Adult Separation Anxiety Disorder and Attachment Style

– Posted in: Anxiety

Adult Separation Anxiety Disorder - Man and WomanLast week, when his wife left home for a two-week cruise with her best friend, Robert Sollars stocked up on hamburger meat and peanut butter, then settled into a weekend of football on cable TV. And he cried.”

So begins “When It Never Gets Easier to Say Goodbye” by Dr. Elizabeth Bernstein.

Mr. Sollars, 51 years old, owns a workplace security consulting firm in Mesa, Arizona. He hates being away from his wife, even when she is just going to work. When she is away for a longer time he feels nauseated and finds it hard to concentrate. He can’t sleep and worries that she will have an auto accident, get sick or hurt, or will find someone else. He says, “I firmly believe that my worry is based in fantasy land. But I am still deathly afraid of losing the woman I love.”

What’s going on here? Sollars certainly is not a wimp. Is he just being immature, clingy or over emotional? Or is he suffering from Adult Separation Anxiety Disorder and a dysfunctional attachment style?

What is Adult Separation Anxiety Disorder?

Extreme anxiety, fear and avoidance of being alone

The possibility that adults might experience Separation Anxiety Disorder was not recognized in the psychiatric community until relatively recently. It was first researched by Vijaya Manicavasagar of the Psychiatry Research and Teaching Unit, Liverpool Hospital, New South Wales, Australia. He said in 1997 that:{{1}}

[A]dults may experience … wide-ranging separation anxiety symptoms, such as extreme anxiety and fear, when separated from major attachment figures; avoidance of being alone; and fears that harm will befall those close to them. … Separation anxiety disorder may be a neglected diagnosis in adulthood.

The current “bible” of psychiatry, the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) doesn’t mention that an adult can experience separation anxiety.{{2}} Fortunately, the new DSM-5 – to be released in May, 2013 – specifically includes adults in its section on Separation Anxiety Disorder.{{3}}

What is attachment style?

Attachment style is a learned behavior that determines how we relate to other people, particularly in intimate relationships.

45% have a potentially dysfunctional attachment style

Dr. Hal S. Shorey, psychologist and assistant professor for the Institute for Graduate Clinical Psychology at Widener University, says that there are three attachment-style types: secure, anxious and avoidant. Those with a secure attachment style make up about 55% of the population. The other 45% have a potentially dysfunctional attachment style: anxious, avoidant or a combination.{{4}}

People with a secure attachment style likely were reared by a consistently caring and responsive mother or parental figure. They typically are warm, loving, and comfortable with intimacy. Anxious people who worry about whether their partner loves them often had parents who were not or were not consistently nurturing. Avoidant people, also called “dismissive,” attempt to minimize closeness and often had parents who didn’t tolerate neediness or insecurities.{{5}}

We learn attachment styles in childhood

Attachment styles are established in childhood by the relationship a child has with its parent(s) or caregiver. Dr. Benjamin Le, associate professor of psychology at Haverford College, states that:{{6}}

The attachment style is ingrained in the child and can be carried on to romantic partners. If the parent was not consistently nurturing or there for the child, the child will have expectations that their partner can’t be relied upon. Studies show people will choose dissatisfaction if it’s consistent with their expectations, versus things that make them change the way they see the world.

The connection between ASAD and a dysfunctional attachment style

Author Elizabeth Bernstein, who is a clinical psychiatrist in Miami, believes that Mr. Sollars is experiencing Adult Separation Anxiety Disorder (ASAD). She holds that ASAD can be aggravated by a dysfunctional attachment style. She states that,{{7}}

The way we cope with separation is determined by something psychologists call our attachment system… 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.

Adults with an anxious or avoidant attachment style are often troubled by ASAD. And because anxious people and avoidant people tend to attract each other, the connection between a dysfunctional attachment style and ASAD is strengthened. Dr. Benjamin Le, says that:{{8}}

It’s actually quite common to have a couple where one person is avoidant and the other is anxious and very worried and jealous. Those relationships tend not to have a lot of satisfaction, but they’re tremendously stable and common.

ASAD coping skills

So if you have been diagnosed with ASAD or recognize those symptoms in yourself, what can you do? Dr. Bernstein says that there are several basic coping skills that are effective:{{9}}

  • First and foremost, acknowledge that you have symptoms of ASAD and/or a problem attachment style and that you will have to deal with it yourself. Your partner cannot fix it for you.
  • Realize that ASAD and your attachment style are hardwired into you. They were set in childhood and are a part of your psychological makeup. But that doesn’t mean that your situation is hopeless or cannot be improved.
  • Recognize that your fears and anxieties are not real, but are just fantasies of the imagination.
  • Accept that you have to regulate your own emotions, and not drive your partner crazy.
  • Keep reminding yourself that your partner is not abandoning you, and has their own attachment style and way of relating to you. Don’t think: “My husband is going on a business trip and I will be alone.” Think: “I have a wonderful husband. I will have time to catch up on things and plan a lovely reunion.”

What can you do when you are alone?

That’s all well and good, but what can you do with all that time alone when your partner goes on a week-long business trip? Here Bernstein has some advice as well:{{10}}

  • Reframe your negative thoughts as positive. Instead of letting your imagination run wild with negative fantasies, use it to think of positive things. Remember positive stories of your relationship. Think of the opportunities you have for your “alone” time. Imagine what a great reunion you will have.
  • Keep busy with the things you like. Plan to be with friends, get in some physical exercise or enjoy a favorite hobby. Dr. Hal Shorey advises that “If you can keep yourself from thinking about what is scaring you, your anxiety will go down and you won’t behave in a way that will make you feel worse.”{{11}}
  • Recognize that your emotions are overly sensitized and may pick up false positives. Your partner hasn’t forgotten you – they just may be busy.
  • Stop asking for reassurance. It may backfire and get the very response you fear the most: rejection.
  • Keep a journal. Writing is a good way to express and defuse your thoughts and feelings without damaging your relationship.

Separation anxiety that is under control can be good thing. Research shows that people who miss their partners when apart are more committed to the relationship, work harder to take care of it, and avoid damaging behavior such as cheating. Dr. Benjamin Le, leader of that research, says that, “Missing prompts you to maintain your social connection.”{{12}}

Of course, if your anxiety is out of control and interfering with your life, it’s time to seek professional help. And that does not always mean medication. Talk therapy is proven to be of immense help in calming anxieties and a runaway imagination.

In summary…

A person’s attachment style is learned in childhood and carries over into adulthood. It can be a major factor in Adult Separation Anxiety Disorder if dysfunctional. There are many general and specific coping skills and activities that can help to quell your anxiety and fear and enhance your relationship.

And the most important thing: You are not doomed to a life of misery. There is hope. You can learn to transform your negative thoughts into positive thoughts that can strengthen your relationship. It will take sustained effort, but it’s worth it.

As always, your comments are welcome! If you have enjoyed this post, please consider subscribing to this blog, either via RSS or email at the top of your screen. It’s free! You can also follow me on Twitter from the same place. I would also appreciate your sharing this post using your favorite social media, such as Reddit, Tumblr, and StumbleUpon. Just click the little green “ShareThis” button at the bottom of this post.

DISCLAIMER:The contents of this post are for informational purposes only and in no way are intended as a substitute for treatment by a mental health care professional. While every effort has been made to verify assertions and statements by the sources footnoted in this post, the author is not a mental health professional and does not accept responsibility for the veracity of any source.

Last updated: September 30, 2012

[[1]]Manicavasagar, Vijaya; Silove, Derrick. (1997, April). Is there an adult form of separation anxiety disorder? A brief clinical report. Retrieved September 30, 2012 from [[1]]

[[2]]American Psychiatric Association. DSM-IV: Diagnostic criteria for 309.21 Separation Anxiety Disorder. Retrieved September 30, 2012 from [[2]]

[[3]]American Psychiatric Association. “E 00 Separation Anxiety Disorder.” DSM-5 Development: Proposed Revisions, Anxiety Disorders. Retrieved September 30, 2012 from [[3]]

[[4]]Shorey, Hal S. The Interactions of Hope and Attachment Styles in a Social-cognitive-motivational Model of Depressive Vulnerability. Page 7ff. Retrieved September 30, 2012 from [[4]]

[[5]]Bernstein, Elizabeth. “When It Never Gets Easier to Say Goodbye”. Wall Street Journal. September 18, 2012. Retrieved September 30, 2012 from This interesting and informative article discusses the causes of Adult Separation Disorder, its relationship to attachment styles, helpful tips, and has both video and audio supplements. [[5]]

[[6]]Donahue, Wendy. “Beyond chemistry: Science of relationships”. Chicago Tribune. March 27, 2012. Retrieved September 30, 2012 from,0,3245786.story [[6]]

[[7]]Bernstein, 2012. [[7]]

[[8]]Donahue, 2012. [[8]]

[[9]]Bernstein, 2012. [[9]]
[[10]]Bernstein, 2012. [[10]]
[[11]]Bernstein, 2012. [[11]]
[[12]]Bernstein, 2012. [[12]]

13 comments… add one
Farid April 12, 2013, 4:24 pm

I can relate to the secure attachment style and am highly interested in how the other attachment styles can affect relationships. It reminded me of a related article I read recently about attachment styles…

Jennifer April 18, 2013, 4:10 pm

Thank you, thank you, thank you. (Can’t say ‘thank you’ enough.)

For the better part of 30 years, I have known at a very deep level, there is something “wrong” with my attachment style (though I didn’t call it that then). And, specifically, when it comes to romantic relationships, my fear is that I’m going to be, essentially, lied to and/or duped and replaced. Sadly, I have believed for most of my life that I was just profoundly insecure and it was my job to suck it up and get over it.

I have a MA in education, am an artist, writer, blogger, and business person who is very connected to many good and kind people. I have a teenage daughter who is the light of my life (and so very confident and happy). I’m normal, mostly happy, and enjoy a variety of activities from church to singing to community theater – all social and all positive things.

I’ve divorced, on the far end of a decade of trying to date. Two men in 10 years. Oddly enough I broke with both (and broke both engagements) – not because of anxiety but because they simply were not good for me; and, I had, essentially, chosen them. I have not been pursued, ever and perhaps the endings have been easier because I didn’t begin as someone’s target? There is a distinct difference choosing and being chosen.

Right now, all those old and awful familiar feelings of “what if” are staring me in the face daily. In February, I connected with a fellow who is actively pursuing me and it is, mostly, fantastic. He is unlike the other men in that he is confident, busy in his life, engaged with hobbies and activities he enjoys. He gives back by volunteering in his community several ways, he has an abundance of healthy friend relationships, is close with his family members, and regularly takes and makes time to be in touch with me to say he loves me or how happy he is that we are “we.” And I am thrilled. And I know I should be considerably more happy but my anxiety is in the way of enjoyment much of the time. Ugh.

And terrified. Absolutely, to the bone, terrified.
Because the broken part of me convinces me he’ll leave or find someone else or cheat or grow weary of me in some fantastical way.

And I already *know* he is a good man.
The first 13 months of my life were spent in and out of either a foster home or Lenox Hill Hospital. I was finally healthy enough to be adopted and went home with a nice couple… but the woman, my adoptive mother, is textbook 1) narcissist and 2) alcoholic, and was 3) entirely dismissive and cruel. I never knew where I stood with her and she was always changing the rules of engagement.

The coping method I have adopted (no pun intended) is to “fake it until I make it” and literally pretend there’s nothing bothering me and that it is all in my head. The fears, the bad training about how people who love you are prone to head-games and meanness.

This man wants to marry me.
And I would like to marry him, when the time is right.
And until that time, to make things even more challenging, we live seven hours apart, visiting every 8 weeks or so…

I can do this without drugs or more therapy. And, I hope, without laying myself at the feet of any further anxiety that need not exist.

Phillipine August 12, 2013, 4:23 pm

wow I can relate to this.separation anxiety and all of the insecurities thats all me.

arlene July 17, 2013, 9:49 am

I feel better when I read about adult separation anxiety disorder. I gives me more confidence, I feel it help me and I would like to get more articles to read

arlene July 17, 2013, 9:50 am

I feel better when I read about adult separation anxiety disorder. I gives me more confidence, I feel it helps me and I would like to get more articles to read

Phillipine August 12, 2013, 3:56 pm

hi I have separation anxiety to my fiance and my 6months baby boy.I am in this relationship with the father of my baby(fiance) but im not happy as im still insecure since he cheated on me.i cant leave him as he begs me.i cant leave our house to visit my relatives and have a sleep over all because im scared he will cheat.i dont want to luz him even when he had hurt me before.And as for my baby I cant look for a job and leave him.ive been with him since from birth and I even left my job.i cant leave him with anybody.i cant be away from him for an hour as I feel that I cant breath.i cant go look for a job because im scared of leaving my baby and I dont think anyone can take care of my baby.when he cries I rush to him and I dont trust anyone with my baby.if I leave him for an hour I go crazy and when I came back I check if no one hurt him.I just cant leave my fiance and my baby.

Derrick March 1, 2014, 11:34 am

I just recently figured out that I have anxious attachment disorder. Im 32 and it has always got the best of my relationships eventually. I just got out of a month long relationship that my emotions went haywire. I constantly wanted reassurance, attention. When she started to get distant which I new right away, my attachment disorder took over and bam, now she ignores me all together. Took me several days for my contact anxiety, panic, phone watching, preoccupied non stop thinking of her to die down some. And to think, we were together just 1 month and it defeated me, Again. I have said for years that this feeling I get, even when I have no girl in my life, that I could relate the feeling from when I was a kid but never understood it till a week or so ago. Maybe it took me losing her or finding her for a reason, to finally show me the light of what has plagued me as long as I can remember. I pray I can somehow get better. I can remember that anytime I was alone with my father I would get this feeling, even if my mom just went out to get the mail. He beat my brother and I mostly for nothing and the emotional abuse seemed even worse. Mom couldn’t do much because he would just yell at her and hurt her emotionally to but never hit her. Anyway long story short, I live in constant fear and anxiety and panic. Now I could be watching a movie, at the store, driving around, what ever, and bam, out of the blue I am consumed with anxiety and panic and I feel like my heart will explode and it rules my life in everyway. The only time I get relief is when I have a girlfriend and she is right beside me or in close contact and she is emotionally close to me.. when we are apart opand I don’t hear from her for what ever the reason, my problem intensifies by 100× it seems.

Caren June 29, 2016, 4:56 pm

This explains me 100%. Thank you. All of my past relationships haven’t been great, so it never bothered me if they were gone. I met my husband 3 years ago. He worked a half mile from home (yes, we were lucky). I never worried. Now he found a better job 45 minutes away. He hasn’t even started yet and I’m panicking and feeling sick. So sick, I tried to commit suicide last week. I’m so worried he’s going to get hurt, crash, have an accident at work (he’s a diesel mechanic), and I won’t’ be able to get to him. He’s also working 11 hour days and not the usual 8 anymore. We’ve been fighting so much. In 3 years, we have gotten into 2 heated arguments that lasted less than a day. Now it’s all we’ve been doing since this job became a reality. I thought it was depression. Now I know it’s not. Thank you so much. I’m seeing a therapist tomorrow.

hoa tuoi dep May 9, 2017, 2:14 am

I will refer my patients suffering from anxiety to your blog to get good info on anxiety. You have created a wonderful resource center.

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