When we hear ‘separation anxiety’, our minds automatically direct us to the relationship a child shares with their caregiver. We recollect how a child starts to cry profusely when their caregiver is out of sight. However, we are less familiar with the concept when it comes to separation anxiety in relationships. Yes, it does exist and you are not alone if you are experiencing it.
A lot of couples go through separation anxiety. It’s surprising to see how little awareness we have about it even when it is a fairly common experience.
As a way toward building that awareness, trauma-informed counseling psychologist Anushtha Mishra (MSc., Counseling Psychology), who specializes in providing therapy for concerns such as trauma, relationship issues, depression, anxiety, grief, and loneliness among others, writes about what separation anxiety in relationships is, signs and causes of it, how to deal with it, and how it impacts an adult relationship.
What Is Relationship Separation Anxiety?
While anxiety is the feeling of fear, tension, and uneasiness in general, separation anxiety is when these feelings concern an attachment figure.
Let’s break that down a bit. What is an attachment figure? It’s any individual who is perceived as a haven with whom one potentially sees themselves secured. That attachment figure can be anyone – a caregiver, a loved one, or a romantic partner.
Separation anxiety in a relationship, essentially, is the feeling of fear, tension, or uneasiness due to perceived, anticipated, or actual separation from the attachment figure – the partner in this context.
We all feel lonely in a relationship when our partner isn’t around. We miss their quirkiness, their warmth, their laughter, and the way they joke around, but separation anxiety isn’t just that sense of uneasiness. Separation anxiety in a relationship is when the distress is too much to take and is beyond what you can control.
It can be a difficult feeling to deal with. It can sometimes be confusing because of a lack of awareness around separation anxiety in couples. So, let’s bridge that gap and dive deeper in order to understand the causes of separation anxiety in relationships.
Causes Of Separation Anxiety In Relationships
What causes separation anxiety from partner? This question might have been lingering on your mind since the start of this piece. It is paramount we address this, because only once we understand why something is happening can we do something about it.
Several factors can lead to separation anxiety in a relationship. It is important, however, to note that just because you have been through the following, it does not mean that you will have separation anxiety. It just means that you have a higher chance of developing it. Without further ado, let’s see what the most common causes of separation anxiety in couples are.
1. Past experiences
It’s no secret that our experience has a significant effect on us. It shapes our belief systems and the way we form our thoughts. Maybe there’s been an experience in the past where the relationship ended without any warning or signs. Maybe there were signs of neglect or constant conflict in the relationship.
It’s only understandable that there will be separation anxiety when a partner is always in the fear that they’ll be left alone. They might live with the uneasiness of the past experiences reminding them that their partner can just get up and leave.
Parental loss, child abuse and neglect, and a chaotic home environment are a few other factors that can cause feelings of separation anxiety from partner. We are like clay and the more experiences we have, the more we shape the clay that way. We are all reflections of our experiences and in this way, past experiences play a huge role.
2. Attachment styles that we form in our childhood
We form our attachment styles during our childhood years. The base of all the relationships we form in adulthood comes from the relationship we share with our caregivers when we were young.
It’s important for a child to feel safe and secure in those relationships. When this emotional and physical security is absent, it usually leads them to form an anxious or insecure attachment style.
This kind of attachment style is very commonly seen in an individual experiencing separation anxiety in relationships. This can be distinctly noticed when a partner is excessively insecure that their partner may abandon them and it gets difficult to trust your partner when they say they won’t.
3. Having a low self-esteem
Self-esteem is your overall sense of self-value – basically your own opinion about yourself. Self-esteem has an impact on how you feel about yourself and treat yourself. It also plays a huge role in how you allow others to treat you.
With a low sense of self, comes a lot of insecurities and worries which are commonly experienced emotions when there is separation anxiety in relationships. This is an extremely common experience teenagers go through as well while going through separation anxiety in teenage relationships. This is because they still haven’t developed a proper identity, and their self-esteem relies on external factors.
Low self-esteem is an important factor to note because working on it in a safe space, such as what therapy provides, would not only help the person in building a positive sense of self but would also help in dealing with separation anxiety in couples.
Related Reading: How To Overcome Codependency In Relationships
4. Codependency causes separation anxiety in relationships
Codependency means excessive emotional or physical reliance on your partner. When there is so much reliance on your partner to get all your emotional and physical needs met, there will also be feelings of excessive worry and uneasiness when they leave or are anticipated to leave even for a short duration of time.
A codependent relationship can be emotionally overwhelming for both partners since it involves a web of unhealthy relationship patterns. This web, in particular to a codependent relationship, includes severe feelings of unhappiness when either of the partners does anything for anyone else except for each other. This also includes a terrible sense of emptiness when you’re not with your partner.
Codependency and separation anxiety might seem similar in the ways they manifest but they are not the same thing. Separation anxiety is a part of a codependent relationship while a codependent relationship is a huge umbrella.
It’s important to note that if you have separation anxiety in relationships, that doesn’t automatically mean that the relationship is codependent. It might or might not be.
5. History of any anxiety disorders
Anxiety is a normal and commonly experienced emotion. Some amount of anxiety is completely natural and is bound to happen in a person’s life. Anxiety disorder, however, is constant and leads to overwhelming anxiety and fear.
If a person has a history of any of the anxiety disorders, the chances are that the anxiety might also take the form of separation anxiety in relationships. It’s like a gateway – the already present anxiety gives way to more anxiety unless there’s a timely intervention where one explores different ways to deal with relationship anxiety.
Signs of Separation Anxiety In Relationships
Now that we have some understanding of the causes of separation anxiety in relationships, let’s look into the signs of it. Sometimes, the signs can be subtle but then at times, they can be very apparent.
If you’re dating someone with separation anxiety, below are some of the signs of separation anxiety that you can look out for in your partner. If you’re trying to assess if you have separation anxiety or not, we hope this helps you in understanding yourself more.
1. Significant changes in mood when the partner isn’t around
This one is an apparent sign that can be seen when one partner experiences separation anxiety. When their partner leaves or is anticipated to leave, their mood usually changes significantly.
The mood swings from anger to helplessness to sadness. When there’s anger, several thoughts rush in, such as “HOW CAN YOU LEAVE ME ALONE FOR SO LONG?” Then come the thoughts associated with helplessness, “You left me alone, now what do I do?” And then kicks in the sadness, “I am lonely in my relationship.”
2. Excessive worry about losing the partner
As we discussed earlier, separation anxiety in couples is marked by excessive worry about losing their partner. “What if” becomes registered in their vocabulary of self-talk.
Janice shares, “At the peak of my separation anxiety, my mind goes into overdrive. What if he doesn’t come back? What if I’m left all alone? What if something happens to him while he’s away?” These are a few of the thoughts that occupy the mind of the partner experiencing separation anxiety.
Having repeated thoughts of losing your partner can be debilitating to your mental health, especially if you’re experiencing separation anxiety in long-distance relationships. LDRs are already really difficult for both the partners but when there is the element of separation anxiety present between the couple, it can get exceedingly overwhelming.
Related Reading: 18 Long-Distance Relationship Problems You Should Know
3. Unwillingness to leave the partner for even a short duration
With excessive worry regarding their partner leaving, the natural behavior that follows is trying to stop the partner from leaving. They wouldn’t want to leave their partner or would be unwilling to let their partner leave, even for a short duration.
Since this comes off as ‘ being clingy in a relationship’ or ‘needy’, there are a lot of external as well as internalized judgments that crop up which makes the whole experience even more difficult for someone who is experiencing separation anxiety in relationships.
4. Persistent fear of being alone
Behind all the unwillingness to leave their partner even for short amounts of time and all the insecurities are the core fear of being left behind, all alone. A partner who is experiencing separation anxiety in relationships is driven by this innate fear.
This fear can stem from past experiences where the person having separation anxiety in a relationship was rejected or abandoned. This can leave a huge mark on our belief system which would then tell us, “Being alone is not okay.” It would also induce new relationship anxiety while forming relationships.
No one wants to be alone. We all want someone’s presence around us to comfort us when we need it. But when the whole idea of being alone or away from your partner can drive you to a fearful state where you find yourself debilitated, it needs to be addressed.
5. Frequent nightmares about anticipated or actual separation from the partner
Nightmares are disturbing dreams that are associated with negative feelings of anxiety or fear that usually tend to wake you up from your sleep. Triggers for nightmares are usually psychological. They include anxiety, trauma, depressive mood, and more.
The fear or anxiety of their partner leaving can feel weakening to the person with separation anxiety in relationships, and this often comes out in the way of nightmares. This is indicative that the body is tired of running with anxiety.
How To Deal With Separation Anxiety In Relationships
Being someone who has separation anxiety or dating someone with separation anxiety can both be overwhelming experiences. As we already discussed, it can give rise to a plethora of emotions ranging from embarrassment to anger and shame in both partners.
However, as daunting as it might sound, it’s not to say that it’s a dead-end relationship. There are many ways to cope and address this in the relationship and we are here to help you through this.
Below are some evidence-based ways to deal with separation anxiety in relationships. In my practice as a counseling psychologist, I have seen these work for my clients, and so, here they are for you.
1. Name and accept your feelings
There’s no shame in naming and accepting the way you feel about a situation or a person. As Carl Jung had put it perfectly, “We cannot change anything until we accept it. Condemnation does not liberate, it oppresses.”
Get yourself a ‘feelings wheel’ and identify the emotions that you are feeling. Be it anger, shame, embarrassment, sadness, or helplessness. Once you know what feelings are surfacing for you, accept them.
Accepting feelings means that you allow yourself to feel your feelings for what they are without any judgment. Internal judgments, like Carl Jung mentioned, aren’t a way toward liberation, they’re a way toward oppressing yourself.
Related Reading: 11 Ways To Improve Communication In Relationships
2. Communicate, communicate, and communicate
I can’t stress enough how important honest conversations in a relationship are. Communicate your worries and fears with your partner, communicate how you feel when they leave, communicate how you deal with it, and how you want them to support you through it.
It’s okay if you are not sure about how you want your partner to support you, honest conversations will lead you both to discover that together. Clear pathways of communication only strengthen your bond with your partner and do not weaken it.
Again, it is okay to not know everything before you initiate the conversation, it is okay to explore together and discover one thing at a time. Taking it slow is okay and what you feel is okay.
3. Shift the focus – from your partner to yourself
With separation anxiety, there is always worry and fear around any of your partner’s actions that you can’t help but correlate with them leaving you. Your focus is completely on them. It is important to shift that focus from their activities to yours.
Discover things that you like to do, things that bring you joy, things that make you smile that beautiful smile. Practice mindfulness, make sure you get quality sleep, eat your meals on time, and get up and get some physical movement. Separation anxiety from your partner can be all-consuming, try redirecting all that energy toward yourself.
Self-care is very important in dealing with any kind of anxiety, especially separation anxiety. Be mindful of your feelings, your thoughts, and your actions. And don’t judge yourself. Maybe try meditation once? Or even journaling?
4. Seek professional help
When excessive worry and fear start affecting your daily functioning, it’s a good idea to approach a mental health professional. Mental health professionals are trained to take you through this journey of uneasiness and get you to the other side.
A couple of years ago, when Michael was going through separation anxiety from boyfriend, he realized that he needed help as it had started affecting their relationship. He says, “I had no idea that what I was going through was separation anxiety from boyfriend. I thought I was a bad person for wanting to stay close to my partner all the time, and that I was overreacting whenever I thought he’d leave me. My therapist helped me understand where these thoughts were stemming from and how to manage them.”
Even if the anxiety hasn’t started affecting your functioning, but you need help in navigating it, reach out to an MHP. Asking for help is a sign of strength, and you do have that strength – all of us do.
5. Be kind and compassionate to yourself
If you treat yourself with kindness and compassion, it makes you more likely to forgive yourself and pave the way for growth. This way, you learn and evolve into your best self. Being kind to yourself and learning how to love yourself is not a luxury, it’s a necessity.
You can be kind to yourself by using a kind tone of voice while addressing yourself or talking to yourself. But it’s more than just that. It’s also about being kind to how your body expresses your overwhelming or stressful emotions and then comforting your body for that.
When we experience separation anxiety in relationships, we judge ourselves a lot and somehow blame our emotions for the way things are going. During such times, if you are being harsh toward yourself, remind yourself to be kind.
How Separation Anxiety Impacts Adult Relationships
Separation anxiety, if left unaddressed, can cause a lot of friction in an adult relationship. Dylan says, “If I’d known ten years ago what I know now, I could have saved myself from the worst effects of separation anxiety in the teenage relationships I had.”
It’s important to identify what aspects of the relationship are affected in order to start working on them. There are emotional needs in a relationship that should be addressed but when there is separation anxiety in relationships, it becomes even more important for both the partners to make efforts toward working on the anxiety as it impacts a relationship substantially, if left unconsidered.
Below are a few of the many ways in which separation anxiety impacts adult relationships.
1. Affects the emotional health of both the partners
We have discussed before the amount of emotional turmoil a person experiencing separation anxiety in relationships goes through. The mood changes significantly, remember? But it’s not just the partner experiencing separation anxiety who goes through that turmoil, a lot of burns are taken by the other partner as well.
This could affect the mental health of both the partners. This might instigate feelings of distress for the one who sees that their anxious partner is unable to handle their worry and insecurities.
Related Reading: How To Deal With A Partner Who Makes You Feel Insecure
2. Might make the partners drift apart
Sometimes, separation anxiety in relationships causes partners to drift apart, especially if there is no communication between them about the same. The emotional turmoil that both the partners experience is one of the biggest reasons for this, and the isolation that the lack of communication brings with it.
Honest communication is important because it helps bring both partners together, especially if they are dealing with separation anxiety in long distance relationship. Physical interaction is already low, therefore, verbal communication needs to be honest and fulfilling.
3. Might give rise to insecurities
It’s a transfer of feelings. Imagine if your partner is anxious and insecure every time you leave or need your own space. It can get overwhelming for you, and the chances that you might develop those insecurities are high as well.
The only way to reduce the insecurities of both partners is through communication and honest conversations. Communicate as much as you can. If you feel the conversation isn’t going anywhere, take a time-out and then start from where you left off, but communicate your feelings respectfully, no matter what.
4. Might induce a lack of trust in the relationship
It’s only natural that excess fear of being left alone by your partner could lead to trust issues in the relationship. Excess insecurities aren’t good for any relationship for obvious reasons. It takes a toll on the mental health of the partner whose loved one is going through separation anxiety, and can create a lack of intimacy and trust.
This is especially the case when there is a lack of communication and the anxiety isn’t addressed. If you find that your relationship is starting to lack the desired trust, do reach out to your support system or a counselor for help.
5. Creates an unhealthy environment for the relationship
Insecurities and anxiety lead to an overall discord in a relationship. This creates an environment that isn’t very healthy for the partnership to grow. The anxiety might come off as being clingy or too controlling, and this might even give way to dishonesty and lies in the relationship.
Separation anxiety in relationships, if unaddressed, can impact the bond negatively. To avoid that, it’s important that we check in with our partners regularly to see what’s happening with them.
If you or someone you know is going through separation anxiety in relationships, it’s important to be kind and compassionate and to offer support by asking them to reach out to a mental health professional. This is so that they are not isolated in the process of getting through the anxiety.
Separation anxiety in relationships can be debilitating and might seem like a dead end – almost as if there’s no going back from there. But be assured that this doesn’t have to be the case. Through some mutual effort and consistent communication, things can turn around for the better and might even make your relationship stronger.
Being apart from your partner isn’t that great. But the distance doesn’t have to be all that bad. You can invest that time away from your partner in yourself. For a healthy relationship, looking after yourself is as important as looking after your partner.
Talking to a therapist or reaching out to a trusted friend or family member can make an enormous difference in dealing with separation anxiety in relationships.
While some amount of anxiety, uneasiness, and feelings of loneliness are natural and common when you are apart from your partner, if it becomes extremely distressing and the feelings spiral out of control, it’s a huge sign that this might require some attention.
These feelings of distress go beyond just missing your partner – they’re all-consuming and incapacitating at some level. This isn’t healthy for the person experiencing it and for the partner in the relationship.
Seek professional help when the separation anxiety in relationships becomes overwhelming. This is something you can navigate.
Remember we discussed anxious or insecure attachment styles? It is the fear that your partner will leave you unexpectedly. This attachment style has a role to play when you get anxious when your partner leaves.
It can also originate from past experiences such as the loss of an attachment figure, the experience of rejection or abandonment, or a previous relationship where your partner left without giving any reason or left out of the blue.
It may become very overwhelming for you to be anxious whenever your partner leaves, but know that you can reach out to a professional or talk to someone from your support system to help you with this.