January 22, 2014
This article originally appeared on PositiveLite.com, Canada's Online HIV Magazine.
Pacey: "It 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 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.
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.
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.
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, overeating 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.
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."
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Read Dave's blog HIV, Neuropathy and More: Avoiding Becoming a Nervous Wreck.