MANILA, Philippines – “He’s not replying. What if he doesn’t love me anymore?” “Is he gonna leave me for someone better?” “Why is he acting weird? Is it my fault? “I knew it. He’s sick of me.”
Have any of these doomsday thoughts and questions plagued your mind while in a relationship? Whether you’re in a long-term relationship or just starting out with someone new, maybe these statements sound familiar to you, already having called yourself insecure, irrational, and an annoying over-thinker (I know I have).
Don’t worry; you’re not crazy, and you’re definitely not alone – this is what mental health professionals call “relationship anxiety,” and this experience may be more common than you think.
Help! What is relationship anxiety?
Anxiety is defined as “psychological distress” against a threat that is perceived or real. It’s also the fear of uncertainty, but this time, in the context of a relationship. Because being in a romantic relationship isn’t always rainbows and butterflies, anxieties may pop up often, especially if you’re already an anxious individual to begin with.
“Given that a romantic relationship is made up of two unique individuals with certain differences in vast aspects, like behavioral cues and beliefs, some thoughts may pop up, which can lead to feelings of worry, doubt, and insecurity. This is referred to as relationship anxiety,” clinical psychologist Macy Pamatian from mental health organization Empath told Rappler. This usually manifests through doubts that they still love you and insecurities that the relationship will fail because it’s “all your fault.”
Unlike anxiety, “relationship anxiety” is more contextualized and specific. “There is generalized anxiety disorder, which does not have a specific trigger for anxiety. There is also social anxiety or social phobia, which is the fear of being in social situations,” Macy said. Relationship anxiety isn’t deemed a a mental disorder; rather, it is considered “normal behavior” experienced by both men or women in a relationship.
“If we look at anxiety in a continuum, there are anxieties that are normal while there are anxieties that are clinical, which require professional help. At any point in our relationships, we can experience normal anxiety, and this does not necessarily mean that we always have to consult a psychologist. There are instances when we can handle it on our own but there are also instances when we cannot,” Macy said.
So, what is the difference between normal doubts in a relationship vs. relationship anxiety? How do you know if you or your partner has it? And most importantly, is it treatable?
Checking in with yourself: Do I have it?
Firstly, self-awareness is key! Just noticing that you are thinking these thoughts is the first step. But if at any point you begin to feel that your irrational thoughts and behaviors have become so debilitating that you cannot function normally as a partner, or that they are starting to impact the quality of your relationship, then you may already need to start doing the work.
For example: What kind of thoughts begin to creep up when you and your partner don’t see each other for a long time? “This happens especially to long-distance relationships. For some, they survive, but for others, they don’t. Why? Maybe there are negative thoughts about the fact that our partner is not around that keep us preoccupied,” Macy said.
Examples of these anxious thought patterns include: “I haven’t seen my partner in a long time and still, he/she doesn’t make any effort to see me. He/she does not even take time to reach out via calls. He no longer values me and our relationship,” or “My partner has so much time with other people but not with me. I wonder if he/she really misses me.” It could just be because he’s extraordinarily busy at work, or going through personal issues, but when it comes to relationship anxiety, there is no room for the benefit of the doubt.
How about if your partner doesn’t meet your expectations on how he “should” react towards you and your behaviors?
“This is very common in all relationships. There are these ‘difficult’ times for us when we feel betrayed or rejected because we didn’t receive what we are expecting. For example, not receiving an instant reply from your partner makes you wonder: “Is my partner mad at me?”, “Is my partner with another person?”, “Do I really matter to him/her?” Macy said.
It could also be as simple as receiving a message without any emojis. “Why is my partner so cold to me?”, “Is my partner happy to chat with me?” If he declines an invitation to come to a gathering, your brain might go from 0 to 100, and start thinking: “Oh, my partner doesn’t see the future with me,” “My partner’s not ready for a long-term commitment.” The list of what-if thoughts can go on and on.
There are also times when you may feel so desperate to confirm your negative biases about your relationship that you begin sabotaging your relationship. You might engage in negative behaviors, like anonymously messaging and pretending to be someone else just to “test” him, or becoming a controlling partner.
“There are times that we feel so bad about our relationship that we behave in an unpleasant manner, like eventually driving our partner away because of thoughts about possible cheating,” Macy said. Basically, your relationship “paranoia” becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy – this is when an originally false expectation becomes true, due to the extreme actions you might take to prove it’s wrong or right.
When figuring out if you have relationship anxiety, you can also consider these questions:
- Do you question your worth to your partner?
- Do you doubt your partner’s feelings for you?
- Do you worry that your relationship might lead to a breakup?
- Do you doubt having a good future with your partner?
- Do you engage in behaviors that may ruin your relationship with your partner?
- Do you interpret your partner’s behaviors as something else?
- Do you enjoy your relationship with your partner?
Who is more ‘at risk’ for relationship anxiety?
There is no absolute risk profile. Whether you’re male, female, of certain age, or have no history of disorders, relationship anxiety can happen to anyone. “Relationship anxiety is normal. Any individual can experience this at a certain point in their relationship,” Macy said. However, the cognitions of each person play a huge role.
“Any romantic relationship is like a journey. In the beginning, during the getting-to-know-you phase, is when we find out and test one another’s boundaries,” she said. This is when our own thought processes come into play, which usually stem from the experiences we had in the past and our unique personalities.
“Reactions to experiences is not always a one-size-fits-all rule. Individuals react to a trigger differently. Some are able to move on from a broken relationship, but there are also some who cannot,” Macy said. This is of similar context, but what really causes it? “I would say there are a lot of factors but again, it’s not an absolute,” Macy said. You could be the most confident person in the room, but become very vulnerable when it comes to relationships.
What causes relationship anxiety?
“It usually stems from feeling like you don’t belong,” Macy said. When we don’t feel like we belong – or when you don’t feel connected to your partner or even to yourself – insecurities about the relationship tend to fester. After all, belongingness is part of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – we need to feel like a part of something. This is why relationships are so important to most of us.
Relationship anxiety can also be formed through previous relationship experiences. If we had a negative relationship in the past, it is highly likely for us to create future assumptions about ourselves, such as: “Am I capable of sustaining a relationship?”, “What if I get hurt again?”, or “What if things don’t work out?” This low self-esteem leads to more self-doubts and insecurities, which we can end up projecting onto our significant others.
Another important factor is having an insecure attachment style. This is when you either want to avoid relationships completely because you are afraid of commitment, or that you are always so anxious that your partner may leave or that he/she is not the best fit for you.
But again, these factors are not absolute, Macy reiterates. “There are individuals who have low self-esteem and grew from an insecure attachment style but have not experienced relationship anxiety,” she added.
Stemming from childhood: Insecure Attachment Style
Childhood experiences play a big part in how we form relationships in adulthood. These are called attachment styles, which are formed by the quality of our relationships with our main caregivers as young children. The quality of our bonding experiences as children is crucial for our emotional and social development.
For example, if your needs as a child weren’t constantly or fully met by your mother, you might develop an anxious-ambivalent attachment style in the future, which may reflect in both your platonic and romantic relationships. You might find it hard to trust in others, and are hyper-vigilant of your surroundings in fear of being abandoned.
On the other hand, someone with a secure attachment style (warm and loving bond with parents in childhood) may be able to share their feelings openly, feel secure as a partner, and know how and when to seek support when faced with relationship problems.
A child who experienced neglect and abuse was deprived of needs to feel safe and secure. A child who was overly protected and cared for always depended on caregivers to satisfy safety needs. Macy said that both of these experiences may lead to clingy and needy behaviors as adults to meet their needs.
“As a result, they become anxious of the relationships they build in the future because they are preoccupied with the thought that they are not capable of feeling safe, and that they need their significant other to fulfill this,” she added.
So, what’s the solution? Balance.
“Too much and too little is not good for our well-being. When we receive too much or too little, that is the time when our behaviors become problematic and would need professional help,” Macy said. However, our childhood experiences aren’t our fault. Does this mean we’re doomed to repeat our attachment styles in the future? Of course not. As adults, we have the power to recognize and work on our patterns.
Should I do something about it now?
“Recognizing relationship anxiety is important in any relationship because you want it to make you – not break you. If you don’t address the relationship anxiety, you might end up with a broken relationship,” Macy said.
Don’t be ashamed to admit that you have it; after all, it is normal. What’s important is that you are able to identify and address it through self-regulation by managing our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors, especially since they are all related to one another.
“If we don’t feel or think good about our relationship, we will not do good in it as well,” Macy said. Of course, we want the opposite, so if we feel good, think good, and do good in our relationship, we would be better as individuals, and in turn, have a better relationship.
“By addressing your relationship anxiety, you don’t just help fix your relationship, but also yourself. It is an opportunity for self-awareness and self-regulation, which are very important for you to flourish on your own,” Macy said. If you don’t do something about it right away, it may become a dealbreaker, and at its worst, may leave you traumatized from its impact and not want to engage in future relationships anymore.
How do I manage it on my own?
There’s no one cure, definitive timeline, or clear-cut remedy when it comes to getting over relationship anxiety; it doesn’t go away overnight. Overcoming it is a non-linear healing process and an internal journey that takes time, self-compassion, effort, self-awareness, and support from yourself and your partner. According to Macy, it would be great if partners serve as each other’s support system (although, this can’t always be the case).
“When you know that your partner is having relationship anxiety, give the assurance that there is nothing wrong in the relationship. When you catch yourself having relationship anxiety, ask yourself, ‘What would debunk my thoughts?‘” Macy said. Every individual is capable from learning and growing from their broken relationships. “We don’t want our broken relationships to haunt us forever,” she added.
“For me, the most important step to treat relationship anxiety is to have the awareness that something is wrong and needs to be treated. When this is acknowledged, the person will have the willingness to find ways to solve the problem and be better, not only for oneself but for the relationship,” Macy said.
What happens if you feel like you can’t do it on your own? Then seeking professional help is highly encouraged, especially if your relationship anxiety is impacting your daily functioning. There are instances when couples therapy would be very beneficial, and there are also instances when an individual therapy would already suffice.
For her patients with relationship anxiety, the goal of Macy, who is a psychologist that practices Positive Cognitive Behavior Therapy, is to help them gain a sense of self-awareness, and equip self-regulation strategies to deal with the cognitive roots of relationship anxiety. Is it abandonment trauma from childhood? Is it low self-esteem? Is it the innate fear of never being good enough for anyone?
“The skill of thought reframing would be taught to instill the value of appreciation in the relationship,” Macy said. This is the practice of identifying automatic, negative thoughts and replacing them with more balanced, accurate thoughts, which a licensed professional can help you with.
As with any change or new habit, this will take time and patience. But like any positive change, done for yourself and for someone you love, the effort is always worth it. – Rappler.com