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Were You Abandoned? Or Engulfed?

It feels like a lot of people around me are yearning for intimate connection right now. I keep coming back to "Journey of the Heart" by John Welwood as a source of wisdom in this area.

Rather than seeing relationship issues as obstacles, Welwood writes about the challenges of love as a golden opportunity for spiritual and personal growth.

The basic fear of intimacy, say Welwood, is the fear of loss.

Either we fear the loss of another person (abandonment), or the loss of oneself (engulfment). These fears are wounds that come from early in life.

There are two basic "subplots" of childhood:

  1. Bonding with parents

  2. Separation from parents

Improper bonding can lead to abandonment. Improper (lack of) separation can lead to engulfment.


If we don't get the bonding we need (parents who are emotionally or physically absent, abusive, or otherwise unable to give us the bonds of love we need) then we leave childhood wounded with the fear of abandonment.

This shows up in our relationships with others as a clinging, needy, anxious form of attachment.

We may demand our intimate partners constantly prove their love for us, or alternatively we feel guilty about our need for connection and closeness.

We have a narrative that abandonment is inevitable and so either avoid intimacy or rush to love as quickly and intensely as we can—either way ensuring we will drive the other person away.


On the other hand, if in childhood we aren't allowed to separate into our own autonomous, independent individuals (our parents are overly controlling, attached, or commit emotional incest) then we leave childhood wounded with the fear of being engulfed by another person and thus losing ourselves.

This shows up in our relationships as a defiant need for independence, pushing away partners, fearing that we will be subsumed in the relationship, or alternatively, as guilt for pulling away and taking space and time for ourselves.

We may create a narrative around our need for "lone wolf" independence, or distrust of marriage/partnership as a form of control; or we maintain relationships but withhold a part of us, thereby protecting ourselves but preventing the possibility of true intimacy and connection.

Polarities & Narratives

In some people, one wound (abandonment or engulfment) predominates. But most people, says Welwood, have both kinds of wounds and alternate between anxious and avoidant attachment styles depending on the partner.

Couples can enter into a polarity: one person's abandonment leads to a desperate glomming-onto and obsessive desire for the other person, which then triggers their need to pull away for fear of being engulfed. Yet the same person who pulls away can feel that obsessive desire for another partner who (in turn) pulls away from them.

The tragedy is that over time, through repetitions of the same script, we develop a "master narrative" that we believe is the reality of our lives. ("I am unlovable," "I am unworthy of true closeness," "Women will always abandon me," "Men only want to control me")

This master narrative we tell ourselves then creates the very same relationship situations that we most fear (e.g. fear of abandonment will lead to abandonment).

This re-inflicts and deepens the original wound, and further entrenches the narrative as "true" in our minds.

"Believing that our stories are reality leaves us blind to how they create our reality." - John Welwood.

All people need both connection as well as independence. The work of a healthy relationship is learning how to be two strong, self-reliant individuals that cultivate an ever-deepening trust and loving connection: an evolving balance between "me" and "we."

Welwood says that we have to recognize our longstanding wounds and the narratives and patterns that perpetuate them. Otherwise the "unresolved issues *within* us continually get acted out as conflict *between* us."


Looking for guidance on how to address issues of childhood abandonment or engulfment?

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