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Relationships • Compatibility

Our Two Great Fears in Love

Beneath all the turmoil and agitation of relationships, two fundamental anxieties stand out, and help to explain our worst antics and sorrows. Love seems to plunge us into oscillating fears of engulfment on the one hand, and abandonment on the other.

By fear of engulfment is meant a dread of being asphyxiated, controlled, dominated and stripped of autonomy and independence. And by a fear of abandonment is meant a terror of being left alone without care or compassion, nourishment or reassurance. 

As with so many aspects of adult love, our expectations and apprehensions here tend to be generated by our experiences in early childhood. In an ideal scenario, a parent is able to lend their young child a vivid and life-long sense that they can be loved reliably without being throttled and cared for steadily without being smothered. 

Unfortunately, for many of us, no such sane path is ever quite found. Our bids for love may have been met either with absence, cruelty or neglect, fostering a terror of abandonment. Or else with manipulation and overbearingness, breeding a terror of suffocation. 

As adults we might then fight too hard for ‘space,’ pushing away exactly the sort of people who might have had a kind and legitimate interest in our care. All tenderness might be interpreted as a harbinger of sinister manipulation. We might cool on candidates the very moment they committed to us. In the erotic sphere, we might only be able to make love to people we hardly knew, or who we could look up exclusively on a screen or, in extremis, spy on through a keyhole. 

Alternatively, we might be so scared of (further) brutal desertions that we might be unable to let a partner out of our sight. We might make a drama every time they made independent plans for the evening. We might demand that they agreed with us on pretty much everything and ideally wore a heavy cloak to hide themselves in every time they stepped outside.

None of us is without some position on the engulfment-abandonment spectrum. A safe path between polarities is never a given and must be freshly negotiated at intervals in even a very sound relationship.

Nevertheless, the language of engulfment and abandonment at least give us a tool with which to articulate our shifting positions. Even if we can’t prevent an occasional slide into a fear, it may help us – immeasurably at points – to be able to name, to ourselves and our partners, what we are so afraid of and, with reference to what was likely to have been a difficult past, why we might be especially so.

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