Gary McClain, PhD, is a therapist who specializes in helping clients deal with the emotional impact of chronic and life-threatening illnesses.
Bill and Sharon have been married for a little over ten years. Both would agree they've had a great marriage. They share common interests, they laugh together, and they've always been able to work out their differences. They even enjoy each other's families.
Last year, Sharon was diagnosed with a chronic condition. She hadn't been herself for a few months before that, so the diagnosis, while disappointing, was not a surprise. Since then, Sharon has been on a fairly strict medication regimen. Some days, Sharon can't be as active as she used to be because she just doesn't have the energy. Bill follows her prescribed diet to be supportive, though he doesn't love it. And he often needs to do more than his share around the house. When Sharon was diagnosed, they worked together to figure out their "new normal," and Bill felt like they had both adjusted well to their routine.
Cause for concern
Lately, however, Bill has been concerned about comments Sharon has been making. Nothing major-but troubling nonetheless.
"I don't know how you put up with me," she recently said when Bill offered to take her turn at doing the dishes.
Another day, when she was having a rough day, she said, "I bet you wish you'd had a crystal ball before you married me."
This morning, as they were both leaving for work, she asked him a question that was still on his mind. She half-jokingly had asked, "Do you ever feel tempted to forget the way home?"
Fears of abandonment are normal. But they can be scary for both of you.
As Bill was contemplating these comments, it occurred to him that Sharon may be worried that he would abandon her. He couldn't think of anything he might have said or done that might have caused her to feel this way. But the comments Sharon had been making left him wondering if she was fearing he would walk away from her. And he thought about what he could be doing to give her more reassurance.
Sharon was indeed experiencing fear that Bill might wish to leave their marriage. No, it wasn't anything he had said or done. Some days, she felt like a burden to him-especially when she thought about what things had been like before her diagnosis. She felt guilty about asking him to take on more than his fair share of the work at home. She felt bad when they had to cancel their attendance at an event that she knew Bill was looking forward to. She felt sad that he was so upbeat when their daily life had changed so much.
Have you ever felt the fear of abandonment? Or, if you are the loved one of a partner with a chronic condition, have you ever been concerned that they fear you might abandon them?
Here are some ideas for coping:
Don't fight the feelings. It's normal for abandonment fears to come up in a relationship. It's human to feel insecure at times. With or without the additional challenges of living with a chronic condition. And it's normal to want to be an equal partner, and to feel sad when you can't be. This can lead to fears that your partner may get fed up at some point and decide to pack it in. So, if your chronic condition has caused you to have some abandonment fears, or if your partner has these fears, you are sure not alone. As a therapist, I can say this is not uncommon at all.
Clear the air. Fear is often the elephant in the room when someone in the home has a chronic condition. Most likely, Sharon was afraid to bring up her abandonment fears, or didn't know how to. The same for Bill. So, it remained an elephant, wandering around their home. The best way to deal with an elephant is to identify it rather than trying to pretend it's not there. Here's a conversation opener: "Sometimes I feel like a burden on you. You didn't sign up for this. And I worry that at some point you're going to want to throw in the towel." Or, "You have made a few comments lately that have me worried. I'm concerned that you're afraid I might walk out on you someday." Get the conversation started. Express your feelings. Be open to listening. This is the beginning of coming to an understanding.
Remember what happens when we assume. What's potentially destructive about fears of abandonment is that they can lead to a breakdown in communication. Symptoms include:
" Not asking for help or trying to hide that you aren't feeling well.
" Reading the simplest gesture as a sign that the relationship is on its way to ending.
" Feeling pressured to be supportive in a way that can turn into micromanagement.
This is all the more reason to want to establish open communication about abandonment fears.
It's okay to ask for reassurance. If you're living with a chronic condition, let yourself be honest about the need for your partner to give you some reassurance from time to time, to tell you that you are loved, that you are important. And if you are the partner of someone living with a chronic condition, go ahead and ask what you can do to be more reassuring, so your partner doesn't have to live with the fear that your exit is right around the corner.
Build reassurance into your daily communication. We all can benefit from some reassurance, so why not make it a point to do or say something supportive to your partner each and every day? Be proactive, and take an action that your partner will appreciate, like starting dinner even if it's not your turn. Say a few words of kindness, like, "I love you. You mean a lot to me." And don't make your partner ask for a hug.
If the fear of abandonment becomes overwhelming, reach out for help. Abandonment fears can be a signal that there is something deeper going on. If you feel overwhelmed by fears of abandonment, or if your partner appears overwhelmed, it may be time to get some additional help. Don't hesitate to contact a mental health professional. The bravest thing you can do is to admit that you can't do it all on your own, as an individual or as a couple.
You, your partner, and fears of abandonment. It's normal to feel this way. But if you see something, say something. Acknowledge abandonment fears. Talk things out. Be clear on what you need. After all, you're a team.
Have you dealt with abandonment fears? What helped? What didn't? Add a comment below to share your experience and advice.