Speaking to experts in the field of relationship therapy recently, one message has become clear, it’s a rollercoaster time for couples. As we emerge from life dominated by restrictions, there’s a very mixed picture of how people in relationships are coping with the changes presented by the pandemic. Recent University of Massachusetts research found “huge variability” in how couples dealt with pandemic stress; with some becoming hostile and withdrawn from each other, while others have thrived thanks to closer communication. Though it sounds pretty rosy for those couples who have grown stronger, there’s a challenge knocking at the door: the threat of separation anxiety.
Separation anxiety (broadly defined as a fear of being separated from a particular person) is usually spoken about in terms of children, or even pets, but it’s an issue that affects adults, too. It’s something I’ve suffered with at times throughout my relationship of five years and when I’ve been at my most anxious, my symptoms have been visceral and overwhelming. Trying to rationalise my worries and still my catastrophising mind was sometimes impossible.
I worked through these feelings in therapy, just before going into lockdown in the home I share with my partner in March 2020. Now, many months later, I’m starting to be in situations where I can put into practice the strategies I learned, and I’m not the only one coming up against this relationship challenge at the minute.
Post-lockdown separation anxiety: Why’s it happening?
While no two relationships are the same, many cohabitating couples have grown close during the pandemic, and felt a sense that it was them versus everything going on outside the safety of home.
“After this more intense period of time spent together… some might now feel a separation anxiety as the world opens up and they and their partner return to things like work and hobbies. In essence this is because, without realising it, we have become more dependent on and attached to those we spent the lockdown with,” explains sex and relationship psychotherapist, Miranda Christophers.
“Where there had been insecurities in relationships, these improved for some couples as they effectively nestled down together with an ‘us against the virus/pandemic’ mindset,” she adds.
If your relationship improved during lockdown, it’s understandable you might worry that will be reversed as we revert back to something more like the old normal. Some might be concerned their partner will prefer being apart from them again. Plus, after spending so much time with your partner, you might well have anxiety about being alone, more independent or making decisions, according to Miranda.
This fear of being alone definitely rings true to me. For well over a year, my partner and I have worked from home together pretty much every day, spending our weekends and evenings keeping each other company (when we weren’t allowed to go out) and mostly socialising with our shared friends and families once restrictions eased up. I can count on one hand how many times I’ve spent a working day in my office, away from him, and on the other, how many times I’ve decided what takeaway to order without mulling it over with him first. I think this is why now, when we’re apart for a day or talking about plans that don’t involve each other, I do feel a pang of discomfort.
Discomfort is a big improvement on the worries I used to have, which were eased significantly by therapy unpacking where my fear came from, exploring the feelings and understanding how best to vocalise them to my partner. While it's not always easy, I learned the importance of speaking to him about my separation anxiety with vulnerability and openness, rather than holding my worries in to the point I'd then blurt them out in a way that could make him feel blamed. According to Miranda, this communication style is key to avoiding arguments and seeing yourselves as a team.
Post-lockdown separation anxiety: What can be done?
“Take care to avoid being critical or blaming your partner as this may cause conflict and put your partner into a defensive position, making it harder for them to understand where you’re coming from," says Miranda. "Inevitably, conflict risks creating distance between you, when what we are seeking here is the opposite.”
In moments of heightened anxiety, with stress hormones surging, rational thinking isn't by any means our go-to. But if, during these times, you can try to stop, take deep breaths and calm yourself before speaking to your partner, it can result in a more productive conversation.
“When feeling anxious or insecure, there is a greater risk of conflict as a person is more led by their emotions and feelings, so it’s very helpful to take a moment to put your logical cap on and see things from each other’s perspective, or imagine you are an outsider looking in,” advises Miranda, if you’re experiencing feelings of separation anxiety.
Once you're in that place, you can have a better conversation - using language about how you're feeling rather than more abrasive: 'You made me upset because you did x' sentences.
For anyone feeling anxious about what the future holds, Miranda also suggests small steps can be taken, with regular check ins, to make sure the increasing distance is comfortable.
“You can stay close by communicating [when you’re spending days apart] - perhaps a text or call may be reassuring or plan to meet them occasionally after work or at lunch time. It can be a gradual easing into spending more time apart,” she adds.
Time for growth
It's important to say this time can definitely be looked upon as a positive one for our relationships, too, with room for growth.
Paula, 30, and her girlfriend, moved in together just before their second anniversary in December 2019, ahead of the winter lockdown. The pair had wanted to do it for ages, and had found previous lockdowns difficult living apart.
“Moving in together meant that we finally got our own space, had the joy of adorning a home together and didn't have to be constantly worried that our access to one another might be revoked. Plus, we got engaged this year so I guess you could say that, in spite of everything the pandemic has hit us with, we've weathered it together and fallen even more in love,” Paula says.
She was apprehensive when her partner stared going into the office for two days a week and wondered what life would be like when they were apart for extended periods.
“The transition has truly not been easy, especially as I'm self-employed so I still work from home. I miss her for great big gaping chunks of the day but, as we've found, it's actually nice to have things to catch up on together. We text occasionally throughout the day but mainly make time to catch up when she gets home and talk about our days. Not being present for every moment of her day means we have news to share and things to get excited about. It gives me space and time to miss her and get excited for her return,” Paula says.
“There was something somewhat comforting about basically living in one another's pockets, but there's something freeing about ambling through our separate days and choosing to return to the comfort we've forged together.”
The pandemic has taught us how resilient we can be, and while many of us have leaned on those closest to us to help us through tough times, now’s a chance to reset and start to enjoy some of our old ‘normal’ again, while making healthy new habits. I love spending time with my partner more than anything else, but that can't be our whole existence. Even though our lives are very much entwined, they are two entities. I never want to lose sight of that and now’s a good chance to remind myself of how important it is.
“Relationships need some differentiation and each person needs their work, hobbies and friends to avoid becoming over familiar or even enmeshed,” Miranda says. “Look at this next transition as not necessarily going back to how it was before, but moving to a new, strengthened place in your relationship journey as you have more experiences of different ways of being.”
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