How To Talk To Someone With Abandonment Issues

Photo by Mike Kotsch on Unsplash

No matter how many times you tell them you’ll be there for them, they don’t believe you. No matter how many times you tell them you love them, it’s never enough. We’ve all met someone with abandonment issues.

Some common signs that someone has abandonment issues are:

  • They get attached to certain people quickly. They may have a series of short but intense attachments, either with friends or lovers.
  • Other times, people with abandonment issues might cycle through a series of shallow relationships. They seek out new connections because they are lonely, but then cut the other person off before they have a chance to hurt them. Their loneliness drives them to find someone else, and the cycle repeats.
  • They have a constant fear of unfaithfulness. In a relationship, this presents as a fear of cheating. With friends, this presents as a fear of emotional distance.
  • They jump to worst case scenarios. When you frown at them, they fear that you’re secretly seething with anger. When you don’t text them back, they fear you hate them. They are not always able to recognize that these worst-case scenarios are irrational.
  • They cling to unhealthy relationships, because they don’t want the other person to leave.
  • They even sabotage their relationships. When the other person leaves because they are being toxic, they can ease their pain with the knowledge that they caused it through bad behavior. 

    This is comforting to someone with abandonment issues because if they did not sabotage the relationship, and the other ended up leaving, it’s a comment about their worth as a person. But when someone leaves because they’re being treated badly, then it’s only fair. It doesn’t feel as much like abandonment.
  • They look for flaws. With every new person in their life, they critically assess them. They may even put them through ‘tests’ designed to measure what kind of person they are. These tests often create drama where there doesn’t need to be any.

These aren’t the only signs. There are very subtle ways to tell if someone has abandonment issues, such as:

  • They believe people are generally untrustworthy and/or not dependable and will tell you so.
  • When they do find someone they connect with, they will say things like “you are not like the others.”

It can feel impossible to talk to someone with abandonment issues. No matter what you say, it’s like they didn’t hear you. It can drive you crazy. It can make you feel like you’re talking to a brick wall. At the same time, the last thing you want to do is give up in frustration and make them think you’re abandoning them.

Abandonment issues are a core part of someone’s worldview. The person with abandonment issues feels like the world is fundamentally unsafe.

(They believe) that the world is an unsafe place, that people are not to be trusted, and that they do not deserve positive attention and adequate care.

Essentially, people with abandonment issues put the cart before the horse. They think others can’t leave them if they’re already alone, so they close everyone off.

And yes, that’s true — sort of. You don’t have to worry about being shot in the foot if you’re already shot in the foot. But then you’re, you know, shot in the foot. People with abandonment issues would rather be alone then deal with the fear of someone leaving them.

They believe everyone leaves them in the end. That core belief is not something you can fix.

You might be tempted to make promises to soothe their fear. “I will always be there for you.” “You can always call me.” People with abandonment issues will often prompt you to make these promises because they want to hear them.

Even if these promises are true, promises like that raise the defenses of someone with abandonment issues. They expect anyone who says those things to abandon them. Once their defenses are raised, it’s impossible to get through to them. Even though they crave these promises, they are afraid once they get them.

So if you can’t fix their problem, and you can’t say what they want to hear, what can you say or do?

Leave the conversation when it turns unproductive, even if they beg you not to.

People with abandonment issues are vulnerable to the emotional heat of the moment. During a difficult discussion or fight, they are overloaded with fear hormones.

Do the both of you a favor, and step away from a conversation when it turns emotional and unproductive — even if it appears to drive the other person to despair. Tell them clearly and firmly that you are doing this for both of you, so that you are not in pain. It will feel like kicking a puppy, but it has to be done. The alternative means staying and enabling their abandonment issues to get worse.

After three or more hours, get in contact with them again. Ninety-nine percent of the time, you’ll find the other person has calmed down. They will usually be able to identify that they got overemotional.

Tell them when you’re feeling trapped or manipulated

People with abandonment issues will often try and corner others verbally. Their goal is to make the person they’re talking to say what they want to hear. They will use tricks like:

  • Telling you what you think, feel or mean
  • Using hypothetical questions to corner you
  • Making leaps of logic which make no sense

For example:

Them: You are only here because you pity me!
You: That’s not true. I’m here because I want to help you.
Them: Yes it is. I can tell. 
You: That’s not true!
Them: I can tell. You said “You are here to help me.” That means you are only here because you pity me.

In this example, the other person used an indefensible leap of logic to tell you what you mean.

Every time you play into their fears, you are making their abandonment issues worse. If you really want to help them, point out when they are doing this to you. Say things like:

  • “What are you trying to say?”
  • “I’m sorry that’s what you think, but that’s not what I meant.”
  • “I feel like you are trying to make me say something.”

The person with abandonment issues won’t necessarily agree with what you’re saying. But saying that will derail the point they were trying to make, and force them to have a real conversation again.

Don’t take their bait.

People with abandonment issues lay a lot of bait.

  • They might have a sad facial expression, baiting you to ask what’s wrong.
  • They might sulk a certain way, baiting you to come to comfort them.
  • They might send you an ambiguous text, baiting you to ask for more information.

Here is an example bait:

Them: (sulking in a corner).
You: Is there something wrong?
Them, clearly lying: No
You: Come on, I know there is. (you go over to sit by them). What’s wrong?
Them, (clearly lying): No
You and them go back and forth for some time, goading them to share what’s wrong.

This bait is a ploy for attention. The longer you spend goading them to talk about what’s wrong, the more they feel like you care. This makes them feel better in the short-term, but it reinforces their abandonment issues. The second you are not actively encouraging them, they go back to feeling abandoned.

You should respond to bait, but instead of saying what they want you to say, you should respond by prompting them to explain what they’re feeling. If they do not clearly communicate back to you about what’s bothering them, the conversation should end.

For instance, here is an ideal response to the same bait.

Them: (sulking in a corner)
You: Is there something wrong?
Them, (clearly lying): No
You: All right. I’ll take you at your word. Let me know if there is.
Them: (sulking for some more time).
Them: All right, this is what’s wrong.

You made a clear offer for help while at the same time not giving them the response to the bait they wanted. This forces them to acknowledge their needs and clearly communicate them, which is the antidote to all kinds of emotional issues.

You might also say:

  • “Is there something you want to say to me?”
  • “I can’t read minds. If there’s something on your mind, you have to use your words.”

Positive responses to baits will not always work out so smoothly. It may take many days, weeks or months before they courage to communicate clearly. What you can do for them is be a steady presence, giving them constructive responses to their bait, until they are.


People with abandonment issues don’t do these things on purpose. These responses are reflexes built up from being abandoned. They don’t realize how destructive their behaviors are to relationships. If they did, they wouldn’t do them.

I know, because I used to be the same way. These are the same things I used to say to others. I have many memories of sulking in a corner as a ploy for attention, waiting for someone to come out and talk to me. There are many times I verbally cornered people and told them what they think of me (and not believing their protests to the contrary).

What caused me to change my behavior was recognizing that these behaviors were causing me more harm than good. My abandonment issues kept me in a relationship with a man who was not good for me. Despite not being good for me, I derived a lot of comfort from this relationship because I knew he would never leave. But eventually, the damage became too much. To save myself, I had to face up to my abandonment issues. I had to be the one to leave.

This is how people get over abandonment issues. They learn that sometimes, the right thing to do is leave. Once we learn how to leave others, we have empathy for those who leave us.

Luckily, people don’t have to leave to learn this lesson. They just have to learn how to put their foot down and establish healthy emotional boundaries. Some people may go, but others will be glad you put those boundaries down in the first place.

What you can do to help someone with abandonment issues is not to enable unhealthy behaviors. Make it easier to decide to respect themselves. Make it harder for them to cling.

It sucks, sucks worse than disciplining a beat dog. But if you love someone with abandonment issues, it’s the best thing you can do.

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