The Abandonment Schema

Humans have developmental needs. Although infants and children have many needs, a simple way to describe these needs is to separate them into two categories: the need to grow as an individual and the need to grow as a member of the social group. The latter of these, the need to socially connect and fit in, is first met by our parents and care-givers. Being a social animal, interpersonal connection is essential for our survival.

Sometimes, for children who have had parents or care givers who’ve died, or separated or been emotionally or physically absent, this need is not sufficiently met. An abandonment schema develops. The young person grows, but the little wound inside remains. Being on the look out for further abandonments. Interpreting innocent separations as rejection experiences. The mind drifting to catastrophic fantasies of being left alone.

Grace experienced series of extremely painful relationships in her 20’s, she would cling to exactly the wrong sort of man: guys who weren’t that into her.

An Abandonment schema leads an individual to constantly feel that secure attachments are at risk. This often means jealous and clingy behaviour due to fear of being abandoned again. It can also mean that the type of partner that is chosen is only tenuously available, as that is the sort of person that matches the schema-version of reality.

Grace had decided that she needed to be single and to get her social connection from friends. Unfortunately, relying on friends was as painful as relying on partners. Grace formed strong friendships quickly, but just as quickly broke them. They just never seemed to care for her the way she did for them.

But tragically, the individual is also constantly seeking to confirm the fear that everyone who loves you will ultimately leave. This deep need for connection, combined with the expectation of abandonment creates tension and suffering.

Grace’s latest friendship, with Alice, is hanging by a thread. “She’s always too busy so I decided not to call her, but to wait until she gets in touch with me”.

People with abandonment schemas sometimes cope by overcompensating: pre-emptive rejection, and avoidance; acting as if they don’t need others.

Every now and then Grace copes by surrendering to her schema, reaching out to others when feeling helpless. “But I had all that trouble at work, and I thought I’d call Alice for support. But when I called, she said she was out with a friend and asked if I could call back later. I told her where to go!”

Coping by surrendering to the abandonment schema means making efforts to prevent abandonment. Doing this often creates confusion and undermines people’s sense of self-respect. It is common for people with this schema to alternate between seeking out friendships and breaking them off.

For people like Grace, schema therapy offers hope. It offers insight into the negative and unhelpful coping patterns to dealing with feelings of rejection and abandonment. It offers a method of working out how the best way to act with others is, not based on old schema habits, but based on values. But most of all, it offers a way to heal the little wound that developed when the need for connection was not fully met.

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