Coping With Separation Anxiety in Relationships

young people sitting on a staircase

stock-eye/E+/Getty

Table of Contents
View All
Table of Contents

What Is Separation Anxiety?

Separation anxiety is the fear of being separated from loved ones or people who we perceive to be a source of safety and connection, says Jesse Hanson, PhD, founder of the private practice Hanson Healing and advisor at Rehab.com.

It’s worth noting that it’s normal for anyone to feel some loneliness and uneasiness about being away from loved ones, but when it feels out of control or causes a lot of distress, it’s a sign that it requires attention, says David Klemanski, PsyD, MPH, a psychologist at Yale Medicine.

This article explores the characteristics and causes of separation anxiety, its impact on relationships, and strategies to help you deal with it.

Characteristics of Separation Anxiety

These are some of the characteristics of separation anxiety, according to Klemanski:

  • It is typically recurrent: As a disorder, separation anxiety is typically recurrent and manifests as excessive distress when anticipating or experiencing separation. It can cause persistent and excessive worry about losing someone through harm, illness, injury, accident, abandonment, etc.
  • It functions on a spectrum: Separation anxiety functions on a spectrum in the sense that some may have some mild symptoms of it whereas others might experience a great deal of anxiety and distress.
  • It is more common in children: Separation anxiety disorder is more common in children, but adolescents and adults may also experience it when they are away from children, partners, or other family members. Mental healthcare providers typically look for signs that the anxiety is not in accordance with one’s development. For example, they might expect a toddler to exhibit some signs of separation anxiety, but they would not expect to see many of these signs in an adolescent or older adult without good reason.

Causes of Separation Anxiety

Separation anxiety most often affects those who exhibit insecure attachment style, says Hanson.

These are some of the causes of separation anxiety, according to Klemanski:

  • Hereditary factors: Separation anxiety has a heritable component and there is a correlation between parents who have anxiety and higher levels of separation anxiety in children.
  • Environmental factors: Some environmental factors might also play a role, such as parental loss (due to separation, divorce, or death, for instance), highly chaotic or stressful homes, extended parental absences (due to military deployment, incarceration, or abandonment, for instance), parental conflict, etc.
  • Anxiety disorders: Having a diagnosis of another anxiety disorder, such as generalized anxiety or social anxiety, can be a risk factor for separation anxiety.

Separation anxiety manifests more in some relationships than others. For instance, you may be more likely to experience this form of anxiety in a relationship with a romantic partner than with a friend or acquaintance. Hanson explains why below.

Separation Anxiety in Relationships

Typically, a relationship is being created in the spirit of cultivating a family. When we get into an intimate relationship and start to be vulnerable, it brings up deeper parts of the self which are younger, closer to our earliest experience of family.

When we are vulnerable with someone in a relationship, we start to see our partner as a source of connection, safety, and familiarity. And because of these stronger feelings, we fear losing this relationship to the point of developing separation anxiety, especially if we were raised in a family that unconsciously propagates insecure attachment styles.

In other relationships, we may develop a connection or friendship with a neighbor or store clerk for instance, but we don’t activate a vulnerability that could lead to separation anxiety, so we don’t fear losing the connection we have with that friend or acquaintance.

Impact of Separation Anxiety

David Klemanski, PsyD, MPH

The effects of separation anxiety on one’s mental health will vary from person to person depending on the severity or extent of anxiety caused by separation.

— David Klemanski, PsyD, MPH

Separation anxiety can cause a wide range of symptoms and take a toll on your mental health as well as your relationships.

Symptoms of Separation Anxiety

Klemanski lists some of the symptoms of separation anxiety:

  • Physical symptoms: In some people, separation anxiety can cause symptoms like rapid heartbeat, tingling in the limbs, or an anxious feeling overall.
  • Behavioral and cognitive symptoms: Separation anxiety can cause significant changes in mood (such as worsening anxiety or depression), concentration, decision-making, or even eating or sleeping. 
  • Functional problems: Separation anxiety can also cause some people to have functional problems, such as avoiding leaving the house, difficulty at work or school, or turning to substances to cope. 

Below, Hanson outlines some of the effects of separation anxiety.

Impact on Mental Health

Living in a state of fear causes us to be more reactive and make decisions from a place of fear or a place of not wanting to lose someone or something.

We therefore make decisions that aren't usually from our heart, they're more from our head, reacting to an imaginary negative outcome of the future. This state of being greatly affects our mental health, because it's harder for us to experience joy and secure connection and attachment.

Impact on Relationships

In any relationship, the more vulnerable we become, the more we deepen the experience of connection with a partner and the more afraid we are to lose them. 

Jesse Hanson, PhD

For those who experience separation anxiety, fear will guide them more towards trying to be possessive, controlling, or jealous.

— Jesse Hanson, PhD

But in a healthy relationship, when we let go and learn how to build trust and love, we are less likely to be caught in separation anxiety. This is known as interdependence—the ability to be autonomous and still be deeply connected with another person.

Coping With Separation Anxiety in Relationships

Klemanski and Hanson share some strategies that can help you cope with separation anxiety in relationships:

  • Recognize the signs: First, it’s important to recognize the signs of separation anxiety by talking with trusted family, partners, friends, or professionals, says Klemanski.
  • Admit and accept it: People who can identify with separation anxiety need to do their best to recognize this as not just separation anxiety, but as a deep fear of letting go of loved ones. Being able to admit this or work to accept it can be very helpful, says Hanson.
  • Observe healthy relationships: “It can be useful to observe healthy, interdependent relationships. These examples give the brain-body a template of how a relationship can be, as opposed to only understanding co-dependent, insecurely-attached relationships,” says Hanson.
  • Believe in your own capabilities: Klemanski says it’s important to keep in mind that separation anxiety is temporary and can be eased by being mindful about your own capabilities–if you are apart from your partner, remind yourself that you’ve handled this before and that the reunion with your partner will be extra special. Meanwhile, he recommends seeking ways to meaningfully occupy your time.
  • Try yoga and meditation: Hanson suggests physical and mental exercise routines like yoga and meditation, to help you combat anxiety.
  • Seek therapy: Professional treatment in the form of psychotherapy could be a useful option to explore in addition to developing a plan to increase communication with partners and other family members, says Klemanski. He says cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can be helpful for reframing cognitive biases or learning to relax when the anxiety ramps up.

A Word From Verywell

Separation anxiety can make it difficult for you to be apart from your loved ones, your partner in particular. It can cause a wide range of symptoms and take a toll on your mental health as well as your relationships. 

Practicing yoga and meditation and keeping yourself meaningfully occupied can help you control your anxiety. However, understanding why these symptoms exist and addressing the deeper layers—including processing any unresolved trauma—will ultimately be the way to truly heal from separation anxiety, says Hanson.

“This phenomenon is referred to as 'earned secure attachment.' In other words, you have to work for it, and earn it; but once you do, life, love, and relationships become so much more enjoyable,” says Hanson.

Was this page helpful?