Experiencing separation anxiety, particularly in terms of a relationship, can be pretty tough to navigate. In episode 261, I received a question from a listener who continues to struggle with separation anxiety, especially when their partner goes away to work. In this post, I dive into the realm of separation anxiety and take a look at some tools and tips you can use to help move forward.
I recently started listening to your podcast and it finally pushed me to seek out therapy that I start Monday (thanks).
Besides that, I have a question about anxiety attachment and separation anxiety in adults. My partner goes away a few weeks at a time 2-3 times a year and I join him part way through. But when he is away I get crippling anxiety about how he feels that he will decide to leave me while away ect. Since spending the last 1 year couped up together this has now even spread to when he is out without me. I must note that I came to the realisation that this has affected me in all relationships.
I know that these feelings are irrational and that it’s unsustainable for me to keep getting sucked into make-believe situations. So my question is do you have tips in managing this and should I talk to my partner about the issues I have?
Thank you for listening and awesome job getting yourself into some therapy! I know it’s not easy to take that leap, so I am super proud of you for doing it.
What you’re describing is a fairly common issue that many experience to differing extents. I also understand how this could be exacerbated by spending so much time together during covid. You get used to a certain routine and security. I think that one of the things that this type of anxiety leads to is checking behaviors. Texting, calling, or seeing him in person to make sure that things are still good between you. When you are living together and spending almost all the time together, that checking is built-in. You are basically getting used to being constantly reassured that everything is okay between you. And if something isn’t okay between you, you are more likely to find out right away and you can do something about it.
So what can you do about it?
I think that it IS definitely worth doing something about this because this kind of anxiety can certainly impact the quality of relationships. The first thing to do is probably to reveal that you get this way (if you have not already) and have an honest conversation about whether there is any good reason for you to be feeling this way. You might say, “Babe. I’ve always kind of been this way, but since we’ve been spending so much time together over the past year, it’s gotten even worse. Every time you are gone, I get these thoughts that you might leave me or realize that you don’t want to be with me anymore. I feel like it’s irrational, but I just want to be sure. Am I picking up on something here? Are we doing alright or is there anything that you need to talk with me about?”
If you can get some reassurance that things are okay as they stand, then you can use that as your intellectual fuel. What I mean by that is your feelings are going to tell you all kinds of crazy shit, but if you are resolving to improve this aspect, you will need to start trusting what you intellectually know vs what your anxiety is trying to tell you.
Exposure and response prevention
A little bit of exposure and response prevention is probably called for here. If you are engaging in the checking behaviors of trying to make sure you know where he is, finding out when he’s going to come home, texting to check-in etc. That is something that you will want to try to resist the urge do to. Rather than checking, you could pull out your journal and write down the thoughts and feelings you are having about the situation. If you never get out on your own, you might want to start doing a bit of that too. Actually allowing yourselves to be two separate people with independent lives that have chosen to be together.
You can also intentionally invite more opportunities for you to be a part. You don’t need to spend a TON of time away from one another because I’m assuming you do actually like each other. But don’t shy away from things that come up. Whether that be a trip to the store, getting coffee with a friend, or a short trip. When you feel resistance, recognize it, but say yes to the opportunity because it’s another chance to practice building a tolerance for those negative feelings and anxiety that creep in. You are allowed to be concerned. You are allowed to be afraid. You are allowed to have doubts. What we don’t want to happen is for that to impact the way that you treat your partner or for that to cause you such extreme distress that it controls your behavior.
Some basic CBT anxiety skills would be great here as well. Obviously, I have some resources for this. But it sounds like there are definitely some automatic thoughts and assumptions that are popping in that may be somewhat irrational. These are driving you to feel negatively, which I assume is impacting your behavior. These are things that can be challenged and worked with or without the help of a professional therapist.
Talk to your partner
You may also take these concerns and de-brief with your partner after he returns. The quality of your relationship also matters here. It makes more sense to be insecure if things aren’t going very well or you don’t feel very close. This could be a prompt for you to allow more freedom and at the same time, also make more efforts to connect and improve the quality of the relationship. If you have needs, you are also allowed to let your partner know. For instance, if he understands that it is difficult for you to feel okay and function while he is gone, he might make some efforts to show you extra love upon his return.
Hopefully, those give you some ideas of how to go about working on this. I think that you should pay attention to it and probably talk about it because if it is left unaddressed, you might end up acting strangely toward him and he won’t have the context that he needs to really understand why you are behaving that way. In the absence of a good explanation, he might be left to conclude that it is actually you that is having problems with the relationship or something like that.
You can listen to this on Episode 261 of the podcast!
Thank you for the great question!
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