By Darlene Lancer, JD, LMFT
Anxiety is common at the beginning of a relationship, but relationship anxiety can continue for the long term. It refers to intense worry, fear, doubt, and insecurity about a relationship and is associated with interpersonal dependency and interpersonal avoidance. Insecurity about ourselves, our boundaries, and our self-esteem can cause relationship anxiety. Women are more prone to this than men.
It’s a form of codependency rooted in shame. The need for validation and love compensates for deep feelings of unlovability. However, because we don’t feel deserving, we can’t accept that we’re loved. We assume others judge us as we judge ourselves. Anticipating this breeds anxiety. It can cause sabotaging behavior and generate distrust, conflict, emotional stress and exhaustion, and apathy.
Signs of Relationship Anxiety
Due to fear of rejection or being scrutinized, people with relationship anxiety may avoid situations that risk evaluation by others—especially significant others. This protective defense is counter-productive because it can add to feelings of isolation and unworthiness and deprive a person of intimate relationships and necessary social support and activities.
Signs include constant worry and reassurance seeking. People with relationship anxiety try to make a good impression to avoid judgment. In order to accommodate their partner and avoid abandonment, they people-please and are inauthentic. They withhold thoughts and feelings and don’t set boundaries to not make waves. Here are some typical behaviors;
- Obsession about what’s wrong with the relationship rather than what’s right.
- Doubting whether their partner sufficiently loves them or whether the relationship will last.
- Breaking up to avoid rejection.
- Avoiding eye-contact.
- Engage in distracting behavior to avoid intimacy, such as looking at their cell phone, TV, computer, excessive housecleaning.
- Avoiding sex, saying “I love you,” statements about commitment, being seen as a couple, or meeting each other’s friends and family.
- Negatively comparing their relationship to past relationships or those of other people.
- Focusing solely on incompatibilities.
- Expecting something will go wrong and lead to
- Frequently feeling hurt and unimportant that accompanies low self-esteem.
- Over-analyzing their partner’s words and behavior.
- Distrust, jealousy, and suspiciousness without good cause.
- Controlling and possessive behavior.
- Neediness and demands for attention and reassurance.
- Silencing thoughts, needs, and feelings or hiding personal information that they fear will jeopardize the relationship.
- Starting fights or testing their partner for reassurance; e.g., flirting, threatening a breakup.
Shame and fear create cognitive distortions that negatively skew perceptions of reality and others’ intentions and behavior. This in turn causes unhappiness and reinforces shame and trauma.
Relationship anxiety can manifest physical signs of anxiety, such as tightness in the chest, rapid, shallow breathing, stomach problems, increased pulse, sweating, chills, flushing, nervousness, intense worry, chest pain or pressure, trembling legs, or feeling faint.
The Cause of Relationship Anxiety
The cause lies in childhood due to parental shaming and abandonment trauma. A parent may have been abusive, narcissistic, perfectionistic, distant, or invasive. They may behave like that parent or project his or her behavior onto their partner. If you were criticized, controlled, or ignored, you may assume your partner is doing that also. It’s helpful to do a reality-check with other people or a therapist.
People with relationship anxiety have an insecure attachment style, which may be avoidant or an anxious attachment and dependency on another person. The former avoids intimacy, while latter often feels hurt and blames their partner for their feelings. They may get into relationships with someone also insecure who is abusive and/or emotionally unavailable and thus repeat a cycle of abandonment. These experiences then prime them to be hypervigilant and triggered by any sign of withdrawal or rejection.
Help for Relationship Anxiety
Discuss your feelings with your partner in an assertive manner without blame. Instead of being indirect, questioning, or silencing your needs, learn How to Be Assertive and direct with your partner about your needs for verbal affirmations and time together. See how they respond to determine whether the relationship is a good fit for you. Someone with asecure attachment style will provide you with greater security than someone with an avoidant attachment style.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can help you manage your anxious, negative, and obsessive thoughts. Join a 12-Step program, such as Coda.org or SLAA.org. Do the exercises in Conquering Shame and Codependency: 8 Steps to Freeing the True You to address underlying shame and in Codependency for Dummies to stop codependent behavior. Therapy can also address past trauma.
A mindfulness based meditation practice is helpful in dealing with anxiety. Journal your feelings and thoughts that underlie your anxiety. Be aware of negative self-talk and don’t judge yourself.
Practice self-care with sufficient sleep and regular exercise regularly to balance your mood. Develop hobbies, interests, and other friendships to not be so dependent on your intimate relationship.
Some people may require medication. Drugs for anxiety include SSRI’s and SNRI’s.
© 2022 Darlene Lancer
This article was originally published here, and is reprinted with the author’s kind permission.
Darlene Lancer is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and expert on relationships and codependency. She’s the author Conquering Shame and Codependency: 8 Steps to Freeing the True You and Codependency for Dummies and six ebooks, including: 10 Steps to Self-Esteem, How To Speak Your Mind – Become Assertive and Set Limits, Dealing with a Narcissist: 8 Steps to Raise Self-Esteem and Set Boundaries with Difficult People and Freedom from Guilt and Blame – Finding Self-Forgiveness, also available on Amazon. Ms. Lancer has counseled individuals and couples for 30 years and coaches internationally. She’s a sought after speaker in media and at professional conferences. Her articles appear in professional journals and Internet mental health websites, including on her own, www.whatiscodependency.com, where you can get a free copy of “14 Tips for Letting Go.”