Coping With Separation Anxiety In A Relationship
May 29, 2023, 7 min read
You may be familiar with the concept of separation anxiety; it’s normal to miss your partner, but when those feelings start to lead to anxiety or interfere with your daily life, it may be time to address how you’re feeling.
At Augmentive, we aim to provide holistic, tailored mental health support to everyone so they can live their life to the fullest, so if you would like support with relationship issues or any type of anxiety, we’re here to help.
We’re taking a closer look at what separation anxiety actually is, the signs of separation anxiety, what’s considered a ‘normal’ level of attachment within a relationship, and the possible causes of separation anxiety. We’ll also discuss how to identify unhealthy attachment patterns in others, how to improve feelings of separation anxiety within your relationship, and what we can learn about romantic attachment from… prairie voles? Let’s dive in…
What is separation anxiety?
Perhaps the most common type of separation anxiety is the anxiety felt by babies and children when separated from a parent or carer. Children can become upset if they believe their main caregiver will leave, even if only for a short period. This may be accompanied by a fear of strangers and an inability to be comforted by anyone that is not their main caregiver.
This is normal in a child’s development from birth until around 3 years old, and they do tend to grow out of this when they realise their caregiver will return. Sometimes, separation anxiety can extend into adulthood and relationships other than the parent-child relationship.
In adulthood, separation anxiety may feel like a fear of being apart from a loved one, whether by losing them entirely or just being apart for a short time. Someone with separation anxiety may experience feelings of distress when apart from the person they feel attached to, as well as in anticipation of being separated. In extreme cases, the person can develop physical symptoms (like feeling nauseous) that accompany their separation anxiety.
What about Separation Anxiety Disorder?
There are different levels of separation anxiety, and this can look different for everyone. In some cases, Separation Anxiety Disorder (included in the DSM-5) may be diagnosed by a therapist, and this can entail a slightly more severe form of anxiety surrounding the separation from a loved one.
People with Separation Anxiety Disorder tend to feel extreme levels of anxiety, and may even experience panic attacks at the thought of being separated from their attached partner. They may become withdrawn socially, experience depression, or be unable to focus when away from their loved one. Some other common symptoms of Separation Anxiety Disorder include:
- An irrational fear of something bad happening to their loved one that will cause them to be separated
- A constant need to be in their presence, and not wanting to leave their side
- Trouble sleeping when away from their attached loved one
- Feelings of anxiety or depression when faced with being apart
- Physical symptoms arising at the thought of being apart from their attached loved one, such as pain, headaches, and stress-related stomach issues like diarrhoea
To be diagnosed with Separation Anxiety Disorder, you will typically have experienced some of the above symptoms (at a level where they are impacting your life) for at least six months.
Is separation anxiety considered ‘normal’ in a relationship?
What is and isn’t ‘normal’ in a relationship is subjective because all relationships are different, and there are many different views on how attached one should be to a partner. In theory, if all partners are an equal match in terms of their level of attachment, this may not affect the relationship in a negative way.
If, on the other hand, one partner feels the need for a healthy amount of space and time alone, this could cause disagreements.
Generally, it is considered normal to want to be around your partner and spend time with them on a regular basis, just as it is normal to feel lonely if you are alone for too long. Similarly, if you feel your partner may be in real danger, or they have been gone for an indeterminate amount of time, it is normal to feel concern and worry.
If you start to feel anxious any time you are away from your partner, or are unable to focus when you are constantly thinking about what they are doing throughout the day, this may be inching into separation anxiety territory.
Remember, separation anxiety is not the same as missing your partner. Missing someone usually feels like a longing to be with them after a period of time has passed, and is usually centred around a feeling of love. This is different from feeling anxious, overwhelmed and fearful about being away from your partner. Identifying the root cause of any discomfort you are feeling is important so you can distinguish between the two.
One study involving male prairie voles found that, when separated from their female partners for just 4 days, they showed depression-like behaviour and increased levels of corticosterone (the rodent equivalent of cortisol — the stress hormone), and this was the case only when separated from their mate, not their social groups.
Another study of humans found couples exhibited withdrawal-like symptoms like irritability and sleep issues, as well as raised cortisol levels when separated for 4 to 7 days. Cortisol levels were higher in those who reported high anxiety, but even the group with low levels of anxiety exhibited an increase in cortisol during the separation. So in any relationship, it is considered ‘normal’ to feel some level of discomfort when away from a romantic partner.
What causes separation anxiety?
Studies have found links between childhood separation anxiety and adult separation anxiety, but the cause of adult separation anxiety is not known. There are a number of theories, such as Erikson's stages of psychosocial development, or John Bowlby’s pioneering work around attachment theory, which prominently feature the idea that people’s actions within their relationships are influenced by their childhood experiences, and this includes any childhood traumas or unmet needs. Bowlby’s attachment theory in particular establishes the need for young children to develop a relationship with at least one parent or caregiver in order to be able to develop healthy emotions and social skills.
There’s at least one study supports this theory by identifying how our childhood memories of the symptoms of separation anxiety can influence how young adults engage in their romantic relationship; attachment styles and their impact on relationships is often found to be related to challenging parts of childhood, so if someone felt abandoned a lot as a child they may experience difficulties with separation anxiety as an adult in romantic relationships.
It is also thought that Separation Anxiety Disorder is more often diagnosed in those who have also been diagnosed with generalised anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), panic disorders, social anxiety disorder, or personality disorders, so if you suffer from any of these conditions you may have a higher risk of developing Separation Anxiety Disorder in your romantic relationships.
Another possible cause of separation anxiety can be when this develops either in childhood or adulthood following the loss of a loved one.
How to identify unhealthy attachment patterns
If you are wondering whether or not you have relationship separation anxiety that may need to be addressed, this can generally be identified by a feeling of extreme distress at even the thought of being apart from your partner.
- Feeling like you cannot live without them
- Fear they will be hurt or killed and you will lose them
- Extreme discomfort at having to go anywhere without them, or having them go somewhere without you
- A constant need to know where they are throughout the day, and when they will return
- Trouble sleeping when they are away
- Trouble focusing during daily life, work or school due to constant worry about their whereabouts or safety
- Overwhelming worry that they will not return or will end the relationship
- In some cases, physical symptoms of stress such as stomach issues or headaches
How to spot separation anxiety red flags in a relationship
If you feel your partner may be exhibiting signs of separation anxiety, this can be a delicate situation to manage, but it’s normal to want to address it if you feel like this is more than early stage relationship jitters, which usually calm down over time and are quite normal, being related to an innate desire to be “liked” or “accepted” by a new partner.
Separation anxiety is more than just “missing” a partner while they’re away; it’s less about just wishing they were around and closer to genuine fear which can sometimes become all-consuming and difficult to handle. Your partner may request constant updates from you while apart, want specific details about when you will return, say they can’t sleep without you, require constant reassurance that you will return, or become distressed, frustrated, irritated or angry at the thought of spending time apart.
While some of these things may seem romantic at first (especially in those early “honeymoon” days), if they become overbearing or too intense you may find it helpful to speak to your partner about this and try to establish some healthy boundaries together. If the issue persists, speaking to a therapist with experience working with couples on relationship issues can help to find the root of your partner’s separation anxiety and help you both move towards a solution that works for both of you.
How to improve separation anxiety in a relationship
If you are experiencing separation anxiety in your relationship, know that it’s OK to feel this way, and many people do. Addressing it can help make spending time away from your partner more manageable, and can improve your relationship long-term. Speaking to your partner about how you feel may help, as can discussing their feelings about wanting to spend time apart.
Often there can be an early life experience at the heart of separation anxiety, so working with a professional to get to the bottom of why you are feeling this way could help you understand yourself more, understand your partner’s needs, feel more secure in your relationship, and start to let go of the anxiety and stress that holds you back when away from your partner.
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If you have a question about relationship separation anxiety, we’re here to assist on your journey. Our free 15 minute consultation can guide you to the most relevant specialists to answer your questions and discuss next steps.