It’s entirely normal to miss your partner when you’re apart, but if you experience severe anxiety or a deep sense of panic when they’re not with you, you may be dealing with separation anxiety.
Although separation anxiety is usually associated with children (or pandemic puppies), research shows that adults can, in fact, experience separation anxiety in their romantic relationships. So rest assured that you’re not alone in experiencing separation anxiety from your significant other.
But where do you draw the line between missing your partner when they’re on a business trip (or you’re in a long-distance relationship) and having full-on separation anxiety? And is separation anxiety always a sign that your relationship is unhealthy?
We asked an expert how to identify separation anxiety in relationships, and most importantly, how to cope with it.
Separation anxiety is when you experience an unusually strong fear or panic when being apart from a loved one, including a romantic partner.
“Separation anxiety generally involves fear of not being with your partner or losing your partner,” explains Erin Rayburn, a couples therapist and founder of Evergreen Therapy. “Separation anxiety is quite common. It does exist in most relationships but looks different depending on the kind of relationship.”
It’s important not to confuse separation anxiety with missing your partner. “Missing your partner is more of a longing to be with your partner but generally doesn’t include feelings of fear,” explains Rayburn.
“A common experience among loving partners is to miss one another when apart,” adds Terri Di Matteo, a professional marriage therapist at Open Door Therapy.
“Being away from a loved one can cause distress and anxiety — it’s common to miss one’s partner when apart and be reasonably concerned about their welfare. Separation anxiety, by contrast, can paralyze an individual’s inability to function while away from the partner. It can debilitate. Therefore, it’s not a healthy response.”
Separation anxiety isn’t necessarily an indication that there’s something wrong with your relationship. Rather, the causes of separation anxiety often stem from childhood.
“Generally it’s a normal developmental stage that occurs in toddlers and infants,” explains Rayburn. “However, some adolescents and young adults experience this and this can be related to trauma or attachment issues.”
Some research also suggests that separation anxiety is more common in people with other mental health issues, such as PTSD or panic disorders.
“Anxious attachment styles, post-traumatic stress disorder, panic disorder, complicated grief, and co-dependency are associated with separation anxiety,” adds Di Matteo.
“The most common cause of separation anxiety is a prior traumatizing life event connected to loss or separation,” she says. “For example, losing a parent or caregiver early in life could precede separation anxiety in adulthood.”
Separation anxiety in a relationship can manifest differently depending on the person or relationship.
“Partners who suffer separation anxiety may experience deep distress about being apart from their loved ones,” explains Di Matteo.
“They may excessively worry about their partner being harmed or lost to them. These thoughts aren’t based on reality and are often irrational. For example, they may worry about harm to their partner, such as that they lost to them in a disaster or an unusual illness — even though such events are unlikely. They may have nightmares about being separated from their partner or losing them.”
Some common signs of separation anxiety in relationships include:
Recurrent and excessive distress about anticipating or being away from home
Constant, excessive worry about losing your partner to an illness or a disaster
Constant worry that something bad will happen to your partner while you’re apart
Refusing to be away from your partner because of fear of separation
Reluctance or refusing to sleep away from home without a parent or other loved one nearby
Repeated nightmares about separation
Frequent complaints of physical symptoms (such as headaches or stomachaches) when separation from a partner is anticipated
“These symptoms can cause severe impairment in one’s day-to-day functioning,” says Di Matteo.
For some people, separation anxiety can be manageable, but for others, it can be debilitating and even impact their relationships. “Separation anxiety is something to pay attention to if it interferes with your everyday functioning and wellbeing,” says Rayburn.
“While missing loved ones and feeling some distress may be normal, If it is prolonged or causing trouble with everyday activities, seeking treatment is advised.”
Tell your partner how you feel. If you experience separation anxiety, the first step is recognizing the issue and communicating it with your partner. That way, you can ask your partner for the support you need. We know being vulnerable and honest with your partner is easier said than done, but it will bring you closer and ultimately benefit your relationship in the long run.
Journal your feelings. Journaling can be a useful tool to help you work through anxious feelings, rather than keeping them bottled up. Whether you journal daily, weekly, or when you’re away from your partner and are feeling particularly anxious, try putting pen to paper the next time you’re feeling panicked.
Practice mindfulness. Mindfulness can be beneficial not only to your overall mental health but to your relationship’s well-being as well.
Be kind to yourself. “Don’t beat yourself up for how you feel,” says Rayburn. Feelings of anxiety are common and they’re not a reflection of you or your relationship. And remember that feelings are temporary!
Have healthy distractions. Spend time with other friends and loved ones, cultivating your hobbies, or doing things that bring you joy. “The couple could share ideas about what kinds of tasks or interactions with others the anxious partner could engage in while apart,” says Di Matteo. “For example, perhaps the partner with separation anxiety could spend time with friends or family apart from their partner.”
Agree on a communication plan. Come up with a strategy for how to cope with these feelings with your partner in times of distance. If your partner is going on a business trip or on holiday with friends, they might not be available 24/7. Agree beforehand on how often and when you will check in with one another while you’re apart. “It could include proactively checking in and video chatting,” says Di Matteo. “Anything that keeps the pair connected while separated can help.”
Plan something for when you’ll see each other again. Put a date night in the diary for when you’ll be together again, so you have something fun to look forward to.
Seek support in therapy. If your separation anxiety becomes unmanageable or it’s affecting your relationship, consider reaching out to a qualified therapist for support.