Yes, separation anxiety can happen in relationships, too. Here’s why it does and how to deal with it.
When you hear the term “separation anxiety,” it’s likely that the first thing that comes to mind is the relationship between a parent (or other caretaker) and a young child, or, if you’re a pet parent, the situation with your puppy when you leave the house. But here’s the thing: people who are in a relationship are just as likely to have separation anxiety with their partner. Surprised? I didn’t believe that. All of this comes down to attachment. How you relate to and feel about your caretaker(s) as a child affects how you relate to and feel about your romantic partner(s) as an adult.
But in a relationship, where is the line between missing your partner and having full-blown separation anxiety? And does it mean that things are always unhealthy? Here’s how it works.
What Is Separation Anxiety in a Relationship?
When a person is in a relationship, separation anxiety is when they feel real fear, anxiety, or panic when they are away from their partner. It’s an unusually strong fear or anxiety of being apart from a partner or someone else to whom you feel very close.
In some cases, a person’s separation anxiety may be bad enough to be diagnosed with separation anxiety disorder. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), a guide for assessing and diagnosing mental disorders, separation anxiety disorder is “developmentally inappropriate and excessive fear or anxiety about being apart from those to whom the person is attached.” But not everyone who has separation anxiety in a relationship will meet all of these diagnostic criteria. Like anything else, separation anxiety in a relationship can look different from couple to couple and person to person. It’s not a straight line, and it can be very severe or not so bad.
If you think you might have relationship separation anxiety, it doesn’t mean you or your relationship are broken. Most of what people do in relationships comes from things that happened to them as kids, traumas they went through, or unmet needs. One of the most important first steps is to be aware of it and learn how to talk about it.
Difference between Separation Anxiety and Missing Your Partner
It’s important to remember that relationship separation anxiety is very different from just missing your partner. Most of the time, missing your partner doesn’t come from fear or worry about being apart from them, like separation anxiety does. Missing your partner is more like a feeling of longing and love, while separation anxiety can make you feel like you can’t breathe.
So, how do you know which is which? Try to pay close attention to your feelings and figure out what they are and where they come from. (To do this, try using a “wheel of emotions.”) Meaning, if you feel afraid, why do you feel afraid? Are you afraid for your partner’s safety? Your protection? Being alone? It’s very helpful to be able to name your feelings and figure out why they make you feel the way they do. This helps you break them down, which in turn helps you take steps to get what you need or want.
Codependency vs. Separation Anxiety
Codependency is when you depend too much on your partner’s feelings and the role you play in their life. This is different from the panic that people often feel when they are worried about leaving a relationship. But both can easily come from an underlying fear of being left alone. This fear develops when your attachment style does (usually between 7 and 11 months of age), and it may have been caused by being left alone as a child or in a previous relationship. Not everyone who has relationship separation anxiety is codependent, and not everyone who is codependent has relationship separation anxiety. However, these two things can be signs of each other.
For example, codependency can also come from a place of fear, but it can look different than the fear that comes with separation anxiety. Someone who is codependent probably worries about losing their role in their partner’s life and not being needed. On the other hand, relationship separation anxiety can come from a fear of being alone, dumped, rejected, or even of your partner finding someone they “want to be with more.” (See also: 7 Signs You May Be in a Bad Relationship)
Separation anxiety and different types of attachment
As was already said, people with certain types of anxious attachment might be more likely to have separation anxiety. People who aren’t in a relationship can also have relationship separation anxiety, which is a good sign to watch out for. For example, most people with a secure attachment style don’t get anxious when a relationship ends, while people with an anxious attachment style tend to act anxiously because they’re afraid that the person they love will leave them. In more serious cases, this could show up as anxiety about being apart from a partner.
Is it bad for a relationship to have separation anxiety?
Yes, separation anxiety can be bad for your health. And it probably comes from fears that need to be looked at and thought about. If you don’t deal with past traumas, you might act in unhealthy ways. (See: 5 Steps to Dealing with Trauma, from a Therapist Who Helps First Responders)
But it’s important to remember that whatever your brain does automatically isn’t “your fault” or a sign that something is “wrong with you.” Your brain is full of chemicals, response signals, and warning signs that are meant to keep you safe when you think you might be in danger. Whether or not you are really in danger depends on what your body remembers and how it decides to act. Have you ever been sitting at your desk but felt like you were in the woods trying to outrun a bear? The point is that it’s not bad or embarrassing to react this way; it just means your body is doing its job and trying to keep you safe. Even if there isn’t a real bear in the woods, you can learn ways to reassure your body that everything is fine and safe.
All of this is to remind you that “unhealthy” doesn’t have to be a “dirty” word. It can be a helpful word that means there is room for improvement.
COVID and Separation Anxiety in Relationships
Many people who have been in relationships in the last year and a half have probably been quarantined with their partner(s) at some point, or at least had little contact with other important relationships. As a result, their spouses or partners have become the person they see the most often. During “normal” times, when there isn’t a pandemic, most people spend time with other people, get out of the house at least once a day, and do other things, even if it’s just going to work.
But that wasn’t true for most people during lockdown. Because of the way the world is, if you and your partner both worked from home, you probably became closer than ever before. Also, the coronavirus might make you worry about your partner in ways you never did before.
Many people got used to having their romantic partners around all the time, which could make them feel anxious when they leave. Again, this is just how your brain works and is neither good nor bad.
If you think you’re having separation anxiety in your relationship…
If you’re reading this and it sounds like some of the things you go through, you should talk to someone about it. Get it out of the dark shame space and into the light, whether it’s about your partner or a friend. When you keep something inside, it seems to get worse and can cause other problems. When you talk about these feelings with a friend, lover, or therapist, you let go of any shame and get support.
If you want to go even deeper, I suggest you talk to your therapist or start therapy to start breaking things down even more. Your body is really good at trying to keep you safe. Most of the time, all you need to do is figure out why it’s trying to keep you safe and give your body a break. Here are some tips:
Remember that everything is fine. If you start to feel this kind of anxiety, tell yourself that you and your partner are safe, that you are fine, and that it’s okay to feel this way.
Be kind to yourself. Don’t add to your own stress by feeling bad about how you feel. Be kind to yourself and let yourself feel what you feel.
Talk: It’s not embarrassing to talk about what you’re going through; it’s very brave.
Journal: This is like talking out loud, but in writing. You can write down your ideas and feelings and get them out of your head.
Call someone: It’s very important to self-soothe and deal with problems in a healthy way to feel connected and heard. Just make sure you choose a friend who will listen without passing judgment and who you know you can trust.
Take a walk. Moving your body and seeing something new can do a lot for your mood. When you feel stuck, you may sit still or lie down, which keeps you and your mind still. But when you can move your body, you can start to move your thoughts and feelings around, which can help you see things more clearly.