You've got embarrassing, tricky, and otherwise unusual life questions. We've got answers. Welcome to Is This Normal?, a no-nonsense, no-judgment advice column from HelloGiggles, in which we tap experts to find out exactly how typical (or not) your situation is.
Dear Is This Normal?,
My girlfriend and I have been dating for a couple of years but we don't yet live together. At the beginning of the pandemic, we spent about four months living with her parents in their basement in order to get out of our city (they live in the middle of nowhere). But eventually, we had to go back to our own apartments, and it's been like that for some time now.
Since then, we have been in each other's "pod" and get regular Covid-19 testing so that we can still see one another. Our visits are typically in spurts—she'll spend the weekend with me, we'll stay apart for a few days, and then I'll go over to her apartment. In the days apart, I miss her so much that it hurts. I worry that one of us will get Covid-19 or that she'll stop loving me. This is my first healthy relationship, so I really don't want to mess it up, but these anxious thoughts are really starting to affect me. Do I have separation anxiety? I started messaging my partner all the time questioning why she doesn't want to hang out with me as much.
Please help! I feel so guilty about my behavior and am scared my partner might break up with me because of this.
- Afraid to be Alone
Hi, Afraid to be Alone,
When I was going through a breakup, one of my friends offered me a book on attachment styles. The book, aptly called Attached and written by Amir Levine and Rachel S.F. Heller, is a study of adult attachment, or the different ways we experience our relationship to intimacy.
According to Levine and Heller, there are four attachment styles: secure, anxious, avoidant, and anxious-avoidant. Like the names imply, secure folks trust their partners and feel comfortable with direct communication, while anxious partners can be extremely sensitive and may experience stress while their partners are away. Avoidant partners are more self-reliant and see intimacy as a threat to their independence, while those who anxious-avoidant experience relationship anxiety but avoid intimacy due to a fear of rejection. The book also suggests that these attachment styles developed in our childhood, and often mirror our relationships with our parents.
When I first read Attached, I strongly identified with the anxious-attachment style. I have a history of codependency and being overly invested in my relationships, which have led to some mild anxiety when separated from my partner. This wasn't because I was weak or weird; it was because of my attachment style, something that likely developed when I was a child.
Now, I'm not saying that your anxiety is directly tied to an attachment style (I don't have the degree to say that), but I am saying that anxiety within a relationship is quite common, and you should not feel guilty about it. This sort of anxiety always has a reason for existing, but it is helpful for us to develop some understanding around it.
"Relationship separation anxiety is the unconscious fear and resulting uneasiness of being apart from your romantic partner," says dating and relationship coach and matchmaker, Mallory Mogley Love. "Of course, it's natural as we grow emotionally attached to the person we love to feel some sort of sadness when they are away, but if it's a constant struggle to be away from them at all, it's unhealthy."
Love (and yes, that is her real last name) mentions that some of the symptoms of relationship separation anxiety include emotional distress, nervousness, obsessive thoughts of worst-case scenarios, and even physical symptoms like nausea, anxiety attacks, and rage. She also notes that this sort of anxiety is common among those with anxious attachment styles, though that is not always the case.
Though your relationship separation anxiety is nothing to be ashamed of, it's not something you necessarily want to carry around with you. Love notes that one of the first steps to healing is to recognize the signs of relationship separation anxiety, which it sounds like you are. (I'd also like to note that I believe some of your anxiety might due to the pandemic, as is the case for many of us.)
"This is the first step to realizing loving someone does not mean not being able to exist without them in your presence," Love says. She adds that another positive action is asking for help.
"You outsource every aspect of your life from car maintenance to taxes," Love says. "It's okay to not be able to handle this without professional help. I advise seeking out a relationship expert, counselor, or another mental health professional to improve your relationship and individual lifestyle."
"It's also impotant that you find comfort and joy in your own activities," Love adds. Find things that make you happy outside of your relationship, and start implementing those into your schedule."
Finally, don't be afraid to actually talk to your partner about how you are feeling. While it may be tempting to avoid the topic, communication is essential to working through relationship issues, including separation anxiety. A good partner should make you feel safe and heard.
"Anxiety can be a scary, double-edged sword," Love says. "But if you acknowledge it and work towards slowly fixing the issue, it's easily surmountable."