8 Ways to Master your Relationship Anxiety
So many clients come to me for therapy or coaching believing there is a problem with their relationship, only to discover that they actually struggle with relationship anxiety. What this means is that the issues they perceive in their relationship are not as problematic as the anxiety about the relationship. The actual issue that needs to be addressed is their anxiety and fears about the relationship, rather than the relationship itself. There’s always work to do in a healthy relationship, but to accurately assess what work there is to be done in a relationship, we must be able to clearly see the problems in it, and relationship anxiety does not allow us to do that. Relationship anxiety provides a skewed lens through which we overly judge and criticize our relationship. While it generally has a negative impact on one’s sense of well-being, it also gives one’s mind a focus and allows us to avoid inner work by focusing on one’s partner or relationship as the problem. Relationship Anxiety is an underdiagnosed problem, but by beginning to become aware of what it is, how to see it, how to address it, and how to listen to it rather than push it away, we can start to feel less alone, more clearheaded, and more at ease in our relationships.
What Is Relationship Anxiety?
Relationship anxiety is a term used to describe the pervasive doubts, worries, fears, and insecurities that arise habitually in a loving and healthy relationship, usually when there is no objective problem in the relationship. Many people have some degree of this, but it becomes problematic when it is chronic, one is constantly questioning the relationship, or it impacts the enjoyment of the relationship for one or both parties.
How Do I Know if the Relationship or My Relationship Anxiety is the Problem?
Relationship anxiety differs from an unhealthy relationship, in that there is not an actual dysfunctional pattern of behavior by your partner triggering it. Relationship anxiety tends to be characterized by excessive worry or rumination, repetitive thoughts, feelings of doubt, and an inability to self soothe. Signs that it may be the relationship and not just anxiety should be discussed with friends, family, and a professional therapist, and include: red flags, the other person being an unwilling participant, active or unaddressed addiction, unhealed betrayal, irreconcilable differences where compromise isn’t possible (i.e. one person wanting children and the other adamantly not, different values around honesty, etc)
What Causes Relationship Anxiety?
While there are many potential causes of relationship anxiety, here are a few potential causes. See if these resonate or remind you of other potential sources in your life:
● General anxiety
● Anxious or avoidant attachment style
● False beliefs about relationships (“they should always be easy, one should always be attracted, etc”)
● A harsh inner critic
● Highly sensitive personality trait
● Difficult or traumatic transitions
● Early childhood bullying
● Other unprocessed early childhood trauma
● Traumatic relationships
● Unprocessed breakups
● Discomfort with and avoidance of uncertainty
● Not acknowledging or accepting doubt or fear as healthy and okay emotions
● Modelling ourselves after unhealthy relationship role models
What Does Relationship Anxiety Tell Us?
An often misunderstood aspect of anxiety is that anxiety is a messenger emotion. This means that anxiety, like most negative emotions, is an emotion that is trying to get our attention and tell us what we need. Usually we misunderstand this and think that it is telling us something is wrong externally and we need to cut out the stressor. In actuality, the need is something that is unmet within ourselves that we may need to meet by ourselves before we ask our partner for it. Examples could be self-compassion, slowing down, examining childhood traumas or past relationship models, a sense of safety and security. By slowing down and unpacking these needs and how to meet them before jumping to a conclusion that our partner is the problem, we can learn a lot about ourselves and practice healthy emotional regulation and healthy relating.
How to Handle Relationship Anxiety
Research shows that emotions pass if we allow ourselves to feel them. Anxiety typically takes about 30 minutes to pass, but while acute anxiety doesn’t usually last for longer than 30 minutes, the process of building up to a problematic level of anxiety can be days or even weeks. Try to track the earliest signs of anxiety, and the first time you have anxious thoughts and implement the below tips and interventions as soon as possible.
1. Practice Acceptance and Sitting with Discomfort
Rather than reacting to your anxiety in your habitual way, i.e. trying to fix what’s wrong either in yourself or in your partner, or coping by something like contemplating leaving the relationship, practice allowing yourself to feel the anxiety and let it move through you. Anxiety typically lasts no longer than 30 minutes (and usually much less than this). Imagine it as a wave washing over you, and just allow the wave to crash over you as you relax your body or simply imagine surfing the wave. Take slow deep breaths of focus on 4:4:4 breathing as you do so.
2. Embrace Vulnerability
Often overthinking and obsessively ruminating are attempts to “fix” our feelings rather than sitting with our feelings of vulnerability. If instead we can embrace our vulnerability and express to others from that place, i.e. “I'm feeling afraid of not being enough for you” rather than judging, criticizing, shutting down, or telling them what to do, we draw our partner’s closer and our anxiety can be somewhat soothed.
Observe your anxiety and the pattern of your anxiety. Start to mindfully pay attention to your anxiety and other underlying feelings with non-judgmental and curious awareness. Pay attention to the thoughts, feelings, and the sensations that occur when you have anxiety. Notice what triggers these thoughts and sensations, what alleviates them, and if there is a general time of day they are worse or rhythm to them.
4. Take Responsibility For Your Feelings
Instead of saying to yourself “this isn’t the right relationship,” turn the judgment into a feelings or “I” statement. Reframe your external judgments as feeling statements, i.e. “I’m feeling doubt and anxiety right now,” or “I’m feeling angry right now.” Allow yourself to track your feelings over time.
5. Self-Soothe Using Compassion
Practicing compassion helps us to soften our reactivity to our emotions and to others. It also allows us to feel our emotions more fully and for longer periods of time and to more aptly identify our feelings, needs, and boundaries.
6. Identify Your Needs
Anxiety, as stated before, is a messenger emotion that usually points to an unmet need. Listen to your anxiety rather than reacting to it. After noticing your feelings and applying compassion and acceptance, ask yourself: What needs do I have that may not be met in my life or relationship? I.e. the need for more communication, trust, ease, or fun. Once you’ve identified the needs, don’t jump to the conclusion that you’re relationship doesn’t meet those needs and you should leave. Instead ask: (1) how can I meet this need by myself? And, (2) how can I communicate this to my partner and talk to them about how we can meet it together?
Therapy is the best place to identify and process difficult and life-shaping events, traumatic or not, big or small, that may contribute to your relationship anxiety, whether it stems from nervous system dysregulation or the relationship worldview you have developed. Therapy can help reshape your narratives about relationship and teach you how to respond to discomfort and difficult emotions in new ways, develop the skills and tools necessary to accept your feelings and to respond rather than react, identify your strengths and weaknesses in a balanced way, and refocus your attention on yourself and your difficulties rather than over-focusing on the relationship. Individual therapy is a good place to start, but generally couples therapy or pre-marital therapy for couples considering marriage will amplify the benefits of individual therapy and create more intimacy. Relationship anxiety affects the whole relationship and the partner not experiencing relationship anxiety can learn to help and soothe their partner’s anxiety in new ways.
8. Learn About and Practice Healthy Boundaries
Healthy boundaries come from self-awareness of our feelings and needs. Healthy boundaries are about managing our needs and feelings through action and communication. Ignoring our boundaries and doing things we don’t want to do to make others happy or avoiding expressing our “no” or our feelings and needs inevitably leads to disconnection and anxiety in relationships. If this feels difficult or too conceptual, this is a great skill to develop in therapy as well. If you are struggling with relationship anxiety, I hope this article helped you know that you are not alone, and that freedom from this kind of suffering is possible. Naming relationship anxiety is an important step, and the 8 tips here will help you navigate the difficult feelings that arise. Lovewell provides virtual individual therapy as well as couples counseling, marriage counseling, and premarital counseling. We also offer a team approach if couples would like to have both individual and couples therapy through an integrative team approach.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
Q.1 How can I recognize if I am feeling anxious about a relationship?
A. Relationships can be complicated, and it is important to recognize when feelings of confusion, uncertainty, conflict, or complication may be leading to feelings of anxiety or overwhelm. Signs of anxiety may be obsessive thoughts, rumination, constant fear-based or catastrophic thoughts, or persistent doubts. Somatically anxiety may feel like racing heartbeat and difficulty calming down or falling asleep. Recognizing these as signs of anxiety and seeking support immediately to help understand what the anxiety is signaling to you is important.
Q.2 How can premarital counseling help couples prepare for marriage?
A. Premarital counseling can help couples prepare for marriage by addressing potential issues and providing them with the skills and tools they need to build a robust and healthy relationship. Through premarital counseling, couples can address issues that may cause anxiety for one or both partners, identify underlying needs, define couple and individual strengths and weaknesses, learn skills to listen and communicate effectively, understand each other's expectations about marriage, and gain insight into how to handle conflicts that may arise in the future.