Separation Anxiety: When It Never Gets Easier to Say Goodbye

Researchers at Haverford College, in Pennsylvania, found people who missed their partners when apart from them were more committed to the relationship, worked harder to take care of it and avoided damaging behavior such as cheating. “Missing prompts you to maintain your social connection,” says Benjamin Le, associate professor of psychology at Haverford and lead author of the study, published last year in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.

The way we cope with separation is determined by something psychologists call our attachment system. Scientists believe the attachment system is an evolutionary process that humans developed to survive. Early hunter-gatherers learned to work together, and children perished without the care and protection of an adult. Although it’s partly genetic, much of our lifelong “attachment style” is determined by how as young children we learned to relate to our parents.

There are three attachment-style types: secure, anxious or avoidant, according to Hal Shorey, a psychologist and assistant professor for the Institute for Graduate Clinical Psychology at Widener University, in Chester, Pa. Secure people, roughly 55% of the population, typically are warm, loving and comfortable with intimacy. They were raised, most likely, by a consistently caring and responsive mother or parental figure. The other 45% has a sometimes problematic attachment style, meaning they are anxious, avoidant or a combination, Dr. Shorey says.

Anxious people who worry about whether their partner loves them often had parents who were inconsistently nurturing. Avoidant people, whom psychologists also call “dismissive,” try to minimize closeness and often had parents who didn’t tolerate neediness or insecurities.

When we are scanning for signs of danger in a relationship—such as abandonment—our brain often can’t distinguish between a real or imagined risk, Dr. Shorey says.

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