- Romantic relationships play a major role in our mental health, with a third of Americans reporting that intimate partners are the #1 cause of their mental health issues.
- Relationship anxiety can manifest as lack of trust, hypervigilance, and poor impulse control.
- Anxious feelings and behaviors can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, as many couples break up due to the effects of relationship anxiety.
- You can manage your anxiety in relationships by educating yourself on your attachment style and maladaptive communication strategies.
Research shows that 34% of Americans have mental health concerns that they attribute primarily to their romantic relationships–past and present. Healthy relationships have the power to flood us with positive emotions, to make us feel connected, and to enhance our self-esteem. But that power can quickly become a negative force when relationships falter. A happy preoccupation with a significant other can become an anxious preoccupation. The constant dopamine rush of new love can transform into constant worrying.
This is relationship anxiety. People with relationship anxiety may have a hard time feeling emotionally safe with their partners. They worry that they’ll be abandoned, cheated on, betrayed. They worry that their love isn’t reciprocated to the same dizzying degree. Sometimes they worry that they don’t deserve happiness, so they’ll try to sabotage their relationship. It all depends on the unique psyche of the anxious partner.
But there’s good news for people with relationship anxiety. Distress levels drop considerably when couples learn to identify the roots of their anxiety and how their anxious thoughts, feelings, and behaviors don’t actually protect them from hurt. If anything, their anxiety creates the very relationship problems they’re trying to prevent. So let’s take a deep look at relationship anxiety and the simple insights that may help restore your romantic peace of mind.
What Is Relationship Anxiety?
Relationship anxiety, also known as relationship-based anxiety, is the persistent fear that one’s romantic relationship is in danger. An anxious partner might feel plagued by thoughts that their SO is planning to leave them, or that they’ve lost interest in them, or that they’ve been unfaithful. And these worries aren’t usually based on hard evidence, but rather the anxious partner’s hypervigilance, as they can’t help but read dark meaning into innocent interactions.
Signs of relationship anxiety might include impaired impulse control, as when an anxious lover furtively inspects their SO’s phone even though they know it’s a breach of privacy. Someone with relationship anxiety might feel frequent distress and emotional instability. They might seek to decode their SO’s every word or action for hidden meaning. They might alter their authentic behaviors because they live in constant fear of rejection, or of being dumped. It’s the opposite of feeling safe, secure, and trusting with one’s intimate partner.
And severe relationship anxiety can sometimes spell relationship doom, acting as a self-fulfilling prophecy. For example, a boyfriend who lives in mortal fear that his SO is going to cheat on him may drive that (entirely faithful) partner away with his paranoia and distrust.
Severe relationship anxiety might also resemble separation anxiety disorder or relationship obsessive-compulsive disorder (ROCD), both mental health conditions included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). But here’s how these more pathological issues differ from commonplace relationship anxiety:
- Separation anxiety disorder is excessive and persistent worry about being separated from an attachment figure. For instance, someone with separation anxiety might refuse to leave the house out of fear of separation.
- Relationship OCD is a disorder characterized by a preoccupation with “relationship rightness,” where someone suffers disabling symptoms due to their relationship-centered obsessions and compulsions.
In contrast, relationship anxiety is not classified as a disorder, though it can certainly cause considerable distress and impairment in functioning.
What Causes Relationship Anxiety?
People experience relationship anxiety for a wide variety of reasons, many of them rooted in their personal histories. For example, they may have had a partner who betrayed them or mistreated them in the past. Low self-esteem, complex trauma, and generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) can all exacerbate an SO’s insecurity. Or someone’s relationship might be approaching a milestone like marriage that makes them feel anxious about the future. But one of the main causes of relationship anxiety is attachment style.
Psychologists believe that attachment security is essential to healthy relationships. But children develop into adults with certain attachment styles, and not all of these formative frameworks serve their long-term health and wellbeing. Specifically, avoidant insecure and ambivalent insecure attachment styles are associated with lower marital satisfaction.
- Avoidant-insecure attachment. In this framework, a child knows that their caregiver will be unhelpful and minimize or reject their needs, thus they try to hide their negative emotions and they don’t seek out comfort when they need it. Adults with an avoidant-insecure attachment may keep significant others at arm’s length and have a hard time opening up.
- Ambivalent-insecure attachment (aka “anxious-preoccupied”, “ambivalent-anxious”, “anxious-insecure”, or “anxious attachment”). In this framework, a child doesn’t know if their caregiver is going to meet their needs or not, thus they become clingy, needy, and distrustful. Adults with ambivalent-insecure attachment might be demanding, possessive, or enmeshed/codependent in relationships.
In intimate partners, a secure attachment style is reflected in honesty, sensitivity, responsiveness, empathy, mutual support, and ease of sharing emotions.
Anxious Partners and Nonanxious Partners
An interesting phenomenon happens when one romantic partner feels secure and the other partner feels anxious about the relationship. The nonanxious partner can begin to change their own behaviors in order to placate the person they love. This is called partner accommodation, and though it may work in the short-term, it can cause chronic relationship issues. Here’s an example of how it works:
Jay feels anxious that Katie, the love of his life, is going to leave him for someone “better”. The only thing that lessens his anxiety is hearing from Katie explicitly that she’s not going to leave him, that she loves him deeply, that he’s a wonderful partner. So Jay engages in excessive reassurance-seeking. When Katie is in a bad mood from work, Jay’s relationship anxiety creeps up because he thinks he’s done something wrong. “Do you still love me?” he asks repeatedly. He feels a flash of anger at Katie for “making him” feel insecure. Katie is now annoyed not just at her work situation, but at Jay’s neediness. She chooses to silence her feelings so as not to agitate him further. “Are you mad at me?” Jay asks. “No,” says Katie, which is a white lie. In his anxious state, Jay is hypervigilant and detects that she’s not telling the truth. Now he knows that Katie must be concealing her unhappiness and his anxiety goes through the roof.
Nonanxious partners will often hide their negative emotions and even exaggerate their positive emotions in an effort to accommodate their loved one’s anxiety. This begins a pattern of self-silencing and walking on eggshells. In time, this inauthentic behavior may produce enough feeling of internal distress to make Katie want to leave her relationship, when she had been perfectly happy before the onset of Jay’s anxiety. Jay’s constant anticipation of Katie’s abandonment finally “succeeded” in pushing her away.
How to Deal with Anxiety in Relationships
In a study briefly cited above, psychologists staged a 2.5-hour intervention for couples experiencing relationship anxiety. The intervention included psychoeducation about the couple’s maladaptive behavioral patterns (like partner accommodation) as well as “targeted communication training” where the romantic partners spoke about their inner experiences in a structured way. And the couples reported a clinically significant reduction in their relationship anxiety, even weeks later.
This study shows that emotional upskilling can be highly effective in reducing relationship anxiety. Brief interventions with a qualified couples therapist can help identify problematic interactions and give romantic partners the communication tools they need to enjoy long-term attachment security. And cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help modify the inner belief systems that contribute to your behavior. But you can also do some work on your own:
- Learn your attachment style.
- Don’t act on all your feelings. Repeat the mantra “Feelings aren’t facts.”
- Don’t seek short-term reassurance when what you really need is long-term security.
- Remember that your partner is their own person, to a certain extent unknowable, and you can’t assume that you can intuit everything they’re thinking and feeling.
- If you’re feeling anxious, ask your partner more open-ended questions, like “How are you feeling?” rather than yes/no questions like “Do you hate me?”
- Remind yourself: It’s not all about you. But your relationship will eventually become all about you–and suffer accordingly–if you see everything through the lens of anxiety.
- Maintain your independence, and let your partner maintain theirs. Come together by choice, not guilt, neediness, or manipulation.
- You deserve love, connection, and compassion. So does your current partner. Sometimes relationships don’t work out. But let them not work out for good reasons, not manufactured ones. Then try to grow emotionally from your breakups so you’ll be ready for the right person when they come along.