Just today, a friend’s daughter was struggling with separation after being dropped off at preschool. It was not that long ago that I had to leave my crying preschooler in the capable hands of a teacher. Any parent knows what an emotionally trying experience that can be.
I would always return to a smiling child who had experienced a wonderful few hours of play with friends with some life lessons sprinkled in between. My daughter was doing just what the textbooks talk about when they describe separation anxiety.
Parents recite phrases like, “Mommy always comes back” to help their children learn about temporary leavings. Over time kids begin to understand that, in most cases, good-byes are only temporary. When the good-bye doesn’t ultimately result in a return of a loved one, such as in the case of parental abandonment or death, and the trauma occurs at a crucial developmental stage in a child’s life, then departures may forever be a source of tremendous anxiety.
These issues with separation stem from what clinicians term as Attachment Style, and people fall on all parts of the spectrum with respect to their level of either healthy or unhealthy attachment. The feelings of longing for or missing someone are not only natural but they are necessary to sustain long-term relationships. It is when those feelings border on panic that a problem exists.
A study done at Haverford College, in Pennsylvania, reported that individuals who experienced missing their mate when they were apart also tended to be more committed to the union and more mindful of behaviors that would jeopardize the relationship. When you miss someone, you tend to reach out and this helps to maintain the connection. When the pendulum swings in the other direction, towards panicked longing, then the relationship can suffer.
There is no doubt that our attachment style as an adult is directly related to how we learned to attach or relate to our parents when we were young. Neuroscientists have concluded that our physiological reactions to the threat of abandonment are learned at a young age and our brain actually changes to become hard wired to those early responses. Even when, as an adult, one intellectually knows that his panic response to a loved one leaving temporarily is not rational, he can’t always curtail the feelings because they have become automatic.
Once a person identifies that they have difficulty managing separations in relationships they can begin to build a storehouse of coping skills. Recognizing how the pattern began can be extremely helpful. If there was a loss at an early age it is possible that the grieving process is still in play. Accepting that you may always struggle more than others, when separated from a loved one, is important as well. Those feelings may never disappear entirely but they do not need to overtake you or make your partner feel stifled.
Talk to your partner about your past experiences and come up with words or phrases that will help to sustain you during times apart. Recognize that your panic is based in history and is not applicable to present day and to your current relationship. As with any other panic disorder, find ways to change your focus and occupy your thoughts with other healthy distractions.
While good-byes may always be uncomfortable, your past does not need to dictate your future. And with some introspection and coping mechanisms you can learn to ultimately have healthy and fulfilling attachments.
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