Understanding and treating separation anxiety in relationships

Separation anxiety is a set of symptoms characterized by intense anxiety when separated from a support system or loved one. If symptoms are intense enough and begin to interfere with one’s daily life, it can be a sign of a deeper issue called separation anxiety disorder — a disorder with the same symptoms but with higher intensity and impact.

Though separation anxiety usually occurs in children, it can also appear in adults, due to a number of factors. Learn more about what separation anxiety looks like, and the impact it can have in relationships.

What Is Separation Anxiety?

Separation anxiety usually occurs in children, and happens when a child feels they do not have access to their caregiver(s) — their safety net, if you will. Children usually rely on their parents to be a safe environment for them, allowing them to explore their world and return when their anxiety becomes too much or they begin to feel overwhelmed. 

Separation anxiety is relatively normal in young children. It often goes away when a child starts attending school or daycare full time at around age 3 to kindergarten, as they become accustomed to being away from their guardians for longer and longer periods. 

Separation anxiety can become an issue when a child doesn’t learn to feel comfortable away from their parents or caregivers in a developmentally appropriate timeframe, meaning that they are overly reliant on their parents as their safety net. Instead of making new social networks and safe groups for them to exist in, they resist branching out, feeling intense anxiety when separated from their guardians.

Aside from children, separation anxiety can also occur in adults, though less frequently. In adults, the person worries about their loved one very intensely and in a disproportionate manner that impairs or limits their ability to navigate their lives effectively. It is hypothesized that it occurs in adults who have an insecure attachment style. This can also occur as a result of trauma, such as losing a loved one.

Separation anxiety happens when one feels intense anxiety about being separated from a loved one.

When Is Separation Anxiety the Worst?

Separation anxiety will often feel the worst for people for reasons unique to them and their lives. In general, though, separation anxiety will be at its worst at the initial moment that the anxiety is felt. Once an individual feels the initial spike of anxiety, such as when a person they love has to leave or is not around them, it will often gradually decline (though it may remain intense).

Why Do I Feel Anxious When I'm Away from My Partner?

Every relationship is different, and there are multiple reasons you might feel anxious when away from your partner. Again, some of this is normal. It is normal to miss one’s partner when you’ve been away from them for an extended period of time, such as the partner being out of town due to a training or a trip. 

Maybe you are naturally anxious and you worry about those who are important to you. It is also possible that you may have an ambivalent or disorganized attachment style due to past experiences with family members (typically a parent). As children, the styles of attachment that we see — especially with our main caregivers — are considered to be normal, so if your parents had a dysfunctional or unhealthy relationship, there may be patterns or beliefs that you need to examine with the help of a mental health professional that may be having a negative impact on you and your relationship. 

There may also be a lack of trust or healthy communication within your relationship, causing you to feel anxious when they’re away and you don’t know what they’re doing. Traumatic events can also cause separation anxiety in children and adults. Trauma like the loss of a loved one or a partner having a health emergency can make it difficult for people to spend time away from their loved one, even just for a few hours.

Every relationship is different, and there are multiple reasons you might feel anxious when away from your partner. Again, some of this is normal. It is normal to miss one’s partner when you’ve been away from them for an extended period of time, such as the partner being out of town due to a training or a trip. 

Maybe you are naturally anxious and you worry about those who are important to you. It is also possible that you may have an ambivalent or disorganized attachment style due to past experiences with family members (typically a parent). As children, the styles of attachment that we see — especially with our main caregivers — are considered to be normal, so if your parents had a dysfunctional or unhealthy relationship, there may be patterns or beliefs that you need to examine with the help of a mental health professional that may be having a negative impact on you and your relationship. 

There may also be a lack of trust or healthy communication within your relationship, causing you to feel anxious when they’re away and you don’t know what they’re doing. Traumatic events can also cause separation anxiety in children and adults. Trauma like the loss of a loved one or a partner having a health emergency can make it difficult for people to spend time away from their loved one, even just for a few hours.

Types of Separation Anxiety

There are not multiple types of separation anxiety. However, separation anxiety can vary in the level of intensity, as well as have different triggers. For some, separation anxiety might come up when a loved one has to go on a trip without them. For others with more intense separation anxiety, though, they might not feel comfortable being apart from their loved one for more than a few hours — even a few minutes.

Is Separation Anxiety Normal in a Relationship?

Some degree of separation anxiety is normal. It is normal to miss your partner when one is away. It becomes an issue when that worry starts to consume your time and energy, making it difficult to function in your daily life.  

If you are having a hard time being away from a partner or family member, consider speaking with a mental health professional about your anxieties. They can help you assess where your feelings are coming from, then find strategies to help you overcome your anxiety.

What Triggers Separation Anxiety?

The exact situation that triggers the anxiety will vary by person. For the most part, the general trigger will be when they notice the person they’re worried about isn’t around. Most individuals will probably find that it triggers when the person leaves home whether that’s going to work or to school. Or it might be when they are out of town due to a trip. In severe cases, it could be caused when the person leaves the room.

Separation anxiety can also develop for a number of reasons. Common factors that can cause separation anxiety to develop include: 

Can Separation Anxiety Be Attached to Certain Attachment Styles?

Separation anxiety can be related to those with disordered attachment style, and some research has shown a connection between ambivalent attachment and separation anxiety. 

There are 4 attachment styles: 

  • Secure: This is considered to be the “healthy” style, as the person feels secure in the relationship and is okay with being away from caregivers, family, and friends. 
  • Anxious: The person is ambivalent about the relationship and looks at others in a distrustful manner. Some consider this to be a slow-to-warm-up style of attachment.
  • Avoidant: The person avoids connecting with others, often due to inconsistent care and connection in the past.
  • Disordered: There’s no clear pattern to how the person responds to their relationships. They might be okay one day, but be ambivalent or completely disinterested the next. 

Attachment styles are not static; they are dynamic. It is important to remember that those who have “unhealthy” attachment styles (i.e. anxious, avoidant, disordered) may want to connect with others, but may not be certain of how to accomplish this in a healthy way. However, this is a skill that can be learned over time. 

How Do You Live With Someone With Separation Anxiety?

Living with someone who copes with separation anxiety can be difficult, as they may constantly need assurance that everything is okay, often through knowing where their loved one(s) is and being around them. 

The first thing to do is to try to understand your partner’s anxiety and what triggers it. Work with them to identify where their anxiety is coming from, then go through the counter-evidence to dispute the negative thinking. Try finding compromises on how much time you spend around each other to help them learn how to challenge their anxieties in a way that sets them up for success. Establishing healthy boundaries between the two of you can be a great step in this process.

Focus on the wins that you and your partner have made, no matter how small. Your partner will likely benefit from therapy and potentially medication management, depending on what the underlying cause of their anxiety is and how severe their symptoms are. Ultimately, you will need to care for yourself as well. There is no shame in practicing self-care — which includes healthy boundary-setting. If you do not have the time or energy to care for yourself, you will not have the energy to fully support the people who are important to you — including your loved one with separation anxiety.

Want to talk to a therapist?

Start working with one of our top-rated providers. We have availability now and accept most major insurances.

How Do I Stop Separation Anxiety in My Relationship?

Stopping separation anxiety in a relationship is a process, as it will not be done overnight. If you’re the one with separation anxiety, considered seeking help from a mental health professional to help you manage your symptoms and adjust your attachment style. 

If your partner or loved one has separation anxiety, make sure to take care of yourself. See an individual and/or couples therapist, and work to establish firm, healthy boundaries that protect your well-being.

Coping Strategies for Individuals with Separation Anxiety

Common coping strategies for people with separation anxiety include:

  • Grounding techniques: Decrease anxious thoughts by replacing them with neutral information, such as identifying things around you based upon the senses or naming your favorite streets (example: 333 rule)
  • Coping thoughts: Tell yourself statements, like a kind of mantra, to help calm yourself down (example: “It’s okay to be worried about my family, I’m going to focus on something else;” “I can change my thoughts”)
  • Breathing techniques: One of the most common is inhaling for four seconds, holding for 7, exhaling for 8, and then repeating it multiple times until you start to feel calm.
  • Engage your senses: Make yourself a cold drink or a hot drink and then slow yourself down and focus on drinking your drink, feeling the sensation of the temperature.
  • Distraction: Focus on something else, like playing a game, talking to a friend, watching television, or doing chores.
  • Radical acceptance: This is about accepting the present moment (liking or approving the situation is not required) and identifying what you can do to make it better.

Not all of these will work for everyone, so it’s best to find the few that work better for you and use them consistently when anxious feelings crop up. With the help of a mental health professional, you can find even more specified tools for you to use, and work on healing the source(s) and triggers of your separation anxiety, so you can live your life without being held back by your symptoms.

Table of contents

What Is Separation Anxiety?

Why Do I Feel Anxious When I'm Away from My Partner?

Is Separation Anxiety Normal in a Relationship?

What Triggers Separation Anxiety?

Can Separation Anxiety Be Attached to Certain Attachment Styles?

How Do You Live With Someone With Separation Anxiety?

How Do I Stop Separation Anxiety in My Relationship?

Show all items
Recent articles

Want to talk to a therapist? We have over 2,000 providers across the US ready to help you in person or online.

  • Clinical writer
  • Editorial writer
  • Medical reviewer
  • 1 sources
Evan Csir Profile Picture

Evan Csir, LPC

Evan Csir is a Licensed Professional Counselor with over 9 years of experience. He is passionate about working with people, especially autistic individuals and is experienced in helping clients with depression, anxiety, and ADHD issues.

Kate Hanselman, PMHNP in New Haven, CT

Kate Hanselman, PMHNP-BC

Kate Hanselman is a board-certified Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (PMHNP-BC). She specializes in family conflict, transgender issues, grief, sexual orientation issues, trauma, PTSD, anxiety, behavioral issues, and women’s issues.

Picture of woman in front of flowers

Hannah DeWitt

Hannah is a Junior Copywriter at Thriveworks. She received her bachelor’s degree in English: Creative Writing with a minor in Spanish from Seattle Pacific University. Previously, Hannah has worked in copywriting positions in the car insurance and trucking sectors doing blog-style and journalistic writing and editing.

We only use authoritative, trusted, and current sources in our articles. Read our editorial policy to learn more about our efforts to deliver factual, trustworthy information.

  • Mofrad, S., Abdullah, R., & Uba, I. (2011). Attachment Patterns and Separation Anxiety Symptom. Asian Social Science, 6(11), 148–152. https://www.ccsenet.org/ass

Are you struggling?

Thriveworks can help.

Browse top-rated therapists near you, and find one who meets your needs. We accept most insurances, and offer weekend and evening sessions.

Rated 4.4 from over 15,090 Google reviews

No comments yet
Disclaimer

The information on this page is not intended to replace assistance, diagnosis, or treatment from a clinical or medical professional. Readers are urged to seek professional help if they are struggling with a mental health condition or another health concern.

If you’re in a crisis, do not use this site. Please call the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988 or use these resources to get immediate help.

Get the latest mental wellness tips and discussions, delivered straight to your inbox.