Pacey: “It's wasn't supposed to end like that. We're not supposed to end like that. Right?” (Remember Dawson’s Creek?)
My last article was about people who find it very difficult to commit to others; no matter how much they care about them, they just can’t get over that feeling that they’re going to become someone’s property and lose their sense of self. Those people rarely open up to the possibilities of a relationship.
However, there’s another side to that same coin and that’s the fear of being abandoned, neglected; left in the lurch and not being loved. It’s called separation anxiety and it’s equally as painful and equally destructive to healthy relationships.
It’s a sad fact of life but somehow those who have a fear of being abandoned come over as ‘weaker’ than those who have a fear of attachment. It’s the ‘needy’ thing; there’s nothing more unattractive than being seen as desperate. Maybe it’s because the ‘commitment phobe’ is the terminator of partnerships and the ‘separation fearful’ will do anything to avoid that happening. The person with separation anxiety feels condemned and the person with commitment issues is the executioner – who appears the weaker there?
Yet both psychological impediments are equally common and both can wreck relationships very quickly. Psychologists claim the basis for both problems can lie in childhood experiences. In fact separation anxiety is generally far more associated with children’s fears of abandonment than with adult relationships. If the child retains memories of parental leaving at key moments, he or she can carry those through to adulthood and have the same fears of loved ones walking away or neglecting them. The experts say that this sort of disorder begins around the age of four (and when do most people say goodbye to their mothers at the school steps?) If it’s not resolved by the age of eighteen, separation anxiety can translate into adult relationship problems, based on either insecurity and instability, or dependence on others.
Adults with abandonment fears are always afraid that people will betray them, or ditch them at a moment’s notice and that they will be left alone. However, there’s much more than that at stake. They’re afraid that their partners don’t like them enough; don’t see them as spontaneous, or sociable, or special. In these cases they’ll initially do anything they can to appear the opposite and create a person who the partner can’t resist but they almost always seem so desperate in their attempts that they quickly lose their attractiveness to a potential partner. Unfortunately some partners take advantage; make themselves indispensable and then when they’re fed up with that game, drop the other like a stone but more often, they run a mile when the first signs become clear.
People with separation anxiety are terrified of being seen as boring, or not having enough to offer, or not being attractive enough. They even avoid therapeutic help because they don’t want to be told to pull their socks up, or ‘man up’, even though that sort of advice is unlikely. It can be extremely painful and eats away at their energy to the point where many give up trying. It’s safer to be alone than be rejected at a later date, which they’re convinced will eventually happen.
Of course, like anything else, there are different degrees of this sort of anxiety but if you feel that you fall into one or more of the following categories, maybe you need to think about how you approach relationships. The likelihood is that you have no idea that what you’re feeling is a real problem and can be helped.
. You feel tense when you leave the house and people you are close to behind.
. You’re often worried about losing people, to the point of being over-concerned about their welfare. You can even visualise them in accidents and foresee how you’re going to feel if that happens.
. You’re scared of the unexpected incidents that might lead to separation.
. You’re always nervous about going to new social gatherings – East, West, home’s best.
. You hate being alone and missing people.
. You’re too tense to sleep when a certain someone isn’t around and that can lead to nightmares and imagined doom scenarios.
. You feel physically unwell if someone leaves, even if it is temporary.
. You continually put people to the test to see if they still feel the same about you.
. You just can’t believe people when they reassure you that everything’s fine.
. You imagine infidelity.
. You do your absolute best to do things your partner likes, even if they go against the grain of your own instincts (inevitably leading to problems later, even if it works initially.)
. You become certain that however wonderful something is, you’ll be dumped in the end.
. You feel unworthy of praise and find it difficult to accept with grace. You become self-deprecating so that eventually people stop complimenting you.
. You become inordinately jealous if your partner shows any attention to someone else.
. Your partner tells you to back off a little, give him or her some space and accuses you of choking the relationship.
Now that’s a pretty horrible list to digest and I would suggest that most people can find elements of their own character there, especially if past experiences have confirmed their fears. It’s all a question of degree and how much these feelings affect your relationships with others. If you find that such fears are leading to the failure of relationships then maybe you are indeed suffering from separation issues. You find yourself demanding that the partner repeatedly confirms his or her love for you but don’t believe the answers you get. This eats away at your self-confidence but seems to be repetitive: the same issues crop up with every new person you’re attracted to but eventually, they feel claustrophobic and trapped in the relationship and break it off. Naturally, all your worst fears about yourself are confirmed and the cycle starts again.
The HIV factor.
Love is a mine-strewn maze when you’re HIV positive. Not only because of the obvious transmission problems with all their associated fears but because the virus is always lingering in the background. Even if your partner is also HIV+ you’re terrified that he or she will eventually leave you and because your emotions are already stretched to breaking point, you fear that will lead to the end of your self-confidence. It’s even worse in a sero-discordant relationship. If you’re positive and the other is negative, your fears of a relationship breakdown can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. You’re scared stiff you’ll somehow transmit the virus and can’t face the guilt that would cause. That in itself can strangle sexual spontaneity to the point where a vital part of a relationship becomes awkward and unworkable and that alone can destroy a relationship at an early stage. Even if your partner is educated, understanding and sympathetic and your sex life is based on common sense and safety, the lingering fear that it’ll all go wrong in the end can lead to paranoia that you’re bound to lose them in one way or another. And that’s if you’re a normal well-balanced personality! If you also have a fear of separation, your partner is going to have to be extra strong in order to overcome the in-built angst because common sense just isn’t going to be enough.
So how can you help yourself out of this syndrome?
First you need to recognize the problem in yourself; identify it, find out about it and make peace with yourself that it’s going to take some work to put it right.
It’s too easy to say that you’ve got to avoid jealousy, clamping onto the other like a limpet, seeking out untrustworthy partners, taking solace in addictions like drink, drugs, over eating and self-isolation. You may be told to stop over-compensating for your perceived weaknesses; let people like you for who you are and stop suffocating people with your fears but that’s way too simplistic. Of course you’re going to have to change and not do these things but you need to start by realizing it’s you who’s going to implement changes otherwise the problem will repeat itself continually until you’re broken. Only after that realization can you start working on individual character traits and it won’t happen overnight.
First of all, do some research.
You’ll be amazed when you read articles on the subject how much your life is reflected in what you read. You realize things about yourself you never imagined and that can be a powerful stimulus to effecting change. You’ll quickly realize how little logic there is behind your fears but don’t dismiss them as just being between your ears; they’re real enough but breaking them down into small bite-sized chunks can help you dismantle them one by one.
Seek help from a friend.
It needs to a good one though; someone who knows you through and through and isn’t afraid to tell you the truth. Take care not to involve someone with issues of their own otherwise it may quickly become a battle of who has the biggest list of faults. You need constructive criticism and advice not end up in a competition of ‘whose problem is worst?’
Get help from a psychologist.
Two big ‘ifs’ here: can you afford it and is that person better able to help than a good friend?
Put yourself in various situations.
Taking them one by one and from the safety of your own space, try to set up a series of ‘what ifs?’ What would really happen if your partner left you? Would the world really end? Would you really kill yourself? What would be the outcome of your partner cheating on you? Same questions. How bad would it be if you were alone again for a while? Same questions. Of course it’s going to be painful if the person close to you leaves, or betrays you but will it really be the drama that plays out in your head every time you think about it? Facing your fears one by one and acting them out hypothetically may help you restore a sense of perspective. Very often the person terrified of separation accumulates a series of scenarios; sees them all as happening at once and creates a cataclysm with a disastrous end, when in fact, taken in isolation they can be identified, put into perspective and shown up as the minor traumas they actually are.
At the moment that your fears arise, try to look for a diversion. Make yourself busy; doesn’t matter what with but find anything you can to take your mind off your angst. That doesn’t mean smoking like a chimney, eating like a pig, enrolling at the first orgy, or stuffing yourself with mind-altering distractions. Paint the bloody house; it doesn’t matter as long as your diversion becomes temporarily more important than your fear. Slowly but surely, the fears will recede down the list of priorities and you’ll take pleasure in doing something positive. The key is breaking the negative circle.
Look for causes.
Every time the panic sets in that you’re going to be abandoned, or you’re not good enough, or you’re not loved like you want to be, try to examine the exact reason for that fear emerging when it did. In this way you can step in quickly and prevent the fear growing into a paranoia.
Look at your history.
Just why did your last relationship go so horribly wrong? Was it them? Was it you? Did you drive them away? The latter is a painful truth to face for many people with separation anxiety but it’s a necessary one. Remember, history almost always repeats itself unless you do something different. Use the experiences of the past to develop new strategies when they show signs of happening again.
You know who they are: they’re people in everyone’s circles who enjoy game playing and use others to play out their own fantasies. These people have their own problems; don’t let them drag you down into the slough of despond for their own kicks.
Re-learn how to trust.
Both yourself and others. This is by far the most difficult task for those plagued by separation issues. Trust that if people like you, it’s for who you are and not who you project yourself to be. You don’t have to be better than you are – that’s good enough. It may sound like a Hallmark card but it’s true. Of course everybody can improve themselves but playing a role will be seen through by anyone who even gets remotely close and then they’ll feel threatened and deceived. Trust that you’re really not that bad of a catch; neither better nor worse than anybody else and trust in that chemical click at the beginning. Your partner sensed something about you that they really liked – why should you try to be any better than that!
See jealousy as your enemy.
Also incredibly difficult if you’re jealous by nature but it has to be relationship destroyer number one. You don’t have to accept infidelity but you also don’t have to predict it because you’re afraid of it. Jealousy is the fear that you’re going to be ditched in favour of something better. Now here’s a truth; there’s always something better and it’s always available but only in a shallow, physical, one-off sort of way – there’s something better for you but also for him or her but what does it actually mean! You try to make yourself so attractive that the other couldn’t possibly find someone else attractive but you’re still fearful that they will. The point is that he or she will find others attractive; so do you don’t you? It’s acting on it that would be a problem but have you any evidence that that’s going to happen? Are they more likely to cheat on you than you are on them? Yes it can be that selfish; the person with the most separation anxieties often has a guilty secret that they themselves could be capable of infidelity – it’s a sort of safety net to confirm attractiveness if their partner cheats. However doesn’t that just sum up how unreal separation anxiety is? When you devise all sorts of compensation strategies in your head to make up for equally imaginary infidelities. Once you see jealousy for what it is, you can put it into perspective.
E.E. Cummings wrote: “We do not believe in ourselves until someone reveals that deep inside us something is valuable, worth listening to, worthy of our trust, sacred to our touch. Once we believe in ourselves we can risk curiosity, wonder, spontaneous delight or any experience that reveals the human spirit”
There’s the key to solving both separation anxiety and commitment phobia; belief in yourself as a worthy human being. Your life experiences and your health as a person living with HIV may have shaken that belief to its core but restoring it, so that you can build healthy, loving relationships maybe your greatest achievement but Rome wasn’t built in a day, so take your time; you’ll get there in the end.
Finally, it’s not for nothing that the official acronym for Separation Anxiety Disorder is ‘SAD’
More information can be found here:
Adult Separation Anxiety
Separation Anxiety for Grown Ups
Adult Separation Anxiety Disorder