Ah, relationship anxiety. That feeling that things are just not okay in your relationship or with your partner, even if there’s no tangible evidence that something is wrong. Common in new and old relationships alike, relationship anxiety can show up even when the relationship is healthy and based on trust, love, affection, and respect. Yes, relationship anxiety can show up in a perfectly healthy relationship.
It might show up suddenly, without an identifiable trigger, or it might stem from a comment someone made about your relationship, or maybe it develops from something your partner did or said.
Maybe you notice relationship anxiety shows up in all your relationships. Maybe this is the first time you’ve experienced it. No matter how familiar you are with relationship anxiety, it can be uncomfortable, consuming, and, in some cases, a detriment to your health and your relationship.
The Manifestation of Relationship Anxiety
Those who have experienced relationship anxiety are often familiar with the physical sensation of dread, fear, confusion, and/or panic when thinking about their relationship. Physical manifestations can include a host of ailments, including insomnia, issues with mood, digestive upset, tension, headaches, and more. But perhaps one of the most familiar hallmarks of relationship anxiety is the endless questioning.
It can be difficult to decode the anxiety when it pops up in our relationship. Does it mean I’m with the wrong person? Am I worried for no reason? Are the red flags I see real or a manifestation of my fear? Is my partner truly disconnecting from me, or is it my fear of rejection/abandonment clouding my perception? Have I had enough experience with relationships to really know how I feel about my partner? Should I listen to others when their opinions of my relationship differ from my own?
We employ coping strategies to help us navigate these really uncomfortable feelings. We seek reassurance. We make pro/con lists about our relationship or partner. We wake up at 3am with panic that this whole relationship is wrong, we’re wrong. Maybe we avoid our partner so we don’t have to feel those feelings. We think and overthink our relationship – certainly the answer is there if we just look hard enough. We analyze our partners, every text, word, action for signs that they still love us. Maybe we turn to substances to calm the unsettled feeling in the pit of our stomach. Heck, we may even sabotage our relationship.
No matter what the manifestation of relationship anxiety looks like, a common denominator is that we often try to decode the anxiety in the context of our relationship – that is, we look to the relationship or our partner to find the answers to the questions that plague us. What if we turned inward and sought answers within ourselves?
Of course, it could be a dynamic within the relationship that is triggering anxiety, which is a normal experience, even in healthy relationships. In many such cases, communication can get us back on track and feeling better. But when the anxiety persists, becomes a pattern across relationships, or leads to other issues such as anxiety, depression, or avoidance, we may want to take a deeper loon inside ourselves.
There are several causes for relationship anxiety that sometimes have little to do with the actual relationship.
1. Low Self-Esteem
A relationship can exacerbate feelings of low self-worth or self-esteem. When we worry whether we are good enough, attractive enough, or even worthy of love, we can get anxious about the permanency of the relationship. In an effort to protect ourselves, we may look for evidence that we are not lovable enough to be in the relationship. When low self-esteem is the cause of our anxiety, we may seek constant reassurance, or have trouble with events like our partner not responding to a text right away, embracing our partner’s friends of the opposite sex, honoring our partner’s need for space, or believing our partner’s expression of love. If some of this sounds familiar, it might be worth a deeper look at how you perceive your own self-worth.
2. Past Experiences
Our experiences shape our perception of future events. If you have ever been cheated on, abused, lied to, or have had an unpleasant experience with a past partner, you may have a higher likelihood of experiencing relationship anxiety in your current or future relationship(s).
3. Attachment Patterns
Like previous romantic relationships, our early relationships with caregivers can impact the way we experience and perceive relationships in adulthood. Take a look at your earliest relationships – what were they like? If caregivers were cold, distant, unavailable, inconsistent, abusive, or otherwise failed to meet your needs, it may help to compare and contrast those relationships with your romantic relationships. If you see some similarities, it may be worth exploring further.
4. Desire to Please Others
Unmet needs and stifled feelings can fuel anxiety. When we concern ourselves with the needs and happiness of others, without tending to our own, we can experience significant anxiety. In a relationship, this might look like us always taking care of our partners while being afraid to ask for what we need, or hesitating to speak up when we’re uncomfortable with something. Or perhaps it shows up when friends or loved ones express disapproval of our partner or relationship; the fear of losing their acceptance can generate significant anxiety within. While the desire to please others may go hand in hand with low self-esteem, it makes sense to assess how others’ views of our relationship impact our own perception of it.
5. Discomfort with Uncertainty/Fear of Being Wrong
For some of us, the anxiety creeps in when we are faced with the uncertain nature of relationships. We may worry that the relationship won’t work out, or maybe we’re with the wrong partner, or maybe even that somehow, we’re going against the plan the universe has laid out for us. If anxiety pops up when you’re thinking about the future of the relationship, it might help to take a step back and remember that while we can’t eliminate uncertainty, there are plenty of things we can practice to become more comfortable with it.
6. Fear of Entrapment
The fear of entrapment can bring incredible levels of anxiety. Such a fear can manifest as an anxious feeling that we will lose ourselves to our partner, that we’ll no longer have an agency of independence in our life. Maybe we fear that if the relationship goes south, we won’t be able to leave and we’ll be stuck in a relationship that doesn’t feel safe or loving. If you find yourself responding to commitment with a fight, flight, or freeze response, allow yourself some time to investigate why a relationship seems to equate to a loss of self for you.
If any of this sounds familiar, remember you’re not alone, and some levels of anxiety are normal and healthy. While anxiety is often an indicator that something is wrong, it does not always mean something is wrong with the relationship, and in fact could be a signal that we need to tend to something within ourselves.
If the anxiety is causing you significant stress, a relationship coach or therapist may be able to help. Please reach out – you deserve to feel safe and happy when it comes to your relationship.