Do You Have Relationship Separation Anxiety?
When you hear the term "separation anxiety," it's likely that your brain's first reference is thinking of the relationship between a parent (or another caretaker) and a young child — or, if you're a pandemic pet parent, the situation with your puppy when you ever leave the house. But get this: It's just as common for people in romantic relationships to experience separation anxiety with their partner. Surprised? I didn't think so. It all stems from a place of attachment — how you relate to and feel in your caretaker relationship(s) as a child translates into how you attach to your romantic partner(s) later in life.
But where is the line between simply missing your partner and having full-on separation anxiety in a relationship? And is it always a sign that things aren't healthy? Here's the breakdown.
What Is Relationship Separation Anxiety?
Separation anxiety in a relationship is the feeling of genuine fear, anxiousness, and/or panic when being away from their partner. It's an unusually strong fear of or anxiety that results from separating from your partner or someone to whom you feel a strong attachment.
In some cases, the separation anxiety may be severe enough to diagnose someone with separation anxiety disorder, which is "developmentally inappropriate and excessive fear or anxiety concerning separation from those to whom the individual is attached," as outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5), a manual for assessment and diagnosis of mental disorders. However, not everyone who experiences separation anxiety in relationships will meet these criteria for diagnosis. Like with anything else, separation anxiety in a relationship can look different from couple to couple and person to person — it isn't linear and can be super extreme or relatively mild.
If you think you might have relationship separation anxiety, it doesn't mean there is anything wrong with you or your relationship. Most people's responses in relationships come from their childhood experiences, traumas, or unmet needs. Being aware and learning how to communicate about it is one of the most important first steps.
Separation Anxiety vs. Missing Your Partner
It's important to note that relationship separation anxiety is very different from just missing your partner. Missing your partner isn't generally coming from a place of fear or anxiousness about being apart from them in the way that separation anxiety is. Missing your partner is more of a feeling of longing adoration, while separation anxiety often feels overwhelming and all-consuming.
So, how can you tell the difference? Really try to notice and distinguish what exactly you are feeling and where those emotions are stemming from. (Try using a wheel of emotions to do exactly that.) Meaning, if you feel afraid, why do you feel afraid? Are you afraid for your partner's safety? Your safety? Being alone? Being able to name and distinguish the feelings and why you feel these things is so helpful for breaking them down, which ultimately helps you take steps to get what you need or want. (Related: Apparently, Just Thinking About Someone You Love Can Help You Deal with Stressful Situations)
Separation Anxiety vs. Codependency
Codependency is best described as an excessive emotional reliance on a partner and the role you play in that person's life). This differs from the underlying panic that's often present in relationship separation anxiety. However, both can easily stem from an underlying fear of abandonment, which typically develops when your attachment style does (between seven and 11 months of age), and may have stemmed from childhood abandonment or abandonment in a previous relationship. Not all people who experience relationship separation anxiety are codependent and not all codependent people experience relationship separation anxiety, but they can be indicators of one another.
For example, codependency can also stem from a place of fear, but it can look different than the fear associated with separation anxiety. Someone who is codependent is most likely worried about losing their role in their partners' life, a fear of not being needed, whereas relationship separation anxiety can manifest from a fear of being alone, dumped, or rejected, or even of your partner finding someone they "want to be with more." (Also read: 7 Signs You Could Be In a Toxic Relationship)
Separation Anxiety and Attachment Styles
As mentioned above, there's a chance people with certain anxious attachment styles might be more prone to separation anxiety. It's not only those people who can experience relationship separation anxiety, but it's an excellent indicator to look out for. For example, most folks with secure attachment won't experience relationship separation anxiety, while folks with anxious attachment styles generally act out in anxious ways because they fear that whoever they love will leave them. This could manifest itself in the form of relationship separation anxiety in more intense situations.
Is Separation Anxiety In Relationships Unhealthy?
Separation anxiety can be unhealthy, yes. And it's likely stemming from fears that need to be analyzed and given some attention. Leaving past traumas unprocessed can lead to unhealthy behavior. (See: 5 Steps to Working Through Trauma, According to a Therapist Who Works with First Responders)
However, it's important to note that whatever your brain does automatically isn't your "fault" and doesn't mean something is "wrong with you." Your brain is full of chemicals, response signals, and warning signs designed to protect you when you feel like you're in dangerous situations. Whether or not you might actually be in a dangerous situation is up to what your body is remembering and deciding to act on. Have you ever been sitting at your desk but felt physically like you're trying to outrun a bear in the woods? The point is, it isn't shameful or bad to respond in this way to something; it just means your body is doing its job trying to protect you. That said, if there is no literal bear in the woods, you can learn tools to assure your body that it is okay and safe.
I say all this to remind you that unhealthy doesn't have to be a "dirty" word — it can be a helpful word that indicates there is room for growth.
Separation Anxiety In Relationships & COVID
Many people who have been in relationships over the course of the last year and a half have likely, at some point, been quarantined with their partner(s) — or at least had minimal contact with other important relationships, resulting in spouses or partners becoming the main person they see all the time. During "normal" non-pandemic times, most people put time into other relationships, get to leave the house at least once a day, and have other activities — even if it was simply going to work!
During lockdown, however, that wasn't the case for most people. In instances where both partners worked from home, because of the state of the world, it's likely you bonded in ways you never have before. Also, with the added fear of coronavirus itself, you might fear for your partner in ways you never had before.
Many people got used to having their romantic partners around all the time, which could absolutely lead to now feeling anxious when that partner leaves. Again, this is simply your brain's response, and not a good or a bad thing.
If You Think You're Experiencing Separation Anxiety In Your Relationship...
If you're reading this and finding it sounds similar to some things you experience, I encourage you to talk to someone about it. Whether it's your partner or a friend, get it out of the dark shame space and let it out into the light. When something is kept inside, it seems to get bigger and often creates other issues. When you share these feelings, you release any shame and get support, whether that's from a friend, lover, and/or a therapist.
If you want to dive in even deeper, I encourage you to talk with your therapist or begin therapy to start deconstructing even further. Your body is truly amazing at trying to protect you — most of the time you just need to uncover why it's trying to protect you and help give your body some peace of mind. Some helpful tips:
- Remember that everything is ok: If you start feeling this type of anxiety come on, remind yourself that you and your partner are safe, that you are okay, and it's okay to feel this way.
- Be kind to yourself: Don't add to your own stress by making yourself feel bad for feeling this way. Be gentle to yourself and hold space for what you're feeling.
- Talk: It's not shameful to talk about what you struggle with, it's actually very courageous.
- Journal: This is the writing version of processing out loud. You can get your thoughts and feelings down onto paper and out of your mind.
- Call a friend: Feeling connected and heard are very important on self-soothing and coping in a healthy way. Just be sure to pick a friend who can listen non-judgmentally, someone you know is safe.
- Go for a walk: Moving your body and changing your scenery does wonders for your mood. Often, when you're feeling stuck, you may sit still or lay down which literally keeps you — and your mind — still. But when you can move your body, you can start to move around your thoughts and feelings, too, and get some clarity.