Peter Gamlen

Separation anxiety is real for couples who quarantined together

As a person who lives alone and was single for most of the pandemic, I was often envious of my cohabitating friends. They looked so safe and nested in their pandemic pillow forts. But now the pandemic is, for all intents and purposes, over for the vaccinated. And couples who weathered the storm together are facing a new challenge: post-pandemic separation anxiety. I asked therapists how couples who survived the pandemic together can now learn to thrive as they move into a new normal.

Take Lydia Liebman and her husband. Liebman is a 29-year-old music publicist in New York City who weathered most of lockdown in a small one-bedroom with her husband, Willie Rodriguez, 38, and their dog, Coco. It was rough at first, Liebman tells me. “We were stressed because of the pandemic,” she says, not to mention being with the same person all day. “Coco kept us sane,” Liebman laughs.

Liebman and Rodriguez also work together, which means they not just co-habitated, but collaborated, working and playing in the same space. As two independent individuals who usually travel a lot, it was hard to get used to. Eventually though, they developed a rhythm — and that rhythm was soothing. “I didn’t have to feel like I was on a life raft by myself,” Liebman says.

Things got even better when they moved into a bigger apartment in the same building. In January 2021, the couple decided to start eating better. They helped each other make healthier choices and, as a result, they each lost more than 30 pounds. “If we weren’t in this situation I don’t know if we would have had the motivation,” she says.

Now that they’re re-entering the world, though, things are changing. A few weeks ago, Rodriguez traveled to Puerto Rico to visit family without Liebman. “It was so weird. I’m really independent, but I realized that I had never slept in our apartment alone before,” she says. “I like having my own space, but it’s also difficult to adjust to.” Liebman says that she and her partner are trying to take the return to regular life slowly. “I feel like it’s going to take me a while to get used to being apart,” she says.

Listening to Liebman talk about the ways her relationship deepened during the pandemic was, honestly, inspiring. Not only did they avoid falling into so many of the traps that many couples fell into — overeating, overdrinking, bickering — they seem to have actually come out the other side healthier. So, what now? How do couples keep supporting each other as they move back into the grind? And how do they deal with the separation anxiety that creeps up?

Photo: Lydia Liebman

“When people have a strong emotional connection, the chemicals in the brain that relate to love and intimacy sync up,” says Aimee Daramus, a Chicago-based psychotherapist. Psychologists call this chemical bonding. What happens is this: When you spend time with someone you have mutual care with, both of your bodies release feel-good hormones like serotonin and dopamine. When you get used to having certain levels of those hormones in your body, you develop an emotional baseline that is directly correlated to time spent with your loved one. Daramus says that when couples have been supportive of each other in this physiological way, there can be an emotional and chemical “withdrawal period” when they are apart. So there you have it: Love is a drug.

So, then, the idea of separation anxiety isn’t romantic pop culture fodder, it’s a real physical experience. Like any kind of chemical withdrawal, it can feel pretty terrible. “People might miss each other as if they hadn't seen each other in weeks, even if they'll see each other in a few hours,” Daramus says. She also recommends taking the re-entry process slowly, as Liebman mentioned she and Rodriguez are doing. It may be tempting to jump back into social life full force, but given the chemical bonding, that’s akin to going cold turkey.

In case you’re wondering, yes, having anxious feelings about separation is totally natural. It’s only a problem when chemical bonding turns into codependency, which as you can imagine, isn’t great. Codependency is what happens when couples become “enmeshed” — a term that’s usually used to describe parental bonding. “Enmeshment is hallmarked by a lack of boundaries and a perception that the other person is an extension of ourselves,” says Stefani Goerlich, a Detroit-based psychotherapist.

In some sense, the easiest way to understand the difference between normal, healthy bonding and enmeshment is whether you can feel a sense of your own agency whether or not they’re around. “If you become aware that you're starting to take on the feelings that your partner is expressing — angry when they're angry, happy when they're happy, etc. — that can be a warning sign of codependency,” says Goerlich.

Liebman, who feels the strain of separation anxiety but isn’t choked by it, is an example of a person going through a perfectly healthy yet sometimes uncomfortable transition period. The first step in dealing with separation anxiety is naming it. “Labeling what we're feeling can go a long way to help us understand our reactions,” explains Goerlich. “Giving it a name lets us know we're not alone.”

The next step is to talk about it as a couple and decide together how to cope. “You might want to decide together how often you'll check in with each other, or plan some togetherness time at the end of the day to talk about both the positives and negatives of re-entering the world,” says Daramus. Knowing that you have a planned time to be together may help you deal with separation anxiety, and spending that time will help you reconnect after an absence.

Also, it’s important to just lean into the weird new reality. While couples may struggle with their newfound time apart, it’s also crucial to enjoy time to yourself. “When you're alone, focus on experiences that anchor you in the world as it is now, and enjoy being back in the world,” says Darmus. Even really savoring a cup of coffee from your favorite cafe can help you feel the positives of being away from your partner, she explains. That doesn’t mean that you don’t love them, it just means that you also love your own company — and being part of the bigger world.