Separation anxiety in a relationship: How do you get over being away from your partner?

This week I had to endure the wildly unpleasant experience of being away from my partner. I was flying interstate for a writer's festival and it meant that we had three full scheduled nights apart. This is, to put it lightly, a very big deal in my usual schedule and the whole thing honestly made me feel incredibly anxious. 

Of course, I acknowledge how completely absurd this must sound. Most people I speak to, regardless of how great their relationship is, relish the nights they have away from their significant others. I know that I should enjoy time alone in hotel rooms where I can enter my slug zone and watch hours of the stupid TV shows that I love and my partner cannot stand. But I really don't – I feel strange, uneasy, and I sleep terribly. 

Whenever I'm away from my partner, at least for the first couple of days, I find that I'm completely overwhelmed by separation anxiety – and I'm really embarrassed by that feeling. It's one thing to feel sad because your fun, sexy best friend isn't around, it's another to feel actively lost and worried about it.

A friend mentioned to me a while ago that, while in a relationship, she went on a month's long trip to South America, alone, and it sounded like one of the most alien concepts I could imagine. Meanwhile, I work myself up into a state of acute panic whenever I have to travel to Melbourne for a couple of nights. 

My partner and I have been together for around four years, and in that time, I think we've spent a maximum of a week apart. And when we are apart, I feel like one of those dogs that tears the house apart when their owner goes to work. 


So, what do we need to know about being unhealthily attached to a partner? 

Last year, Mamamia's health and beauty writer, Erin Docherty explored the concept of an 'enmeshed' relationship, which involved a lack of personal boundaries. Psychologist Bethany Howsley explained that these are relationships in which "individuals are emotionally 'fused' together in an unhealthy way". 

Enmeshment can involve a lack of privacy, a disproportionate feeling of a responsibility for your partner's emotions, a lack of understanding of your own wants and needs, as well as discomfort in setting boundaries. 

This is closely related to the concept of 'codependency' in relationships, which is a term that describes a more problematic scenario where these behaviours come at the cost of external relationships, and may involve poor mental health, ongoing struggles, extreme sacrifice, and feelings of worthlessness without their partner. 

Listen to the Mamamia Out Loud team talk about 'the great relationship accelerator' below. Article continues after podcast. 

Dr Priscilla Dunk-West, a sexuality and relationships researcher from Deakin University, tells Mamamia that the idea of 'codependency' can be useful to some people and help them understand both their current relationship and early experiences. But, it's important to remember that it's only one of many theories that try to make sense of intimate relationship patterns and it's also not a clear reflection of the people who end up in those relationships. 


"Relationships can and do change over time and contexts, so it is important to know that if someone resonates with the term 'codependent', this doesn't mean that there is something 'wrong' with them. 

It is possible to recalibrate otherwise healthy relationships, to set new goals, to increase independence while nurturing and continuing the relationship and the individual's sense of self." 

To be clear, I don't believe my relationship is necessarily codependent, nor particularly enmeshed, but the fact that I feel so extremely uncomfortable being apart from my partner probably shouldn't be accepted as part and parcel of a relationship, either. 

Is this just modern relationships? 

It's possible that my extreme attachment to being around my partner might just reflect the reality of being in a relationship in 2023. 

Dr Dunk-West says that the nature of modern relationships has led to new challenges in terms of our expectations of partnerships, which can place a huge amount of pressure on them. 

"We want our intimate partner to be our best friend, to share quality time together and to live in harmony in the same household... Couples these days are juggling work, caring responsibilities, and financial pressures alongside their relationship. 

For many people, this can feel overwhelming... we place a lot of pressure on relationships to be all things at all times." 


Dr Dunk-West points to the emerging popularity of alternatives to traditional partnerships – like partners who live apart and polyamorous relationships – as evidence that this model of romantic love doesn't work for everyone and can simply be too much pressure.  

It's possible that, because my partner does fulfil so many roles in my life, being apart from him simply feels too destabilising – and yes, that's probably something that I need to inspect. 

Are you in a COVID relationship? 

Another consideration is that the majority of my relationship has been spent in the COVID era. 

We started dating in July 2019, and later, I convinced him that maybe we should move in together as a 'trial run'. That was in February 2020. So, a large amount of our time together has been defined by lockdowns, staying in very close quarters with one another for long stretches of time. 

Dr Dunk-West said that the pressures of being in a relationship were exacerbated by COVID lockdowns, where people had limited time away from their partners, worked from home, and shared parenting duties full-time within the household. For some couples, this placed a huge amount of undue pressure on their relationships and forced people to scrutinise themselves and their partners to a greater extent. 

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Then, there are the people, myself included, who have probably had difficulty readjusting to 'the world outside' the partnership, because we grew too accustomed to that setting. 

"Identities that were enshrined through being lovers, partners, and co-workers and existing within the household while the world grappled with a pandemic, to suddenly go back to pre-pandemic activities can feel jarring," Dr Dunk-West says. 

"If all one person has is their partner to reflect back their identity, then being away from them can feel anxiety producing." 

How do you get over separation anxiety? 

Dr Dunk-West says that there are a range of factors that are important for establishing a sense of individual identity, including connection to community (including online connections) and friends outside of an intimate relationship. 

"Investing in these goes some way to inoculate individuals against losing themselves in their couple relationships. The old truism about absence making the heart grow fonder is also true: finding ways to exercise one's identity outside of the couple relationship makes for a healthy combination of two people in a relationship." 


Amanda Lambros, a relationship counsellor, agrees with this concept. Lambros tells Mamamia that some amount of separation anxiety, when you're away from a partner, is always going to be normal but it's also possible to work your way out of that feeling by taking on activities that remind you of your independence. 

"Engage in activities that bring you joy and fulfillment, whether it's pursuing a hobby, spending time with friends, or focusing on self-care. By nurturing your own wellbeing, you'll not only feel more confident and self-assured by also have a healthier perspective on being apart." 

So, while it may feel fulfilling to have found somebody whose company you're comfortable in for the vast majority of your life, it's also probably healthy to inspect your expectations of a partner and ensure that you're placing enough energy in other parts of your life that assert who you are as an individual. 

My partner does feel like 'all of the things, all of the time' to me as Dr Dunk-West put it, but maybe that's an unfair and disproportionate expectation. After all, I have other extremely close relationships in my life that I could be pouring a lot more energy into. Maybe it's time to break the relationship habits we clearly fell into during successive COVID lockdowns and just let him be 'most of the things, most of the time'. 

Elfy Scott is an executive editor at Mamamia. 

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