It’s normal to have fears and doubts in your relationship, but Tennesha Wood, dating coach, matchmaker, and founder of The Broom List, shares that for some individuals, these worries can become frequent enough to hinder the possibility of creating a healthy, flourishing relationship. “Those with relationship anxiety feel unstable in the relationship — even when there are no issues —, and the perceived state of the relationship can begin to impact their day-to-day life,” she says. Carla Marie Manly, Ph.D. clinical psychologist, speaker, and author of Date Smart, adds that relationship anxiety can occur on a continuum from “very mild to extremely severe” and may also happen consistently or be more situational.
What are some of the ways relationship anxiety can present itself?
Wood highlights that those struggling with relationship-based anxiety have trouble taking their relationship at face value and often over-analyze their partner’s action’s as well as their own. Excessive reassurance-seeking is another big one — you might seek constant validation from your partner about their feelings towards you (or vice versa) and even feel like you’re “nothing” without them.
It’s certainly possible that relationship anxiety may only occur in triggering settings, such as with a partner’s family or in a social situation where an ex might be present. “If the anxiety stems solely from one partner’s inner fears, rather than the partner’s triggering behavior, like chronic flirting, intrapersonal rather than interpersonal relationship anxiety would be at work,” explains Dr. Manly. And when it comes to your relationship, having a clear idea about expectations and boundaries is super important — Dr. Manly points out that relationship anxiety tends to be non-existent or very low when partners have a solid, mutual understanding of each other’s needs and preferences.
Additionally, the getting-to-know-you process can no doubt be nerve-wracking for a variety of reasons, and while Dr. Manly says it’s normal to have a bit of relationship anxiety when dating given the natural uncertainty, healthy relationships — even new ones — make space for both partners to discuss any anxiety and fears that arise. She elaborates: “Open, honest conversation can trigger a little anxiety, especially for those not used to straightforward discussions, but this type of anxiety tends to melt away as trust is built. However, if anxiety continues for months or years into the dating relationship, it’s important to explore why the anxiety exists.”
What can cause relationship anxiety?
Alice Shepard, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at Mirielle Therapy Practice in NYC, says that communication difficulties often play a large role. “Very often, those with relationship anxiety develop a feeling of nervousness when a relationship partner or a potential relationship partner decreases their level of engagement — it also may emerge from a mismatch in expectations, needs, and desires,” she notes. And since a lot of the time, those with relationship anxiety may not speak up in order to preserve the relationship, these types of issues may go undiscussed or unresolved.
Sometimes relationship-based anxiety occurs due to unhealed trauma from childhood or prior relationships. Dr. Manly says it’s possible to work through this type of anxiety with appropriate psychotherapy or self-work. “It’s important to note that those who have an insecure attachment style known as ‘anxious’ or ‘anxious-preoccupied’ may experience ongoing insecurity in their adult relationships,” she adds. Wood agrees that relationship anxiety may stem from prior negative experiences in relationships since this can weaken your confidence and make it difficult to trust.
How can relationship anxiety be managed?
While it may not necessarily feel like it at the moment, relationship anxiety is something that can be overcomed — although it will take some time and effort. Here are some tips for dealing with and managing relationship anxiety:
- Communicate your fears and challenges: As we mentioned above, communication is key, and Wood reiterates that it’s important to discuss what’s going on with your partner. “If your partner understands your fears and the root cause, they can give grace and help to calm your fears.” Suppose you notice the anxiety is coming solely from inside yourself. In that case, Dr. Manly says to ask for your partner’s support as you work through the issues, and if you feel the anxiety is a result of your partner’s behavior, now’s the time to ask that they shift the energy of their behaviors to create greater connection within the relationship. And should your partner be unwilling to make adjustments in order to create healthy dynamics, it may be time to assess the viability of the relationship itself.
- Journal about the causes of your anxiety: Grab a notebook and take some time to jot down the causes of your relationship-based stress whenever it arises. “It’s important not to judge yourself; simply take note of the situations that trigger the anxiety,” shares Dr. Manly, adding that after a few days of journaling, you’ll likely spot patterns that will help you understand yourself and your anxiety better.
- Remember to breathe: Your anxiety is a messenger, so take a moment to notice it rather than trying to push it away. “When you feel anxious, pause to allow yourself to breathe — inhale deeply to a count of four, hold to a count of four, and exhale to a count of four; repeat this for four cycles,” suggests Dr. Manly. “You’ll be able to regulate your emotions — and your anxiety — better when you learn to pause to breathe.
- Try the “does this add up” test: When you’re feeling anxious, Dr. Shepard suggests asking yourself questions like, “Are my partner’s words and actions in alignment?” If they are, then continue to build trust in incremental ways based on your level of relationship. If, however, your partner’s words and actions are not in alignment, look closely at their behavior. “If you’re not happy, talk with them directly about it in a nonjudgmental way in which you’re open to hearing what they have to say whether it be good or perhaps not so good.”
- Consider working with a therapist: Another tip from Dr. Shepard is to think about engaging with a trusted therapist. “Often, we find ourselves stuck or repeating relationship patterns that were a part of our parents’ relationship,” she shares. “If you find yourself in a healthy relationship, but acting or responding in ways that are unwarranted, work with a therapist who can help to liberate you.”
Finally, we leave you with some words of wisdom from Dr. Shepard: “Consider that a great relationship is not a pre-lab model; it is something uniquely created between you and the other person through time, communication, and experience.” While relationship anxiety mightn’t be something you can avoid altogether, you can certainly work to quiet the constant questioning and spend more time enjoying your partner and what you have together.
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