Dealing With Adult Separation Anxiety

Separation anxiety in children commonly occurs when a baby or young child is separated from his/her mother, father or other significant attachment figure. The overwhelmed child’s panic reaction and heart-wrenching cries must be understood as an instinctual survival reaction. As clear as it is about children it is confounding when some adults become deeply emotionally distressed in separating from their primary loved one since this is objectively not a life-threatening event.

In 1917 Freud explained the source of adults’ phobias, “Infantile anxiety has little to do with realistic anxiety, but is closely related to the neurotic anxiety of adults… When a child or an adult is afraid of an external object or situation, what he is really afraid of is the absence of someone he loves.”

Psychologist Harville Hendrix itemized nine false core beliefs of some anxious individuals: “1. I’m not enough or flawed.  2. I am worthless. 3. I am unable to act. 4. I am inadequate. 5. I don’t have the right to exist. 6. I am alone. 7. I am at a loss of possibilities. 8. I am powerless. 9. I am loveless.”

These and other self-deprecating statements are untrue and devastating. They are   employed by some to rationalize their pain even if their love connection is still intact. The self-berating messages that attempt to rationalize their grief only exacerbate their misery.

Another common reason for some adults’ separation anxiety may be related to childhood abuse and the re-activated fears when the individual is alone. Their beloved’s presence shields them from reliving their childhood trauma and provides emotional safety.

Children or adults who exhibit excessive neediness for companionship and attention from their parents or significant others have been labeled as “dependent” or “over-dependent”. In “Separation Anxiety and Anger” John Bowlby advocates the use of “insecure attachment” to connote “one’s natural desire for a close relationship with an attachment figure and his/her apprehension lest the relationship be ended.”

It is important to use terminology that is not shaming or castigating in describing people’s nature or conduct. It may give us a temporary sense of un-earned wellbeing at the cost of our partner’s dignity and emotional security.

All beings deeply desire to be valued and loved and do feel threatened when their beloved seems less involved, unavailable, impatient or excessively pre-occupied with other matters. It is also wise not to label our mate’s behavior in a derogatory manner, such as, “My partner is so clingy, needy, insecure, dependent, suspicious, too preoccupied with my life, unfocused about his/her goals or annoying.” Instead, we may choose to focus on reassuring our partner that we are present, caring, concerned and available to him/her and are pleased and enriched by his/her presence in our lives.

Manage your mate’s Separation Anxiety:

  • Regularly reassure your partner that you value and cherish him/her.
  • Abstain from diagnosing and labeling your mate’s behavior or emotions in derogatory terms.

Consider your mate’s anxiety as a testament to the value of your love connection.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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