What is Relationship Anxiety?

Relationship anxiety refers to feelings of worry, insecurity, and doubt that can pop up in a relationship, even if everything is going relatively well. You might find yourself constantly questioning yourself, your partner, and the relationship.

“You’re too ugly/fat/boring to keep his/her interest.”

“You’ll never meet anyone, so why even try?”

“You can’t trust him. He’s looking for someone better.”

“He/she doesn’t really love you. Get out before you get hurt.”

This critical inner voice can turn us against ourselves and those close to us. It can promote hostile, paranoid, and suspicious thinking that lowers our self-esteem and drives unhealthy levels of distrust, defensiveness, jealousy, and anxiety. The inner critic feeds us a consistent stream of thoughts that undermine our happiness and make us worry about our relationship rather than just enjoying it.

When we get in our heads, focusing on these worried thoughts, we can become incredibly distracted and disconnected from our partner. We may start to act out in destructive ways, making nasty comments or becoming childish or parental toward our significant other. For example, imagine your partner staying at work late one night. Sitting home alone, your inner critic starts telling you, “Where is he? Can you really believe him? He probably prefers being away from you. He’s trying to avoid you. He doesn’t love you anymore.”

These thoughts can snowball in your mind until, by the time your partner gets home, you’re feeling insecure, furious or paranoid. You may act angry or cold, which then sets your partner off to feel frustrated and defensive. Pretty soon, you’ve completely shifted the dynamic between you. Instead of enjoying the time you have together, you may waste an entire night feeling withdrawn and upset with each other. You’ve now effectively forced the distance you initially feared. The culprit behind this self-fulfilling prophecy isn’t the situation itself. It’s that critical inner voice that coloured your thinking, distorted your perceptions, and ultimately, led you down a destructive path.

When it comes to all of the things we worry ourselves about in relationships, we are much more resilient than we think. In truth, we can handle the hurts and rejections that we so fear. We can experience pain, and eventually, heal. However, our critical inner voice tends to terrorise and catastrophise reality. It can rouse serious spells of anxiety about dynamics that don’t exist and threats that aren’t even tangible. Even when real things are going on, someone breaks up with us or feels an interest in someone else, our critical inner voice will tear us apart in ways we don’t deserve. It will completely distort reality and undermine our own strength and resilience. It’s that cynical inner voice that always gives bad advice. “You can’t survive this. Just put your guard up and never be vulnerable to anyone else.”

The defences we form and critical voices we hear are based on our unique experiences and adaptations. Some of us tend to become clingy and desperate when we feel anxious or insecure. We may feel possessive or controlling toward our partner in response. Conversely, some of us will feel easily intruded on in our relationships. We may retreat from our partners, detach from our feelings of desire. We may act out by being aloof, distant or guarded. Consider the following behaviours. Do you exhibit any of these behaviours?

  • Cling – When we feel anxious, our tendency may be to act desperate toward our partner. We may stop feeling like the independent, strong people we were when we entered the relationship. As a result, we may find ourselves falling apart easily, acting jealous or insecure or no longer engaging in independent activities.
  • Control – When we feel threatened, we may attempt to dominate or control our partner. We may set rules about what they can and can’t do just to alleviate our own feelings of  insecurity or anxiousness. This behavior can alienate our partner and breed resentment.
  • Reject – If we feel worried about our relationship, one defense we may turn to is aloofness. We may become cold or rejecting to protect ourselves or to beat our partner to the punch. These actions can be subtle or overt, yet it is almost always a sure way to force distance or to stir up insecurity in our partner.
  • Withhold – Sometimes, as opposed to explicit rejection, we tend to withhold from our partner when we feel anxious or afraid. Perhaps things have gotten close, and we feel stirred up, so we retreat. We hold back little affections or give up on some aspect of our relationship altogether. Withholding may seem like a passive act, but it is one of the quietest killers of passion and attraction in a relationship.
  • Punish – Sometimes, our response to our anxiety is more aggressive, and we actually punish, taking our feelings out on our partner. We may yell and scream or give our partner the cold shoulder. It’s important to pay attention to how much our actions are a response to our partner and how much are they a response to our critical inner voice.

If you are experiencing relationship anxiety, consider shifting your focus inward. Ask yourself, ‘is my inner critic exacerbating my fears?’ When you feel your partner is disconnecting, consider, ‘what defensive behaviours am I exhibiting? Could I contribute to, or even create, the distance between us?’ If the answer is yes, then don’t be harsh on yourself. All you need to do is notice, give yourself care, and consider what values you’d like to bring to this moment.

Relationships can be wonderful, but for those of us who are prone to relationship anxiety, they can also be scary. The fear of losing love can inadvertently drive couples apart. It is for this reason that there is no better place to learn about ourselves than when we are in a relationship. The process of self-discovery can be a vital step in understanding the feelings that drive our behaviour, and ultimately, shape our lives.