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DEAR DR. JENN,
At the beginning of quarantine, my boyfriend and I were at each other's throats. But as time went on, we started to really enjoy each other's company on a whole new level and actually used the isolation to strengthen our relationship. But now that we're both vaccinated and things are opening up (including returning to the office), I feel anxious. I worry about his health, about something going wrong, and I just feel anxious just about being apart. Is this normal? -Joined At the Hip
DEAR JOINED AT THE HIP,
We have been trapped in our homes with our loved ones for a long time now. Those relationships that survived are typically stronger than before. Somehow, people adjusted to spending enormous amounts of time with their romantic partners and even began to enjoy the comfort of knowing their sig other was only a room away.
As things have started to open up, I'm hearing more and more clients and friends express anxiety about being separated from their other half. Some anxiety is normal. Change, even when it is good, tends to be anxiety-provoking. Being able to leave our homes, spend time with friends, eat at a restaurant, or go to an event is very exciting. But, for the last almost a year and a half we have trained our brains to associate sharing air with people outside of our pod as a threat to our health and even in our lives. That programming does not go away overnight. When we feel anxious we tend to cling to the people and things that are most familiar and safe. In your case, that is your boyfriend. Like a lovey, a pacifier, or a blankey, our romantic partner can soothe us and help us to regulate our emotions.
And those with anxious attachment styles will have an even bigger adjustment period. If you are someone who had an inconsistent or distant parent, you may have more anxiety around attachment in general. Perhaps for you, being locked in an apartment with your partner was a dream come true because you did not have to face the feeling of anxiety when they came and went. If this is your situation, these lifestyle changes are likely to bring up a lot of fear for you.
In order to cope with that anxiety, sometimes people create conflict in their relationship to avoid feeling these difficult feelings. Be aware that you may start a fight to create distance or make it easier to spend time apart! Much of this is an unconscious process, but knowing about it can oftentimes help.
There are some things you can do to help ease into this change.
1. Take baby steps.
If going back to the office gradually is an option, that is ideal. Immediately going back five days a week for an eight-hour day is a lot of change at once. If you can start by going in once a week and build up, that transition will be helpful in easing your anxiety all around. And don't wait until you go back to the office to have some time apart. If you aren't already, make it a point to run errands or go on a walk without each other and slowly get a feel for what it's like to spend time apart.
2. Stay in touch throughout the day.
Text each other throughout the day just to say "hi" and stay connected. In a study about using technology to connect in romantic relationships, researchers found that texting to express affection is associated with higher reported partner attachment for men and women. This is a good time to use technology to reinforce the bond.
3. Increase your support system.
Sometimes we can get so focused or dependent on our romantic partner that we neglect our other relationships. This is a good time to nurture your friendships. Schedule time to meet up with a pal outdoors or someplace that you feel safe. If you're not ready to do that, you can always Zoom.
4. Bookmark your time apart.
Find a way to connect before you have to separate, and find something you can do to reconnect when you come back. This can be physical touch, a phrase you say to each other to connect, or another ritual like cooking dinner together.
5. Find other ways to self-soothe.
If you have been relying on your partner to calm you down when you're feeling stressed out, it's time to learn some new skills so you can do this yourself. Finding healthy outlets -exercise, meditation, or other hobbies will help you learn how to de-stress on your own.
6. Have a transitional love object.
When children are little they often have what we therapists call a transitional love object. This is often a stuffed animal or a familiar blanket that operates as a stand-in for a parent when they leave. It is a physical object that reminds you of the bond with the other person. It may sound silly, but when you and your boyfriend are apart, you may want to hold onto a T-shirt that smells like him, a photo, or something else that makes you feel close to him to ease your anxiety.
7. Get therapy.
If you find that your anxiety is debilitating or just takes up too much of your energy, do some work with a therapist. If you're not ready to leave the house, most therapists are still offering online sessions. If money is a concern, utilize mental health clinics in your area or crisis hotlines.
Be patient with your process. Sometimes our anxiety about change can result in us feeling more clingy to those that we love. The good news is that your relationship survived the pandemic - and your bond is strong enough to get through this next phase, too.
In Hump Day, award-winning psychotherapist and TV host Dr. Jenn Mann answers your sex and relationship questions - unjudged and unfiltered.