As we have been discussing, fear that shows up in relationships and intimacy is often hidden from awareness. This last section in the book that focuses on being able to detect fear talks about the most prevalent fears I see in couples: the fears of abandonment and engulfment. I think most people are familiar with the fear of abandonment. The fear of engulfment is actually just as widespread and, in my experience as a therapist, seems even more difficult to notice for the person experiencing this kind of fear. I will tell you more about why in a second. First, let’s take a look at David Richo’s explanations of the fears of abandonment and engulfment.
David Richo says the fear of abandonment is “the fear that someone will go away and we will not survive it. (‘Not to survive’ we can now define as being defenseless and resourceless)” (p. 122). So, in essence, once we are attached to someone, we fear that we will not be able to make it through a separation from that person and will respond to anything we may perceive as someone leaving, whether it is physically or emotionally. If you tend to experience the fear of abandonment, you might perceive someone leaving even when that is not the case because you are have gotten good at trying to predict and protect against the pain of separation.
The fear of engulfment is defined as “the fear of someone getting too close” (p. 122). So, it is the fear that someone will invade our inner space, take us over in some way, or diminish who we are. Again, this fear is triggered by someone’s perception that they are getting crowded, when that might not be the case in reality. Both of these fears are not ones that actually represent any real threat. They are fears that relate to experiences in the past, ones that already occurred because, as David Richo points out: “An adult cannot be abandoned, only left, not engulfed, only crowded” (p. 123). The deal is that even if someone leaves, we can take care of ourselves, whereas a child’s survival would be compromised. If someone intrudes on us, we can speak up to create space, whereas a child has to tolerate the conditions until he can find another way to survive.
David Richo says that most people experience these fears to some degree in their intimate relationships, as they are simply a condition of being in relationship with another. Also, it is possible to be on both sides of the dynamic at different times, although, you may tend toward experiencing one fear over the other. The fear of abandonment is easily recognized since this person is the one who is often trying to fix things, will compromise themselves to hold onto their beloved, and the words they use to communicate about what is bothering them matches the fear: they do not want their person to go away. Something interesting about this fear is that the person who experiences this fear will usually be the one to leave the relationship. That usually happens because the person who fears engulfment can tolerate the situation because they continue to run and have gotten good at it, so they don't get engulfed…but they also don’t experience the reward of intimacy. Another interesting point that David Richo makes is that “the fear of intimacy is directly proportional to the fear of abandonment” (p. 124). So, that means the person upset about their partner going away is just as afraid of their partner being close. Except, it doesn’t feel that way, so their fear of intimacy is usually masked until they choose a partner that is willing to stay present or, who experiences the fear of abandonment to a greater degree, pushing them into the fear of engulfment.
I’m most interested in talking to you about the fear of engulfment because it is harder to detect. When I see this dynamic, the person with this fear will be very resistant to any curiosity I might have about their experience of fear in their relationship. Also, they tend to be very protective about their parents or upbringing, insisting that they had a good childhood and have fine relationships with their parents. Some of David Richo’s words to demonstrate how the fear shows up are: aloof, harried, showing anger, entitlement, “coldness, refusals to make commitments, need for more space and more secrets, indifference, intolerance, rigid boundaries, embarrassment about affection in public” (p. 125). OK, so…why?!
David Richo says that this person may have had an experience of having over protective or helicopter parents. This is part of why people will defend their parents and their childhood because it is not a question of deprivation or abuse; it is a question of too much. Their natural human drive toward independence and growth may have been stunted and compromised by over involved parents. This causes a very unpleasant internal experience but it is hard for the conscious mind to perceive this since it does not seem like anything is wrong on the outside, it just feels bad inside. Another reason people may have this fear is if parents were very critical when they got close to them. So, allowing someone to come close equals someone finding that something is wrong with you. Another formula that seems to cause this fear is if someone had a parent who may not have been very aware of their child’s experience because they were dealing with their own overwhelming experience of addiction, domestic violence, chaos or financial struggle. So, closeness in this experience was the equivalent of being bulldozed by the parents’ needs. In all of these scenarios, I don’t mean to suggest that parents of someone who experiences the fear of engulfment are bad, evil people. No. They are probably great people doing their very best. But we are all human who are beautiful and flawed raised by humans who are beautiful and flawed. It is our job as adults to be aware of these injuries that caused fears and work through them so that we can love healthfully.
Alright, so now you can start getting curious about your fear, looking at where it might come from and how it shows up in your relationship. You want to know what to do about it. You guessed it! The David Richo special: admit it out loud, stay with it for a second longer than you can stand and act as if the fear was not holding you back in that second. You will get stronger each time and prove to yourself that nothing scary is happening. That means, you let your partner have space and attend to yourself while you are afraid of them leaving or you let your partner get a little closer by holding them, sharing what you have inside or take a tiny step in committing to your relationship and breathe through it! Finally, David Richo instills some hope when he says that we have a program for dealing with these fears: “When you go, I grieve and let you go.” “When you get too close, I ask you to give me more room” (p. 121).
*This post is written in response to a section in David Richo's book "When Love Meets Fear: Becoming Defense-Less and Resource-Full".