Spending time apart can be tough in any loving relationship. It’s normal to feel some loneliness and unease as you go about your days longing for your partner’s return.
But when worry, nervousness, and other emotional turmoil becomes overwhelming enough that it begins to affect your well-being and disrupt daily life, you could be dealing with separation anxiety from your partner.
In the past, experts considered separation anxiety disorder a childhood mental health condition that stemmed from fears of abandonment. Earlier editions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) required that symptoms begin before the age of 18 — so you couldn’t be diagnosed with separation anxiety in adulthood.
Our guide below offers more insight on separation anxiety in relationships, along with some guidance on navigating those worries productively.
You can generally recognize relationship separation anxiety by one key sign: a feeling of extreme or unbearable distress at the thought of being separated from your romantic partner.
“This uneasiness goes beyond simply missing a partner,” explains Vicki Botnick, a marriage and family therapist in Tarzana, California. “It might involve some deeper apprehension that you can’t survive without them or fears they’ll be hurt and you’ll lose them forever.”
More specifically, this type of separation anxiety will involve some of the following symptoms:
- frequent and persistent worries about your partner experiencing an injury, accident, death, or anything else that leads to separation
- frequent and persistent worries that you might face some type of harm that keeps you from them
- fear and unease when traveling without them
- discomfort and distress when they leave
- a need to know where they are, and when they’ll return, whenever you’re apart
- difficulty sleeping without them
- difficulty concentrating at work or school because you can’t stop thinking about whether they’re safe
- persistent or overwhelming fears that they’ll abandon you or end the relationship
- general restlessness and irritability
You might also experience physical anxiety symptoms, including stomach distress, headaches, or sleep problems, during your time apart or when worrying about an upcoming separation.
Plenty of different factors can contribute to relationship separation anxiety.
Childhood attachment issues
Attachment, in the context of psychology, refers to the bond that forms between you and your childhood caregivers.
If you learned you could trust your parents or other guardians to take care of your needs, you most likely developed a secure attachment.
Inconsistent love and support, on the other hand, can lead to insecure attachment. Anxious attachment, one type of insecure attachment, has a lot in common with relationship separation anxiety.
If you have an anxious attachment style, you might:
- worry about your partner leaving you
- need a lot of reassurance to believe they really love you
- find it difficult to spend time alone
- depend on them to meet most of your needs
It’s also worth noting that a childhood diagnosis of separation anxiety disorder could increase your chances of experiencing separation anxiety in adult relationships.
Life stress or unwelcome changes
In some cases, separation anxiety might develop after a significant loss.
Surviving a disaster or traumatic event can also prompt some unwanted familiarity with life’s transience. If your partner faced a dangerous situation, you might begin to feel terrified over what might happen the next time you’re apart.
Spending a year in tight quarters during pandemic lockdowns can also prompt anxiety as you slowly begin to resume a more independent schedule. You probably got pretty used to each other’s company, however difficult that adjustment may have felt at first, and the sudden increase in alone time might feel uncomfortable.
Leaving home for the first time can also cause some stress, Botnick points out. Whether you move out to live alone or with a partner, you might feel unaccustomed to your new independence and anxious about being on your own.
Cultural factors can also play a part in separation anxiety, Botnick notes. If your culture considers autonomy unusual or unsafe, you might feel anxious when doing things without your partner.
Even more positive aspects of your relationship can contribute to feelings of anxiety. Maybe you’ve always had a fantastically close relationship and your life circumstances have allowed you to spend most of your time together.
If one of you suddenly has to spend more time away from home, Botnick goes on to explain, you might need some time to find your footing as you adjust to preparing meals, going to bed, or caring for children alone.
While not technically considered a mental health condition, codependence can also cause plenty of emotional distress, including symptoms of separation anxiety.
In a codependent relationship, you might put your partner’s needs first, have more concern for their well-being than for yours, and even believe you know what’s best for them. Eventually, you might become so intertwined that you find it difficult to remember that you are, in fact, two different people.
“When people lose their sense of who they are, separate from their loved one, they’re more likely to have a hard time functioning alone,” Botnick says.
Maybe you’ve always found it challenging to be without your partner. Or perhaps separation anxiety is a new experience for you, one that leaves you wondering how to rekindle your desire for your own company.
In either scenario, these strategies can help.
Limit your check-ins
Separation anxiety can leave you with the urge to call, text, or message your partner frequently.
There’s nothing wrong with keeping in touch throughout the day. But when you spend all your time worrying about them, you’ll have less mental energy to spare for yourself. This can affect your concentration and create challenges in your own daily routine. Not to mention, frequent texts might overwhelm them.
Create some space by giving yourself some guidelines. Maybe you text them during your morning break and give them a quick call during lunch, for example. Otherwise, set your phone aside and turn your attention to your own day.
If worries continue to pop up, acknowledge them and then let them float on by. Refusing to engage with these thoughts can help weaken their hold.
Create new routines
Separation anxiety can develop after major life changes when you fear losing the closeness you and your partner currently share.
One solution? Make a dedicated effort to build time for quality connection into each day.
It’s absolutely healthy to spend some time apart, but you can’t maintain a strong, healthy relationship unless you spend time together, too.
Bonding time can look a little different, depending on your unique situation.
Try these ideas:
- Share one meal every day.
- Make a habit of going to bed at the same time.
- Reserve one day of the week to spend time together.
- Reconnect with an evening walk.
- Schedule a nightly video chat or telephone call.
Share your worries
Good communication isn’t a relationship cure-all, but it can go a long way toward easing different types of relationship distress.
When you avoid discussing emotional distress, those feelings often intensify.
Even just explaining what you’re feeling and how you’re trying to work through it can help. Your partner may not understand where your fears are coming from, but they can still listen, validate your feelings, and offer emotional support.
It’s also possible they’ve experienced some similar anxieties and wondered how to share those feelings with you, so an open conversation could make a difference for you both.
Focus on your needs
Tending to your emotional and physical needs won’t automatically make your worries disappear, but it can help you manage them more successfully.
When you catch yourself stuck in a loop of worry, consider whether you’re making enough time for:
- quality sleep
- physical activity
- regular meals
- relaxation and hobbies
- friends and loved ones besides your partner
Self-care can involve pretty much anything you do to support your own well-being, so you might consider:
- trying meditation and other mindfulness practices, on your own or using apps
- jotting down your fears in a journal
- working to get more comfortable with unwanted emotions
- taking a walk when you feel overwhelmed
Get used to separation gradually
Graduated exposure, a tactic often used in anxiety treatment, can help you slowly acclimate yourself to whatever triggers your anxiety.
Experiencing separation in bite-sized steps can help you adjust as you slowly work your way up to spending a few days (or more) apart. You might feel a little more secure each time your partner comes home safely, as the evidence stacks up in favor of their continued return to you.
If symptoms of separation anxiety last for 6 months or longer, a mental health professional may diagnose separation anxiety disorder — but you don’t have to wait that long to reach out.
Botnick recommends connecting with a therapist if:
- emotional distress begins to affect daily life and personal relationships
- you have panic attacks
- you feel anxious and distressed days before the separation
- anxiety persists even after your reunion
Therapy provides a safe space to explore feelings of anxiety, on your own or with your partner. Helpful approaches might include:
- cognitive behavioral therapy, an approach that helps you examine, challenge, and replace distorted thoughts
- gradual exposure or systematic desensitization
- meditation and mindfulness practices
A couples counselor can offer guidance with strengthening communication skills and exploring any existing concerns, from your current relationship or a previous one, that might play a part in separation anxiety.
As it turns out, the sorrow of parting isn’t really all that sweet.
Yet even when time apart from your partner is the last thing you want, a brief separation could help you grow even closer. After all, you might treasure your bond all the more when you reconnect.
If you still struggle with worries over abandonment or your partner’s safety, a therapist can help you explore solutions to feel secure, connected, and comfortable on your own.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.