_and_Control_in_Intimate_Relationships_2nd_Ed;Imi Lo, “Object Constancy: Understanding the Fear of Abandonment and Bordereline Personality Disorder,” https://psychcentral.com/lib/object-constancy-understanding-the-fear-of-abandonment-and-borderline-personality-disorder#1.
(2) Andrea Schneider, MSW, LCSW, “Abandonment Fears of a Vulnerable Narcissist: BPD at the Core,” https://psychcentral.com/blog/savvy-shrink/2017/11/abandonment-fears-of-a-vulnerable-narcissist-bpd-at-the-core#1.
(3) Jerold J. Kreisman, M.D. and Hal Straus. I Hate You—Don’t Leave Me: Understanding the Borderline Personality, 36.
(4) Ibid., 51.
(5) Esther Calvete, “Mental Health Characteristics of Men Who Abuse Their Intimate Partner,” https://scielo.isciii.es/pdf/sanipe/v10n2/revision.pdf; Stuart C. Yudofsky, M.D. “When Traumatic Brain Injury is Complicated by Personality Disorders,”
https://psychnews.psychiatryonline.org/doi/10.1176/pn.47.9.psychnews_47_9_27-a; Vani Roa, M.D. and Constantine Lyketsos, M.D., M.H.P. “Neuropsychiatric Sequelae of Traumatic Brain Injury,” https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/psychiatry/patient_information/bayview/docs/Neuropsychiatric%20sequelae%20of%20TBI.pdf. Charles H. Elliott, Ph.D. and Laura L Smith, Ph.D. Borderline Personality Disorder for Dummies, 2nd Edition, 302-309; Dr. Christauria Welland, “Violence & Abuse in Catholic and Christian Families: Preparing an Effective and Compassionate Pastoral Response,” online course at https://health-transformations.learnworlds.com; Kathleen J. Ferraro and Michael P. Johnson, “Research on Domestic Violence in the 1990s: Making Distinctions,” http://personal.psu.edu/mpj/2000%20JMF%20Johnson%20&%20Ferraro.pdf.
(6) Margalis Fjelstad, Stop Caretaking the Borderline or Narcissist: How to End the Drama and Get on with Life, 9. See also pages 7-8; Esther Calvete, “Mental Health Characteristics of Men Who Abuse Their Intimate Partner and Charles H. Elliott, Ph.D. and Laura L Smith, Ph.D. Borderline Personality Disorder for Dummies, 2nd Edition, 30-33.
(7) Elliott and Smith, Borderline Personality Disorder for Dummies, 2nd Edition, 125.
(8) Ibid., 303.
(9) Paul T. Mason and Randi Kreger, Stop Walking on Eggshells Taking Your Life Back When Someone You Care About Has Borderline Personality Disorder, 3rd Edition. See also Lilian Cabiron, “The Smear Campaign: How a Toxic Person Tries to Destroy His Target’s Credibility,” https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/smear-campaing-how-toxic-person-tries-destroy-his-targets-cabiron, particularly, “One of the clearest indicators you’ve got a mentally unstable person on your hands is smear campaigning.”
I'm Jenny duBay, a domestic abuse survivor and now advocate. My degree is in Christian theology with a concentration on spiritual direction, and my vocational emphasis is on helping those who have suffered from domestic abuse to heal and reclaim their true selves.