Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder?

October 6, 2009

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Absence doesn’t always make the heart grow fonder.  In fact, separation from a spouse or partner can often be very distressing.  Lisa Diamond and her colleagues explored what happens to your body and your mind when partners separate – even for a few days.

In their study, researchers looked at 42 couples either married or living together before, during, and after a short (4-7 day) separation. Similar to children being separated from their parents, couples can go through similar experiences of separation distress.  Researchers found that separation changed the quality of couples’ daily interactions and increased negative feelings, levels of stress, and even sleep problems.

How can couples combat these consequences of distress?  Couples who stayed in contact with one another throughout their separation via phone, email, text or voicemail messages were likely to experience less change in their daily interactions.  Also, researchers found a difference between partners.  Negative effects of separation were generally stronger for partners who stayed at home compared to partners that traveled away – presumably because the partners staying at home were confronted with changes to their daily routine and interactions and the traveling partner experienced more stimulation and novel changes.

Effects were also stronger for people with attachment anxiety – suggesting that certain people anticipate and worry about separation more than others and feel more stressed, resulting in higher levels of HPA activity, a physiological reaction generally associated with environmental threat or disturbance. Consider the type of person your partner is.  If he or she is likely to get stressed or depressed during separation, try calling and staying in contact more frequently.  If your partner is one who prefers time alone, fewer calls and emails may be sufficient.  Participants in the present study were found to take on such coping behaviors in line with partners’ expectations and attachment styles.

The good news about temporary separation was that most of the distress from partners leaving rebounded when couples reunited (although some extremely anxious individuals seemed to require more adjustment after coming back together as well).  So, while absence doesn’t always make the heart grow fonder, the negative effects of separation are often just temporary.

Further Reading:
Diamond, L. M., Hicks, A. M., & Otter-Henderson, K. D. (2008). Every Time You Go Away: Changes in Affect, Behavior, and Physiology Associated With Travel-Related Separations From Romantic Partners. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95(2), 385-403.   DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.95.2.385

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