Managing Separation Anxiety through communication

The strengthening and tightening of connection with very close contacts seems to have a very significant emotional value. There are a number of different disciplines that can be called upon to help us understand this social phenomenon. Social  scientists are using concepts from sociological, economic, and ethnographic perspectives to understand the social mechanisms that are being brought about by the new media.  A few researchers such as Richard Ling (2008), Richard Harper (forthcoming), are for instance using Goffman’s theories to analyse some of the rituals that they have seen emerging in the use of the mobile phone.

Ling is inspired by Goffman and Collins’ explanations of the interaction rituals that are enacted in face to face encounters to investigate mobile communication. Challenging the views that consider that these new channels are reducing the sense of social cohesion and favouring a growing individualism, he draws a parallel between some of the daily brief greetings and interactions described by Goffman which support the creation of social cohesion,  and some of the routine endearments that teenagers send each other by text. Various forms of gossip, humour, romantic interactions which are carried out on the mobile are seen as forms of rituals that actually support the cohesion of the group.

I would like to examine the phenomenon of the intensification of exchanges between close relationships, using some of the tools of clinical psychology. It seems to me that the strong emotional bonds that mediated communication is sustaining and the universal association between safety and cell phones, suggest that there is a level of interpretation that is missing from the sociological explanations.

The most suggestive ideas, in my view, come from theories of Attachment which explain how people create strong emotional ties in childhood and how these relationships will shape the way they will handle significant affects and separation in adulthood.  As most of the contacts that happen through channels such as SMS, email, calls or social networking are done during moments of distance and separation, it seems relevant to examine what are the emotional states involved in separation from the most significant relationships.

John Bowlby who developed the theory of Attachment in the late 1940s, started from his observations in children’s hospital wards and institutions in which children were separated from parents. He observed extreme cases of grief, withdrawal and even impaired development in these isolated children. Invoking principles derived from ethology, he claimed that infants’ instinctual behaviours of clinging, sucking and smiling develop during their first year into an organized attachment to the mother or main caretaker.  “Briefly put attachment behavior is conceived as any form of behavior that results in a person attaining or retaining proximity to some other differentiated and preferred individual .”  Bowlby considered that attachment behavior had a survival value (in order to preserve the baby from predators and other perils) which explained why it can be found in most mammal species. With development the attachment behavior decreases and crying, calling, protests, decrease and become evident only in case of extreme grief, fear or illness.

Bowlby and Ainsworth described various patterns of attachment that can emerge during childhood, ranging from the securely attached to anxious and avoidant. Securely attached children are able to explore the world around them, when they have the sense that they have a secure base to return to. Toddlers can walk away from their mothers but will regularly turn back to check that she is still there. Children must develop a form of secure dependence on their parents before they can launch into unfamiliar situations in which they must cope by themselves.

Attachment therefore, goes hand in hand with separation and anxiety. The child, when separated from the mother, will go through phases of anxiety, desperation and detachment.  As children grow older they learn how to cope with separations and become more self reliant but will still turn regularly to their mother or caretakers for comfort. A secure base provides a basis for developing the skills necessary to depend on oneself and gain greater independence. Bowlby claimed that the responses of the mother or main caretaker to the infant (how available she is in meeting the needs of the child), and in particular their response to separation, determines what type of attachment pattern the child and adult will develop.

“Evidence is accumulating that human beings of all ages are happiest and able to deploy their talents to best advantage when they are confident that, standing behind them, there are one or more trusted persons who will come to their aid should difficulty arise. The person trusted, also known as an attachment figure can be considered as providing his or her companion as a secure base from which to operate”. Bowlby 1973

All through their life people will try to reduce anxiety by turning to the people they are attached to and this, claimed Bowlby,  is a healthy and adapted response.  Bowlby observed that certain kinds of events, such as pain, hunger, alarming circumstances, criticism or rejection by others, trigger anxiety in children, and that children try to relieve their anxiety by seeking closeness and comfort from caregivers.   A similar dynamic occurs in adults when events trigger their anxiety. Adults try to alleviate their anxiety by seeking physical and psychological closeness to their partners (attachments in adulthood will have been extended to partners and other people beyond the mother or caretaker).

Mikulincer, Shaver and Pereg (2003) have developed a model for this dynamic in adulthood. According to their model, when people experience anxiety, they try to reduce it by seeking closeness with partners. People feel less anxious when close to their partners because their partners can provide support including comfort, assistance, and information. They describe a  sequence of events in the security based strategy, when in other terms a person has developed a secure base in childhood which allows them to deal easily with separation and rely on their intimate relationships.


A person perceives something that provokes anxiety. The person tries to reduce the anxiety by seeking physical or psychological closeness to her or his partner. The partner responds positively to the request for closeness, which reaffirms a sense of security and reduces anxiety. The person returns to her or his everyday activities. If we substitute a communication activity in the cycle, we see what many of the SMS, calls and other exchanges could be doing.


The short calls or messages that we see dotting the working day and which are often directed to the most significant relations, seem often to be able to reassure. When something happens, most people seem happy to be able to rely on these channels to share the moment or be in contact.  Interestingly, most  people are able to anticipate the anxieties of their partners for instance and send a comforting or informative text before the anxiety emerges. Many small endearments that characterise the content of many SMS messages (the grooming described by Ling 2003) can be seen as forms of reassurance or encouragement.  We found in many studies, that  a text is sent to confirm that a planned action is taking place “I’m picking up the kids” “ see you at 10 then”, a form of anticipated reassurance is taking place. Similarly many grooming exchanges such as “goodnight” “thank you”, can also be interpreted as ways of managing separation, as reassuring that the other person is still in the mind.

In this dialogue Ralf a thirty year old man who admits talking to his wife very often during the day, explains I think very clearly what it means to anticipate his wife anxiety (of loneliness) and unwittingly expresses his own fears regarding separation:

I really like mobile phones, I have two mobile phones and so does my wife. I have a mobile line with one company and one with another and my wife has the same subscriptions than me so that the calls to each other are free. Plus we have the fix phone at home.” “I call my wife to say hello, I call my wife to know if everything is ok, I call my wife to know if the children are ok, I call my wife for the doctor… I call my wife all day long!” I’m a guy who really likes to participate and I love hearing that the baby just ate his first apple or the older one just said something funny. And I want to hear it straight away not tonight. Plus I think it can be lonely for my wife alone at home with the kids, you know she came to this country for me and I don’t want her to feel alone, so we talk as often as we can during the day. I really don’t think she feels lonely this way and if she isn’t talking to me she calls her mother and sister. So there is always someone with her in a sense sharing what is happening to the kids and sharing her day. She is my second wife and younger than me and this time I am not risking another separation it was just too difficult.


On a different scale, Donner describes the habit of beeping or missed calls in Rwanda. These missed calls in Donners’s analysis, have different meanings, they can be a request for the more affluent person to call back, they can be prearranged codes, or ways to say “I’m thinking of you”. 

Patrick’s case illustrates how multiple beeps from the same person can mean different things during the course of a day: “When my wife sees a morning beep, she knows I am just saying ‘hi,’ but if my wife beeps me twice in the late evening, I know that she is done with her work and then I always go to pick her up. I always call back if she beeps more than once.” Donner 2006

The example above shows how even without a text or words, two people can provide a form of emotional and practical support at a distance.

The importance of these channels in managing separation and anxiety is in our view, also confirmed by the overwhelming amount of times people mention safety and security as the motivation for using or having acquired a mobile phone. In, practically, 100% of the cases feeling safe, being able to be in touch in emergencies, being able to intervene in case of need, is mentioned as an essential benefit of owning a mobile phone. In Europe, it is always mentioned as a reason for having acquired a mobile initially and systematically used an explanation for buying a mobile phone for one’s children.

Castells & al. 2007 mention the relationship between safety and cellphone ownership and Dutton and Nainoa show how cellphones were used during the 9/11 attacks. Furthermore sales of mobile phones increased significantly in the USA in the aftermath of the attacks. Using the mobile phone in moments of distress or extreme anxiety is sometimes dramatically reported by the news as during the Mumbai attacks in 2008. Many of the hostages kept in touch with sms, email and calls during the long hours they were held captive. Recordings of calls made to relatives during the September  11 attacks either from the planes or from the buildings are also being used as evidence. On a less tragic scale, most people interviewed report of cases in which their mobiles were essential to solve a sticky situation: a car brakedown, a loss of keys, being lost somewhere. The equation between a perception of safety and access to communication technology seems rather strong and has to be reckoned with in explanations regarding mediated communication.



Bowlby J (1973). Separation: Anxiety & Anger. Attachment and Loss (vol. 2); (International psycho-analytical library no.95). London: Hogarth Press.

Bowlby , J. (1973) Self reliance and some conditions to promote it.  in Gosling R.G. Support, Innovation and Autonomy. London Tavistock Publications

Castells, M. Mobile Communication and Society. Cambridge, MA: The M.I.T. Press, 2006 (co-author with Mireia Fernandez-Ardevol, Jack Linchuan Qiu and Araba Sey).

Donner, J. (2007). The Rules of Beeping: Exchanging Messages Via Intentional “MissedCalls” on Mobile Phones. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 13(1).

Dutton, W.H. and Nainoa, F. Say Goodbye . . . Let’s Roll: The Social Dynamics of WirelessNetworks on September 11.  Prometheus, Vol. 20, No. 3, pp. 237-245, September 2002.

Goffman, E. (1959) The presentation of self in everyday life. Edinburgh Social Sciences Research Centre. Anchor Books

Mikulincer, M., Shaver, P. R., & Pereg, D. (2003). Attachment Theory and Affect Regulation: The Dynamics, Development, and Cognitive Consequences of Attachment-Related Strategies. Motivation and Emotion, 27, 77-102.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s