Abandonment Schema

Have you ever thought of  the possibility of your partner, friends, or family members leaving you? These thoughts are normal but may be longer lasting or more intense for individuals with an Abandonment Schema.


What Is It?

A schema is a cognitive framework which provides a mental shortcut we use to make fast decisions and interpret information. As the name suggests, developing abandonment schema might manifest in feelings of insecurity and the fear of abandonment. 


How does an Abandonment Schema Develop?

Usually, a lack of secure attachment from a young age may cause the development of abandonment schema. An environment with unpredictable love, care, warmth and attention prevents us from gaining trust and understanding concepts of a healthy relationship.

At times, caregivers may also be suffering from mental health issues, emotional instability, or substance abuse, affecting their ability to care for the child. It is also possible that a child has been abandoned or neglected in the past, which may have left trauma, resulting in thoughts that people may leave them anytime or that no relationship can be everlasting. 


Biological Explanations for Abandonment Schemas

The amygdala—part of the brain that processes fear—becomes hyper-sensitive at a young age. As we grow up, when we encounter people who display behaviours similar to our caregivers, the abandonment schema is activated. The amygdala sets off a "fight or flight" response upon recognising these behaviours, producing feelings of anxiety, insecurity, and occasionally anger or depression. 


Do You Think You Might Have This Schema?

Here are some questions to think about if you are considering whether the  Abandonment Schema resonates with you. Do you:

   Frequently worry about losing people close to you (ie. partner, children, friends, etc.)?

   Experience anxiety, anger, or jealousy when your current or previous partner(s):

  • Spends time with their friends or colleagues?
  • Goes on holiday or business trips without you?
  • Comes home later than expected?
  • Is not responding to your messages or phone calls?

   Worry that people are unreliable and may walk away from relationships impulsively?


Signs and Symptoms:

  • Clinginess; Constantly wanting to be with significant others 
  • Possessiveness to others
  • Constantly seeking reassurance
  • Intense jealousy
  • Intense anger or depression upon a rejection
  • Hypervigilance for signs that may suggest the end of a relationship 
  • Sabotaging relationships by leaving first, before your significant other does


Managing Abandonment Schemas Through Schema Therapy 

Therapy could:

  • Offers insight to negative and maladaptive coping patterns brought about by feelings of rejection and abandonment
  • Introduce better coping methods 
  • Rebuilt trust and secure attachment unmet during childhood


Additional Notes

It is normal to feel the need to fight for people you love and want for them to stay in your life. We should acknowledge that having an Abandonment Schema may be a coping mechanism for past trauma or adverse childhood experiences. While this may be adaptive for survival, it may become maladaptive if such fears and insecurity leads to self-destructive behaviours or damaging to interpersonal relationships.

Having this schema also makes it harder to disconfirm such beliefs as we often act on such thoughts in a less helpful manner. If you find yourself stuck in the vicious cycle of this schema, you may want to consider seeking therapy to help you better cope with the distress.