Relationship Separation Anxiety: What’s Normal And When To Seek Help

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Separation anxiety in relationships manifests itself in various ways and may affect both partners. The term ‘separation anxiety’ is usually co-related with mothers and their young children when kept apart for some time. But that is not the only case. It is also common in man-woman relationships as well. And if it does, it can hamper your bond with your partner and strain the relationship. Irrespective of the cause, management of separation anxiety is possible if you understand more about it. Read on to know about this type of anxiety, how it affects relationships, and ways to deal with it.

What Is Separation Anxiety In A Relationship?

When an individual gets afraid at the prospect of being away from a specific person or a group of people and cannot control their worry, they may be suffering from separation anxiety. Children often have this anxious attachment style with their parents, and that could extend towards unhealthy adult attachment with their life partners.

Separation anxiety could cause extreme distress when an individual separates from someone they are emotionally attached to. The separation could be real or just perceived. But the impact, the fear, and worries they experience are tangible.

It is important to address relationship separation anxiety in time, otherwise, it can lead to more complications, such as agoraphobia. Separation anxiety is a vicious cycle in which anxiety in one partner may impair the relationship and create a lot of stress for the other. It could also result in functional and social impairment for both (1).

Is It Normal To Have Separation Anxiety In A Relationship?

Some degree of anxiety about separation in a relationship is normal. But when the individual exceeds the typical anxiety levels and exhibits an unusual amount of dread, it could be detrimental to the relationship. In such cases, the impact of the anxiety prevents the person from living comfortably and at ease. It may also result in certain behaviors that make it clear that they suffer from separation anxiety disorders. For example, the person may:

  • Have lack of independence in doing tasks on their own
  • Prefer to be excessively dependent on one or more people
  • Not traveler be away from home for long periods of time

When the anxiety hampers the relationship and encroaches upon the couple’s ability to maintain healthy lives as individuals, it becomes necessary to take a closer look.

What Are Relationship Separation Anxiety Symptoms?

A good way to gauge if your fears and worries indicate adult separation anxiety disorder is to match it with the common symptoms. Remember that there may be different levels of separation anxiety, with each showing one or more of these following signs in various degrees (2).

  • Intense emotional distress
  • Anxiety even after the period of separation is over, and they are together
  • Panic attacks that seem triggered by worry over staying away
  • Need constant reassurance from the person they are attached to that they will return or not leave
  • Fear of the partner being injured or killed whenever they are away
  • Excessive dependence upon the partner for all their needs
  • Discomfort, both physical and mental, when the partner leaves
  • An overwhelming sense of helplessness about the fear of being left alone
  • Irritability and inability to remain calm may result in insomnia
  • Trouble concentrating at work or on tasks when on their own

Other general symptoms of separation anxiety include nausea, headache, and a feeling of not being settled.

What Are The Causes Of Relationship Separation Anxiety?

Causes could vary from one person to another. Here are a few common ones

  1. Major life changes often trigger anxiety in adult relationships. It could be a change of jobs by either of the two, a change of location, the arrival of someone new to the house, or disagreements. Traumatic events like the loss of a loved one may also lead to separation anxiety.
  1. Those clinically diagnosed with childhood separation anxiety may be more prone to demonstrate anxiety behaviors in relationships during adulthood (3). Such individuals may find it difficult to build a secure attachment with confidence even in a positive relationship.
  1. It may be found that adults with separation anxiety have undiagnosed autism underlying the disorder. Often, this is missed because some of the symptoms of anxiety and autism spectrum disorders overlap (4).
  1. Relationship anxiety may also arise from previous relationships that did not end well or resulted in the individual discovering a partner’s infidelity. This undermines one’s ability to trust again and creates insecure styles of attachment in the current relationship.

How Is Separation Anxiety In A Long-Distance Relationship?

When one partner travels too far, it can put a strain on even the healthiest relationship. The worry and fear may start days before the actual separation and it can continue long after the partner has returned.

The anxiety in a long-distance relationship could be greater than the usual scenarios because the person is unaware of the future. There could be apprehensions, about a partner not returning, another love interest, a change in affection, etc.

Separation anxiety in a long-distance relationship can also manifest as:

  • Detached behavior to protect oneself
  • Anger
  • Guilt
  • Acting out
  • Jealousy

How To Deal With Separation Anxiety In A Relationship?

When one partner has separation anxiety, it needs to be acknowledged. Once that is done, work can be done so that the partners can build a healthy relationship underpinned by a secure attachment. Here is what you can do if you are suffering from separation anxiety:

  • Set guidelines for yourself so you don’t keep calling or texting your partner
  • Focus on other healthy relationships with family and friends
  • Focus on self-care with meditation, walks, exercise, spending time outdoors, or anything of your interest
  • Communicate your fears to your partner and find ways to mitigate them jointly
  • Schedule your critical tasks when you are away from your partner

On the other hand, be patient if you know that your partner is suffering from such anxiety in adult relationships. Show your consideration by letting them know any travel plans beforehand. Understand that they need time to learn how to let go.

When To Seek Help For Separation Anxiety?

Sometimes, a partner’s fear of abandonment or excessive worry can begin to erode an otherwise healthy relationship, and it may be impossible for the couple to sort it out themselves. You may seek professional help in the following situations.

  • The problem has persisted for more than half a year with no sign of abating
  • The worry and fear are affecting daily life or the relationship
  • Panic attacks are frequent
  • Anxiety has become a constant state of mind days before and after the separation

Talking to a counselor can help you understand how to deal with these feelings of anxiety in a healthy manner. Also, acknowledging the problem is the first big step towards resolving it and making your way towards a healthy and mutually beneficial relationship.

Key Pointers

  • Separation anxiety refers to the distress caused due to staying away from a person or persons.
  • It is mostly defined between children and their caregivers but may extend to adult partners as well.
  • It may be seen in long-distance relationships, and the ones affected should try to keep themselves engaged while maintaining healthy communication.
  • Couples can seek professional help if problems persist or aggravate.

References:

MomJunction's articles are written after analyzing the research works of expert authors and institutions. Our references consist of resources established by authorities in their respective fields. You can learn more about the authenticity of the information we present in our editorial policy.
  1. T I Zaider R G Heimberg and M Lida; Anxiety Disorders and Intimate Relationships: A Study of Daily Processes in Couples; NCBI;
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5177451/
  2. J Feriante; Separation Anxiety; University of Massachusetts Medical School;
    https://escholarship.umassmed.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=5605&context=oapubs
  3. B Milrod et al.; Childhood Separation Anxiety and the Pathogenesis and Treatment of Adult Anxiety (2014); American Journal of Psychiatry;
    https://ajp.psychiatryonline.org/doi/10.1176/appi.ajp.2013.13060781
  4. E Hollander and Elisabetta Burchi Anxiety in Autism Spectrum Disorder (2016); ADAA;
    https://adaa.org/learn-from-us/from-the-experts/blog-posts/consumer/anxiety-autism-spectrum-disorder
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Dr. Caroline Hexdall

(Ph.D.)
Caroline Hexdall, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in North Carolina who has supported the well-being of children, adolescents, parents and families in public university medical settings, public schools, private schools and in independent practice for over 20 years. She specializes in psychological services for individuals who are considered to be neurodiverse. Dr. Hexdall has, for the past 12 years, taught... more

Manjari Srivastava

Manjari Srivastava is a graduate of psychology. She also holds certificates in Basics In Clinical Psychology and Identifying Early Signs Of Psychosis In Adolescents And Young Adults.  Previously, she volunteered with an NGO specializing in positive psychology, where she took up individual counseling sessions for students. She also taught English to underprivileged children and helped them with their studies. At MomJunction,... more