What is Relationship Anxiety?
Relationship anxiety refers to a set of feelings and behaviours that individuals experience when they are in a romantic relationship or when they are considering entering one. These feelings can range from mild worry to severe anxiety and can manifest in a variety of ways.
Common symptoms of relationship anxiety include constant worry and rumination about the relationship, fear of being abandoned or rejected by one’s partner, insecurity about the partner’s feelings, and a general sense of unease or discomfort when thinking about the relationship.
How does having relationship anxiety impact the relationship?
Having relationship anxiety can significantly impact the dynamics and overall health of a relationship. When one or both partners experience relationship anxiety, it can create a constant state of worry, fear, and uncertainty. This anxiety often leads to frequent doubts about the relationship, questioning the partner’s intentions and commitment. It can also contribute to excessive reassurance-seeking behaviours, possessiveness, jealousy, and emotional volatility. These behaviours and insecurities can strain communication, trust, and intimacy in the relationship, creating a cycle of tension and conflict. It is important for individuals experiencing relationship anxiety to seek support, engage in open and honest communication with their partner, and explore strategies for managing their anxiety. By addressing and working through relationship anxiety, couples can foster a healthier and more secure connection based on trust, understanding, and mutual support.
You may be experiencing relationship anxiety if your concerns begin to permeate your relationships, whether they be new or established. Let’s look at relationship issues and a few typical causes.
Causes of relationship anxiety
An Anxious Attachment Style
Anxious attachment, also known as anxious-preoccupied attachment, is a psychological and relational style that develops in the context of early parent-child relationships. It is one of the four attachment styles proposed by attachment theory, which was originally formulated by John Bowlby and further developed by Mary Ainsworth.
Anxious attachment is characterized by a strong desire for closeness and intimacy in relationships, along with a persistent fear of abandonment or rejection. Individuals with an anxious attachment style often experience heightened levels of anxiety, uncertainty, and insecurity in their relationships.
The development of anxious attachment can be traced back to the quality of care and responsiveness provided by parents or primary caregivers during early childhood. Several factors contribute to the formation of anxious attachment:
- Inconsistent caregiving: Children who receive inconsistent care, where their parents’ responses are unpredictable and sometimes neglectful, may develop an anxious attachment style. The lack of consistent emotional support and responsiveness can lead to a heightened sense of anxiety and an inability to rely on their caregiver for comfort and security.
- Overprotective or overinvolved parenting: Parents who are overly protective or excessively involved in their child’s life may inadvertently create an anxious attachment style. These parents may be overly intrusive, stifling the child’s independence and sense of autonomy. The child may develop a constant need for reassurance and approval from others, leading to anxious attachment.
- Neglect or abandonment: Children who experience neglect or abandonment by their parents may develop an anxious attachment style as a way to cope with the fear of being left alone or rejected. They may become overly vigilant and anxious, constantly seeking attention and reassurance from others to compensate for the emotional void left by their parents.
- Parental anxiety or unresolved attachment issues: Parents who have their own unresolved attachment issues or struggle with anxiety can inadvertently transmit these anxieties to their children. Children are highly perceptive and sensitive to their parent’s emotional states, and if their parents consistently display anxious behaviours or exhibit inconsistent caregiving, the child may internalize these anxieties and develop an anxious attachment style.
Over time, individuals with an anxious attachment style may develop a pattern of seeking excessive reassurance, becoming overly dependent on their partners, and experiencing intense fear of rejection or abandonment. They may also exhibit heightened levels of jealousy, possessiveness, and emotional volatility in their relationships.
It’s important to note that attachment styles are not fixed or unchangeable. With self-awareness, understanding, and therapy, individuals with an anxious attachment style can develop more secure and healthy relationship patterns.
Negative Past Experiences
Negative past experiences can have a significant impact on the level of anxiety we feel in our intimate relationships. Let’s imagine a scenario where you were stung by a bee. After that incident, even the sound of buzzing can make you feel scared and apprehensive about being stung again. Similar dynamics can occur in relationships.
If someone has been in a previous relationship where their value, worth, or beauty was constantly questioned, they may develop a fear that future relationships will bring about the same negative experiences. This fear can cause them to be on edge and constantly doubt the stability of the new relationship and the feelings involved.
The emotional wounds from past relationships can linger, creating a heightened sense of anxiety and insecurity. This anxiety may manifest as a fear of rejection, a constant need for reassurance, or a reluctance to fully trust and open up to their partner. Negative past experiences can shape our expectations and perceptions, leading to a state of hypervigilance and constant readiness to protect ourselves from potential harm.
It’s important to recognize that these anxieties are rooted in past experiences and may not necessarily reflect the reality of the current relationship. By acknowledging and understanding the impact of negative past experiences, individuals can work towards healing and building healthier, more secure relationships. Communication, self-reflection, and seeking professional support can be valuable in overcoming the lingering effects of past wounds and fostering greater emotional well-being in intimate relationships.
Low self-esteem can profoundly affect the security and relationship anxiety experienced in intimate relationships. When individuals have low self-esteem, their negative perception of their worth and capabilities undermines their sense of security, leading to heightened anxiety.
People with low self-esteem often doubt their partner’s affection and feel undeserving of love and attention. This belief fosters a constant fear of rejection or abandonment, creating relationship anxiety. They question their partner’s intentions, loyalty, and commitment, perpetuating feelings of insecurity.
Additionally, individuals with low self-esteem seek excessive reassurance and validation from their partners, relying heavily on their approval to confirm their worthiness. This reliance strains the relationship and reinforces a cycle of anxiety and insecurity.
Moreover, low self-esteem can result in self-sabotaging behaviours. Individuals may push away their partners or create conflicts as a way to test their partner’s love and commitment. This behaviour stems from a deep-seated belief that they are unworthy of love and that their partner will eventually leave them. Such self-sabotaging actions can further exacerbate relationship anxiety and hinder the development of a secure and trusting bond.
Addressing low self-esteem requires building self-worth and self-compassion. Challenging negative self-beliefs, practicing self-care, and seeking therapy or counselling are crucial steps. By improving self-esteem, individuals cultivate a stronger sense of security within themselves and their relationships. Open communication about insecurities with their partner fosters understanding and support, nurturing a healthier and more secure bond.
Poor communication or a lack of effective communication can contribute to relationship anxiety in couples. Communication is a vital component of a healthy relationship, and when it is compromised, it can lead to misunderstandings, unmet needs, and feelings of insecurity.
One way poor communication can trigger relationship anxiety is through a lack of clarity and understanding. When couples struggle to express themselves openly and honestly, important messages may be misinterpreted or go unheard. This can create a sense of uncertainty and doubt, leaving individuals anxious about whether their partner truly understands their needs, concerns, or feelings. Without effective communication, unresolved issues can linger, leading to increased tension and anxiety within the relationship.
Furthermore, poor communication often involves ineffective conflict resolution strategies. Couples may engage in negative communication patterns such as criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling, or contempt. These behaviours can escalate conflicts and erode trust, leaving individuals anxious about the stability of the relationship. When conflicts remain unresolved or are not addressed in a healthy manner, they can generate ongoing anxiety and a sense of emotional instability.
A lack of communication about expectations, boundaries, and future plans can also contribute to relationship anxiety. When couples fail to discuss their needs, desires, and goals, there is a risk of mismatched expectations or assumptions. Uncertainty about the direction of the relationship or unmet expectations can create anxiety about the future and the couple’s compatibility.
To address the impact of poor communication on relationship anxiety, it is crucial for couples to prioritize effective communication skills. This includes active listening, expressing emotions and needs clearly, and practicing empathy and understanding. Couples can benefit from setting aside dedicated time for open and honest conversations, discussing concerns or conflicts promptly, and seeking professional help if needed. By improving communication, couples can foster a greater sense of security, mutual understanding, and emotional well-being in their relationship.
Ways to Overcome Relationship Anxiety
Managing and overcoming relationship anxiety requires a combination of self-awareness, communication skills, and strategies for self-care. Here are some effective steps, tools, and skills that couples can utilize:
- Self-reflection and self-awareness: Individual self-reflection is crucial in understanding the root causes of relationship anxiety. Recognize and explore your personal insecurities, past experiences, and triggers that contribute to anxiety. Developing self-awareness can help you differentiate between past hurts and present reality, allowing you to respond to your partner with more clarity and understanding.
- Open and honest communication: Effective communication is essential for managing relationship anxiety. Encourage open and non-judgmental dialogue with your partner, where both individuals can express their feelings, concerns, and needs. Practice active listening to understand each other’s perspectives and validate each other’s emotions. Be willing to share vulnerabilities and fears, fostering a supportive and empathetic environment.
- Establishing boundaries and expectations: Clearly defining boundaries and expectations can provide a sense of security and reduce anxiety. Discuss and establish boundaries around personal space, privacy, and social interactions. Communicate your needs and expectations regarding commitment, communication frequency, and future plans. Having shared understanding and agreement on these aspects can alleviate anxiety and create a stronger foundation for the relationship.
- Building trust: Building and maintaining trust is vital in managing relationship anxiety. Trust is cultivated through consistent actions, honesty, and reliability. Be trustworthy in your words and actions, follow through on commitments, and demonstrate empathy and support for your partner. Building trust takes time, patience, and consistent effort from both individuals in the relationship.
- Practicing self-care: Taking care of your own well-being is essential in managing relationship anxiety. Engage in activities that promote self-care, such as exercise, mindfulness, hobbies, and spending time with supportive friends or family. Prioritize self-love and self-compassion, nurturing your own emotional health and resilience.
- Seeking professional support: If relationship anxiety persists and significantly impacts your well-being and the relationship, consider seeking professional help. Relationship counsellors or therapists can provide valuable guidance, techniques, and tools to address anxiety and improve relationship dynamics. They can help you develop coping strategies, explore underlying issues, and strengthen your emotional bond.
Remember that managing relationship anxiety is an ongoing process that requires effort and commitment from both partners. By fostering self-awareness, effective communication, trust, self-care, and seeking professional support when needed, couples can navigate and overcome relationship anxiety, fostering a healthier and more fulfilling relationship.
Maha Elias is a Registered Clinical Counsellor (RCC), Canadian Certified Counsellor (CCC), Comprehensive Family Mediator (FMC), and sexual health and trauma-informed marriage counselling and couples counselling therapist with a marriage counselling and couples therapy private practice in Victoria, British Columbia.