Intimate Partner Separation Anxiety

07 September, 2020
Some people can't stand to be separated from their significant other, even for a day. This kind of attachment is so intense and unhealthy that a breakup can be emotionally devestating. Let's learn more!
 

Although all breakups are painful, the intensity varies depending on the relationship. Some breakups leave scars. However, others can become truly pathological. When an individual bases their relationship on absolute emotional dependency, a breakup can result in something we call intimate partner separation anxiety.

Until very recently, the term separation anxiety was seen as a problem exclusive to children. It refers to children’s heightened anxiety when they’re separated from their caregivers. Going to school, parents going to work, or even sleeping by themselves causes anxiety and angst.

In families with overprotective parents, for example, this kind of behavior is common. That being said, fear and despair about being separated from the person you’re attached to can also occur in adulthood. Consequently, many adults experience particularly devastating symptoms when their romantic relationship ends.

Excessive anxiety, fear, psychosomatic symptoms, insomnia, constant worrying… People in these defenseless states require a particular kind of psychological approach. Let’s take a closer look.

A woman with anxiety on her couch.
 

Intimate partner separation anxiety: symptoms, causes, and strategies

When you love someone, being separated from them for a few days can be painful. Some people, however, experience these feelings very intensely, to the point of it being traumatic.

Evolutionary psychologists believe that the connection between intimate partners has the same transcendence as the link between parents and their children. In fact, the same neurochemicals are at work: oxytocin, vasopressin, and dopamine, among others.

Lisa Diamond, a social psychologist at the University of Utah, researches these kinds of connections. Her studies show that there are many similarities between parent-child relationships and intimate partner relationships. You need to be close to your loved one. You look after them, worry about them, and strive to ensure their well-being. This attachment, however, can easily become unhealthy. In fact, it can turn downright obsessive.

So much so that it can cause serious emotional problems. That, in turn, can lead to intimate partner separation anxiety. This largely occurs because the brain processes the experience as a threat, as something traumatic. Your body then releases a lot of cortisol, which triggers a broad range of physical and psychological symptoms.

What’s intimate partner separation anxiety?

Sometimes, we’re not dealing with a simple case of anxiety. If it persists over time and presents with a series of concrete traits, it’s probably a case of separation anxiety disorder.

 

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) includes these conditions in the anxiety disorders category.

Separation anxiety disorder can result in some of the following attitudes and behaviors:

  • Elevated stress and anxiety.
  • Repeated attempts to get in touch with the former partner and to rekindle the relationship.
  • Refusing to accept that the relationship is over.
  • Heightened emotional suffering, as well as the inability to go through a normal grieving process.
  • Trouble sleeping.
  • Inability to go back to normal life. The anxiety may even interfere with work to the point that the individual stops going.
  • Changes in diet and appetite (eating too much or not eating enough).
  • Psychosomatic illnesses such as digestive problems, stomachaches, and headaches.

What causes these disorders?

Some people are better at dealing with breakups than others. Some take a long time to get over the end of a relationship. Also, for a small portion of the population, a breakup completely upends their lives.

Such is the case for people with intimate partner separation anxiety. On average, these men and women tend to share certain concrete traits:

  • Having a dependent personality. In other words, they have an excessive and disproportionate attachment to their significant other. In more extreme cases, the individual probably has a dependent personality disorder. This condition involves an excessive need for attention and care. This need, in turn, often leads to situations of heightened submission.
 
  • In some cases, an individual with separation anxiety might also have a borderline personality disorder. Here, the individual’s biggest fear is being abandoned. This pathological fear is the origin of most of their problems. Consequently, a breakup is extremely traumatic.
  • Let’s not forget individuals who developed unhealthy and anxious attachments starting in childhood. These types of bonds are defined by insecurity, feeling unsettled, a need to possess the other person, and codependency.
A sad guy with intimate partner separation anxiety.

Treatment for intimate partner separation anxiety

The therapeutic approach to separation anxiety in a relationship will depend on each unique case. Dealing with an individual who has attachment problems is very different from someone with a borderline personality disorder. Nevertheless, cognitive-behavioral therapy has proven useful for a wide variety of cases for several reasons:

  • CBT helps the individual learn coping strategies to deal with anxiety.
  • The patient will be able to better manage the grief associated with the breakup.
  • It provides tools for the patient to develop their emotional and relational skills, as well as their self-esteem.
 
  • CBT helps the patient learn to avoid repeating this pattern of emotional dependency.

In conclusion, while it’s true that breakups are never easy, it’s important to be aware of these unhealthy extremes. Adopting a passive attitude and letting yourself be devoured by sadness is the worst option. If you’re struggling, don’t hesitate to get professional help.

  • Pacheco, B. y Ventura, T. Trastorno de ansiedad por separación. Revista Chilena de Pediatría. 2009, 80 (2) pp. 109-119.
  • Semerari, A. y Dimaggio, G. (2011) Los trastornos de la personalidad: modelos y tratamiento. Ed. Desclée de Brouwer.
  • Wallin D.J. (2015) El apego en psicoterapia. Ed. Desclée de Brouwer.