I have a diabolical relationship history. Cheating, abuse, financial manipulation you name it — I’ve had it happen. None of those relationships really haunt me, however. It’s the good men I pushed away with my all-consuming relationship anxiety.
That anxiety is one of the root causes of my self-recovery journey. Secondary to my narcissist mother’s manipulations, I had a bad habit of detonating good partnerships the minute I felt insecure or otherwise short on lovability.
If you’ve been in a romantic relationship before, then the odds are that you have experienced anxiety just like I did. It’s estimated that at least 1 in 5 people suffers from serious worry about elements of their relationships. It’s normal.
The problem comes when that anxiety becomes an obstacle in the connection you’re trying to build. Although relationship anxiety is normal it can become debilitating and keep us from holding on to the love we value deeply.
Ready to defeat your relationship anxiety? Read on. Once you understand what’s happening, you can take steps to protect your relationships (and yourself) in the process.
What are the signs of serious relationship anxiety?
When someone has relationship anxiety, it can cause serious upset throughout their lives. That’s because their emotional states revolve around their core relationships and the feelings of intense worry those relationships (both romantic and platonic) create.
Everyone experiences relationship anxiety differently, but (according to the DSM-5) it generally manifests along the lines of:
- Serious doubts: You doubt everything your partner says or does. At the core of everything, you have a fundamental belief that they are lying to you, avoiding you, or otherwise not being forthright about the way they feel.
- Major paranoia: You exist in a constant fear loop in which you’re waiting for a breakup. You think everything is going to lead to a relationship ending. This can lead to excessive reassurance seeking like asking, “Do you love me? Do you love me?”
- Denying the future: You don’t make future plans or try to grow the relationship because you’re convinced it’s going to end and there’s no point in wasting the time or emotional energy. You may become apathetic.
- Drip-fed sabotage: You push your partner away over time because you want to break the relationship before you get pushed out of it. You may do this by creating conflict with them or behaving recklessly.
- Over-accomodation: Fearing rejection, you become so anxious that you go out of your way to make your partner’s life easier so they won’t leave you. It creates an air of desperation. It can earn pathetic pity.
- Deadly self-silencing: You intentionally edit yourself and your thoughts (to a fault) until your entire identity dissolves. You become comparable to a ghost inside of your relationship.
It’s possible to experience one of these symptoms or a number of these symptoms all at the same time. These behaviors come to us on the back of bad experiences, trauma, and the toxic lessons that are handed down through families and through our social connections.
Relationship anxiety can occur in a platonic friendship, or in a romantic relationship. For the purposes of this article, however, we’re going to focus on the far-reaching effects that relationship anxiety has on our intimate or romantic partnerships.
The reason your anxiety gets worse in a relationship.
So what is the secret? Why do so many of us (1 in 5) feel such a spike in anxiety when we fall in love with someone? You must get to the root of this answer before you can spring into action and tackle your anxiety. In short, it comes down to 2 simple things: there’s either something to be anxious about, or it’s in your head (and nervous system).
There’s something to be anxious about
Let’s just be honest. Sometimes, our anxiety isn’t a result of a damaged nervous system or some deep-rooted trauma. Anxiety, exists, like our anger to warn of us a problem. That problem isn’t always centrally emotional. Our relationship anxiety may be real and based on issues like:
- An unfaithful partner
- A lack of emotional support
- Out of balance labor
- Total emotional check out
- An eroding connection
Does your partner have a history of cheating? (Either on you or previous relationships.) It’s natural to be nervous that they will slip again when you consider the statistics. Do they refuse to be a shoulder you can cry on? That emotional neglect is a cliffhanger all its own.
Who wouldn’t feel anxious in a relationship where one person is doing all the work and the other person is reaping all the benefits? Worry is natural when someone is checking out, or the core of the relationship is eroding altogether.
The past is bleeding through
That can’t be said for all the relationship anxiety we feel, however. I wasn’t anxious because every partner cheated on me. I was anxious about my relationships because I linked them all to my unresolved trauma and expected my partners to react the same way. Anxiety can come from the past bleeding through.
- You’re repeating patterns
- You have low self-worth
- You’re in a state of sabotage
- You don’t know what you’re doing
Maybe you’re repeating the toxic patterns passed down to you by a mother and father who didn’t know how to love. Then there’s the other common one. You may be anxious because you love your partner and fear you will lose them because you aren’t good enough.
Low self-esteem will lead you into self-sabotaging relationship beliefs and behaviors. You will push good partners away because you don’t think you’re worthy of their love. That’s a problem. An even bigger problem? Stumbling through relationships you don’t understand. The unknown makes even the bravest lovers anxious.
Can you learn to tame your relationship fears?
For a long time, I believed that there was no such thing as a good relationship. I fell into misandry and looked toward my romantic future with total pessimism. But that got me nowhere. What did? Changing my entire perspective and building healthier relationships around realistic expectations and attention to the present moment.
1. Getting rooted in reality
The first thing that has to happen is a stripping of the false narratives you’ve built around your relationships. For me, I had to shed the misinformation and misunderstandings that had been projected all around me by family, friends, and society at large. I had to unlearn the healthy relationship rules they had hoisted on me and look at the human-to-human connection in a more realistic way.
There is no such thing as a fairy tale. Those stories exist only in books. Relationships aren’t P.S. I Love You. They’re not Gone With the Wind, The Notebook, or Love Actually.
When you combine your life with another person, you’re doubling the experiences you have — the good and the bad. Whatever that other person is battling, whatever pain they have, you will come in contact with that suffering. Your suffering will become a part of their lives too.
No romantic relationship happens in a straight line, and it doesn’t magically wipe all hardship from your life. There are certainly ups, but there are also downs. The reality is that relationships don’t exist as a magical crutch. It’s not the responsibility of another person to save us from ourselves.
Instead of seeing a romantic partnership as the core catalyst for my happiness, I had to change the story. I saw life as a Christmas tree, shining and bright, and my relationships were a bauble on that tree. Seeing that connection as a part of the happiness (not the whole of it) allows you to hold space for independence, imperfection, and humanity all in one.
2. Assuming humanity
Humanity and human experiences are rarely considered by the couple newly in love. Addicted to one another’s bodies and the thrill of a new connection, they don’t let their thoughts float to the fact that they are still humans on an incredibly difficult human journey. We look to our partners as perfect specimens and then warp our perceptions around the inevitable disappointment we experience.
My mother taught me not that a man was a person in a relationship, but that is was one part god and one part wallet. In the lessons she taught me about love and marriage, she painted not empathy but control and transaction.
She never encouraged me to hold space for my partner’s feelings. I was never coached to ask my partner about the root of their suffering. Never was I told to hold space for the anxieties my potential husband may have at being a sole provider in a big scary world.
A lot of people fall into similar traps.
They don’t see their partner as a person, exactly the same as them. They poise their partner as a solution. For some, their husband or wife is a means to an end.
3. Communicating feelings is a state of mind that becomes utilitarian. Connections wane and momentum quickly becomes stagnant. It’s easy to build resentment when you feel like you’re being used as an element in someone else’s story. It’s a lot less anxiety-inducing to build on a sense of shared humanity instead.
3. Communicating feelings
It’s a no-brainer that communication has to figure into the process at some point. We are social animals and we have to communicate with one another in order to connect, to grow, and to build together. This personal dialogue is even more important in relationships. You and your potential partners have to talk about literally everything if you want any chance at success.
You’ll get beyond your relationship anxiety when you learn how to talk it out. It doesn’t matter if your anxiety is rooted in reality or it’s rooted in your own personal fears and experiences.
Consider your hangups first. You need to be open about these with your partner to benefit both of you. Your partner deserves to know where you’re coming from. They can’t support you unless you tell them what’s going on. You need the reassurance and the clarity of talking through the ludicrousy of your past-rooted fears.
Now consider genuine, relevant present-moment anxieties. You fear your partner is cheating on you because they have a history of infidelity. Or, your fears of breakup are stronger than ever because you and your loved one have stopped spending any quality time together.
The real issues in your relationship won’t get fixed by ignoring them. A resolution will come when you find the courage to communicate why you’re fearful, giving the other person a chance to adjust and make improvements that put your mind at ease.
4. Be present in the moment
You’ve probably heard the cliche that your anxiety is rooted in future events. It feels cheesy, but it’s true. It doubly applies to relationship anxiety. Too many people get anxious about their relationships because they’re too worried about the future. They want to know how things end, or worse, they want to control how things play out in the future.
Getting out of that future-obsessed loop is a must. Instead of putting pressure on your partnership and forcing it into a rush, things flow much smoother when we step back and root ourselves in the present moment.
Enjoy the here and now with your partner. Stop worrying about when you’ll get married, what your house will look like, or how many kids you’ll have.
If things are good, if you’re in the arms of someone who loves you, enjoy the ride. Know that the love you have for that person, the connection you share, is enough — no matter how the story ends later on down the road (when both of you are completely different people).
5. Stop reading imaginary books
Reading between the lines is one of the worst things you could do in any relationship. Spend long enough with someone and you’ll wind up with entire books of misinformation, that spin out into twisted storylines in your own head. Look at my own tragic dating history for examples.
Over and over again, I pushed away really great men with my own insecurities. I would analyze everything they said they did, and question what the deeper meaning was behind it. I couldn’t take anything at face value, and it created a person who was pushy, paranoid, and visibly low on self-esteem.
Stop reading and writing these imaginary books of lies. Find a good person and then take them at their word. No more expecting the worst. If you want to defeat your relationship anxiety, you have to meet it where it lives — fantasy. There’s no use crying over spilled milk and there’s no use panicking over stories you’ve made up in your head.
Relationship anxiety is normal. It happens to most of us at one point or another. Facing it is how we overcome it. Sometimes rooted in reality, sometimes rooted in our own misunderstandings and trauma, once we see our relationship anxiety for what it is, we can take steps to create healthier reactions and dialogue around it.
Give yourself this chance to conquer your anxiety so it doesn’t uproot your relationships. Good love doesn’t come around every day. Make sure the door is open to a world where that kind of love can thrive. Begin by defeating your relationship anxiety with a more realistic approach and outlook.
© E.B. Johnson 2023