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Ask Izzy: Five ways to curb separation anxiety for the anxiously attached

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Photo by Cup of Couple / Pexels
Photo by Cup of Couple / Pexels

Ask Izzy is a biweekly advice column about relationships, mental health, and sexuality. Written by Isabel Mata — a Seattle-based lifestyle writer, podcast host, and mental health advocate — Ask Izzy offers tangible expert advice so all readers can have stronger relationships, better sex, and healthier mindsets. Looking for some more guidance? Submit your question to [email protected] with the subject line: Ask Izzy Submission.

Dear Izzy,

My partner and I pretty much U-hauled during the pandemic and have not spent more than a few days apart from each other. I love them so much, but I am going to be traveling soon, and I can't bear the thought of leaving them. How can I make the separation feel easier when we are apart without seeming too clingy?

— Attached and Anxious

Dear Attached,

There are several parts to your question that I resonate with fully. Like you, I am entirely obsessed with my partner and can't go mere hours without drawing them close. While yes, their personality and beautiful smile are inescapable, it's also because we moved in with each other a few months pre-COVID. When the pandemic hit, everything shut down, and our separate lives turned to one.

Like you, we have spent every single day together for the last three-plus years. The first time my boo went out of town for a weekend, I cut my own hair and had a meltdown on the bathroom floor. Safe to say, we don't travel separately anymore.

All that is to say that I understand how you are feeling. It's really scary! And anxiety-inducing, especially depending on your attachment style.

But the idea that a person can be too clingy is nothing more than pop culture slang.

The word "clingy" to describe a person was coined in the 1970s by Dr. John Bowlby, a developmental psychologist and psychiatrist best known as the originator of attachment theory. He used the word to describe children who were too emotionally attached to their parents and unwilling to be separated from them.

But the use of the word to describe romantic partners took off in the early 1990s. Like most things that came from '90s internet culture, the use of the word "clingy" is misogynist and sexist, usually appearing alongside words like "needy" or "high maintenance" to describe a person in a relationship. There was a popular 2012 meme, Overly Attached Girlfriend, that parodied "clingy" behavior, and it was not a meme you wanted in your DMs.

Thankfully, the year is 2023, and it is not cool to shame someone based on their emotional needs, and that includes us. When I first started dating my partner, I was worried about being "too needy," because this was something I had heard about in relationships before. It was only when I started to reflect on this core narrative — that I could have too many needs — did I realize that it wasn't true. I had just been loving people who didn't reciprocate the affection.

Has an ex of yours ever described you as too clingy? In reading your question again, one can assume that you and your partner are on the same page about how much you love each other. This makes me believe that nothing you could do or say would make it seem like you are "too clingy." Or even if you are, who cares?! To cling is a wonderful thing.

Luckily, there are things you can do to make the separation a bit easier for both of you.

1. Bring an item of their clothing to sleep in while you are away, and give them one of yours.
When I was a little kid, my parents got divorced. I was severely attached to my mom and would get a panic attack anytime I had to leave her side. To make the transition to my dad's a little easier, she gave me a T-shirt of hers to sleep in. To this day, I still have that shirt and sleep in it when I need a little extra comfort.

2. Hide a few love letters around the house for your partner to find. Sticky notes work great.
Before my husband left for his first trip without me, I wrote him a bunch of little love notes and tucked them into his backpack and suitcase. It made me feel better knowing that he was bringing a little piece of me with him. And in return, he left me a few notes of his own.

3. Communicate how you are feeling and be honest.
It may seem scary to tell your partner how much you are going to miss them, because there is room for rejection. But I am like 95% certain they will be smitten to hear about it.

Before you go, it might also be a good time to talk about your attachment styles, if you haven't already. Knowing your attachment style is so helpful to communicating clearly in the relationship. Peep at the resources below for a great book to read.

During this conversation, talk about expectations for communication while you travel. Do you want to talk every night on the phone before bed? Text throughout the day? Discuss the details. The more you anticipate, the better the trip will go for your anxiety.

4. Make some fun plans for when you return.
It always helps to have something to look forward to when you return. Maybe a nice date night or takeout from your favorite place to celebrate your return. When you are away on your trip and missing your love, just imagine how sweet the reunion will be after some time apart.

5. Use your self-care toolkit when you are all up in your feels.
When my husband was off traveling, it was easy for me to fall into old thinking patterns. If he didn't answer my text immediately, I worried he was ignoring me. If he didn't call me exactly when he said he would, my mind went to the darkest place. But thanks to therapy, I have a set of tools to use when my cognitive distortions start to get too loud.

In your case, I would think about what acts of self-care you can do while you are away. Maybe bring a favorite book to read in moments like this? Or a mantra to repeat over and over when you start to spiral? Try "my partner loves me, and I am enough."

Reader, it can be really hard to not let anxiety get the best of you, but I believe in you. Now all you need to do is believe in yourself and your relationship. You got this, friend.

• Levine, A., & Heller, R. (2012). Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help YouFind — and Keep — Love. Tarcher Perigee.
Overly Attached Girlfriend. Dictionary.com. https://www.dictionary.com/e/memes/overly-attached-girlfriend/
• Dijken, S. van. John Bowlby. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/John-Bowlby/