Relationships can be a great source of joy, appreciation, love, and meaning in our lives. Finding another person whose company we enjoy and who equally enjoys spending their time with us feels amazing.
In healthy relationships, we feel safe and secure with our partner. We trust them to treat us well, and we offer the same in return. However, some people struggle with anxiety in relationships, even when they’re with a trustworthy partner, and everything has been going well so far.
Relationship anxiety refers to feelings of anxiety and stress regarding one’s relationship. It is not a mental health condition in itself but is similar to social anxiety disorder in that the source of anxiety revolves around one’s relationship with other people.
In this article, we’ll investigate relationship anxiety. We’ll explore what it means, what causes it, and how you can overcome relationship anxiety if it’s affecting you today.
What is relationship anxiety?
As mentioned, relationship anxiety is not a mental health disorder. There is no entry for ‘relationship anxiety’ in the Diagnostics and Statistical Manual Fifth Edition, and you would never hear a doctor diagnose a person with such a condition. Nonetheless, relationship anxiety is a genuine issue that can affect anyone, regardless of your age, gender, or background.
Relationship anxiety can manifest in several ways. It’s normal to feel a little anxious in a relationship, especially in the early days when you and your partner haven’t had enough time or experience to formulate a strong, trusting bond just yet.
In the early days of a relationship, you’re still figuring out your partner (not that you eventually fully figure them out – people are complex, contain multitudes, and are in a constant state of change.)
Still, as the relationship progresses, you’ll likely become more familiar with your partner’s habits, viewpoints, and mannerisms. What once seemed subtle hints or cures of disinterest or dislike might later be understood as something else entirely, such as tiredness or a low mood.
However, suppose you experience more moderate to severe anxiety in your relationships, and the feeling persists. In that case, your relationship anxiety may end up jeopardizing the quality of your relationship and the quality of your life in general.
Just like other types of anxiety, the associated stress and tension can harm our physical, mental, emotional, and behavioral health, so it’s important to take action and make the changes necessary to keep your overall health and well-being in check.
Later in this article, we’ll explain how to do so. First, let’s develop a better understanding of relationship anxiety by considering some of the common signs.
What are the signs of relationship anxiety?
Common signs of relationship anxiety include:
1. Doubting your importance in your partner’s life
People with relationship anxiety might wonder, ‘do I really matter to my partner?’ They might ask themselves, ‘is my partner really there for me?’ Negative, doubt-ridden thoughts might run through your head, such as believing that your partner wouldn’t care if you were okay or not, that they wouldn’t help you if you were in need, or that they’re only using you because you can offer something they want.
Doubt about one’s importance is insidious. It can bleed into your interactions with your partner, and you might end up viewing every situation as a potential hint of future betrayal or disregard.
2. Doubting your partner’s feelings
Does your partner tell you they love you? Do they tell you that you make them feel great, and they’re happy to be with you?
Do they tell you these positive things, but you struggle to really believe them? Do you find yourself thinking ‘they’re lying’ or ‘they don’t actually love me’.
Everyone gets a little cautious or doubtful every now and again; that’s human. Still, if you constantly doubt your partner’s feelings or gestures of affection, you may be experiencing relationship anxiety.
3. Sabotaging the relationship
In fear of their partner hurting, betraying, rejecting, or abandoning them, people with relationship anxiety might sabotage the relationship to prevent that from happening.
They might act cold or distant because to be intimate and vulnerable is too scary, and to be hurt when feeling vulnerable would overwhelm their ability to cope.
4. Spying on a partner
People with relationship anxiety might fear that their partner is going behind their back, being unfaithful, or speaking negatively about them. For some people, such paranoia can drive them to invade their partner’s privacy.
They might collect personal data such as passwords or take their phone when the chance arises and check their messages. Spying on one’s partner clearly indicates that a person has relationship anxiety because they don’t trust their partner to be honest with them.
Why do I experience relationship anxiety?
There are several reasons why a person might experience relationship anxiety. No two people are the same, so the root causes of one’s doubt and worry vary significantly between individuals. Still, some common experiences can lead to anxiety in relationships.
Identifying the root cause of your relationship anxiety can take time, effort, and diligent self-exploration. Still, the rewards of this inner work far outweigh the consequences of never choosing to explore yourself and increase your self-awareness.
Below we have listed some of the most common causes of relationship anxiety. Ask yourself if any of the following apply to your experiences. If so, read on after this section to discover how you can take action to help you cope with your relationship struggles.
Bad experiences in a past relationship
We’re rarely as vulnerable as we are in relationships. When we are intimate and deeply known by another person, we become our most vulnerable, which is why trust and support are so important in any relationship.
If you find yourself worrying or doubting in your current relationship, it may be because you were hurt or betrayed in the past. Perhaps your ex-partner cheated on you, or they broke up with you unexpectedly. Maybe they lied about how they truly felt or led you on, making you think the relationship was more significant or important than it really was.
If you were hurt or betrayed by an ex, those memories may be affecting your current relationship. We like to think that we have completely moved on from past hurt, even when we haven’t.
Healing from such a heart wound can take time, so it’s important to acknowledge and accept any pain you’re still carrying around before letting it permeate into your current or future relationships.
If your trust was broken before, it’s understandable that you would have a hard time trusting again. This can be the case even though you know your current partner is a different person and even if they have shown no signs of dishonesty or untrustworthiness.
If your self-esteem is low, you might have negative thoughts about yourself, your abilities, and your worthiness. Low self-esteem is common among those with anxiety and depression. They can cause it and it also perpetuates them.
If you feel bad about yourself, you probably believe that your partner feels the same way about you. You might believe that sooner or later, they’ll come to see you in the same negative light that you see yourself in and will leave you.
Low self-esteem creates feelings of self-doubt and insecurity in a person and is one of the leading reasons why people feel anxious in a relationship.
People whose esteem is high tend to be more confident in themselves and confident that their partner views them in a positive light. They speak and act with confidence, which perpetuates their high self-esteem.
Living with a negative self-view can make you act with a lack of confidence. You might constantly feel sorry for yourself, speak negatively, and seek constant reassurance from your partner that they love and care for you. You might question if they’re committed to you or if they’re really more interested in someone else. The danger with esteem issues is that they can create a self-fulfilling prophecy.
If you believe that your partner is going to leave or betray you, you bring that energy into the relationship and may make it hard for your partner to maintain their own well-being, which creates emotional distance in the relationship and may lead to its eventual end.
The level of esteem you have can influence your relationship. As such, working on your self-view can elicit significant positive change in your relationships and your life in general.
Insecure attachment style
In our earliest years (0-5 years old), we form what British psychologist John Bowlby referred to as an ‘attachment style.’ Attachment styles are the nature of one’s relationship with their primary caregiver (usually the mother) in these early but highly formative developmental years.
If your needs were met with love, consistency, warmth, and compassion in these early years of life, you likely developed a ‘secure’ attachment style. Secure attachment is the foundation for trusting and loving relationships in adulthood.
If, however, your caregiver was inconsistent or neglectful regarding your needs, you likely developed what Bowlby termed an ‘insecure’ attachment style.
Insecure attachment styles create a deep sense of mistrust in a child about the world around them. They don’t develop the virtue of ‘hope’ as outlined in developmental psychologist Erik Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development. As such, those with an insecure attachment style may find it difficult to trust their partner in an adult relationship.
“A securely attached child will store an internal working model of a responsive, loving, reliable caregiver, and of a self that is worthy of love and attention and will bring these assumptions to bear on all other relationships. Conversely, an insecurely attached child may view the world as a dangerous place in which other people are to be treated with great caution, and see himself as ineffective and unworthy of love.” – Jeremy Holmes, John Bowlby, and Attachment Theory.
Common signs of insecure attachment in adults include:
- Mistrust of others
- Low self-worth, low self-esteem
- Fear of a partner’s abandonment
- Over-dependence in relationships
- Seeking constant reassurance
- High sensitivity to a partner’s words and behaviors
Even though our childhood experiences are in the distant past, as adults, they remain with us today and are echoed in our current relationships. Thus, if you learned that the world was inherently untrustworthy when you were a child, that may become your lived experience as an adult.
How to deal with relationship anxiety
The most important step in overcoming relationship anxiety is to address the anxiety in our personal life. This requires an honest look within oneself to find and address the root causes of mistrust and doubt and a vow to work on ourselves to prevent our negative feelings and thoughts from affecting our relationships and overall health.
We must take a look at our lives outside of the relationship. We must identify the harsh inner critic and other voices that tell us there is something to be wary or mistrustful of. We must recognize the distance and defensiveness that are keeping us from truly being open and vulnerable with our partners.
Below, we have outlined some important tools and techniques you can use to overcome your relationship anxiety.
Challenge your anxious thoughts
Next time you feel anxious about your relationship, take a moment to step back and confront your anxious thoughts. Ask yourself:
- Do I have evidence that this thought is true?
- Has my partner shown behaviors that suggest my anxiety will become a reality?
- Am I projecting expectations borne of a past relationship?
Taking some time to step back and challenge your anxious thoughts is a great way to reduce their power. Many of us blindly follow our thoughts without taking a moment to see if they’re really helping. You can get better at challenging your thoughts by practicing mindfulness.
If you’re feeling anxious in your relationship or your life in general, mindfulness can help. Mindfulness is the practice of becoming an observer (or ‘witness’) of our thoughts and learning to respond to them instead of reacting. It is about practicing non-judgment and radical acceptance of our thoughts and feelings.
Anxious thoughts are usually self-perpetuating – they lead to more anxious thoughts and create a whirlwind of worry and doubt. If we can bring mindful attention to our anxious thoughts, we allow ourselves to come up to the surface for breath. Over time and with consistent practice, we can learn to take power away from our anxious thoughts and prevent them from affecting our lives.
Speak to a therapist
If anxiety impacts your relationships and your life in general, it may be a sign that you’re struggling with an anxiety disorder. Even if your anxiety is not severe enough to be diagnosed as a full-blown disorder, speaking to a therapist can be of significant help.
A trained therapist can offer the safety and security you need to explore the roots of your anxiety. They may offer an evidence-based approach to anxiety treatment such as cognitive behavioral therapy, in which they can equip you with the tools and skills necessary to challenge your way of thinking and finally achieve relief from your anxiety.