When I look back over the prominent relationships in my life, the ones that failed, I believe, were because of my behaviour, which now, with the benefit of hindsight and many years working as a psychologist, I can see was the result of anxiety.
I found it hard to spot what we (psychologists) now call relationship anxiety when it occurred in my relationships. When you are experiencing high levels of anxiety, and it negatively affects your relationship, it is difficult to have the ability to stand back and see what is going on.
In writing this article, I aim to help you identify whether anxiety or something else causes the problem if your relationship is struggling.
Many things may affect relationships, such as
- mental health
- relationship OCD
But in this article, I shall focus on relationship anxiety.
What is relationship anxiety?
Relationship anxiety is where your feelings of doubt or insecurity are so extreme that they make it impossible to have a healthy relationship. In other words, if the relationship fails, it may not be due to incompatibility but rather to the behaviours associated with the anxiety.
What are the behaviours?
Behaviours are the things you do. These behaviours are based on irrational thought processes as opposed to reality. And are difficult for the other person to fathom.
They include behaviours based on emotion. For example, Sandra was out in a nightclub with her partner Graham. She felt very anxious as she falsely believed he was not interested in her and ignored her when he was merely laughing and having fun with his friends. Her heart was pounding, and her thoughts were consumed with the idea that his friends didn’t like her. In that instant, filled with thoughts and high anxiety levels, it felt right that she grabbed his hand and tried to march him away. Sandra was acting on the emotion she was feeling. This behaviour can arise with relationship anxiety, where you act purely on emotion and later regret your actions.
Sandra has been in a relationship with Graham for 18 months. Sandra is much more introverted than Graham, who has quite a loud charismatic personality. He loves being surrounded by other people and doing things with others.
Sandra has always been anxious but has never heard the term relationship anxiety. When she goes out socially with Graham and sees him laughing and joking with his friends, Sandra feels on the outside and believes that his friends do not like her. She can never fully relax and enjoy a night out with Graham and his friends as she scrutinises every interaction, and saying she feels on edge is an understatement.
When it is just the two of them going out socially, she constantly thinks that he is bored and would rather a big crowd had gone out together, but when this happens, Sandra believes he cannot care about her; otherwise, he would want it to be just the two of them.
On several occasions, she has tried to read his emails and messages to find out what he is up to.
She tries to accompany him every time he wants to meet his friends, not because she enjoys their company and wants a night out, but to see what everyone is doing.
These types of behaviours put a strain on the relationship. To understand relationship anxiety, it is crucial to look at the function of the behaviours.
All behaviours have a function. For example, if I move an apple to my mouth and take a bite, the function of this behaviour is to eat. Presumably, I am hungry.
But what about when Sandra grabbed Graham on a night out with friends? What was the function of this behaviour? It’s clear that it was to remove Graham from his friends and be with Sandra, but others may not judge the behaviour harshly if you can see what caused it for Sandra.
Causes of relationship anxiety
If you do not feel secure in yourself, you will not feel confident in your relationship, which will ultimately cause problems.
In the example above, Sandra does not feel secure. This insecurity can be seen in her behaviours, such as always wanting to accompany Graham or trying to take him away from his friends. Graham is a loving, attentive partner and does not understand Sandra’s behaviour. It can come from having an insecure attachment style.
Attachments develop when we are babies/infants and can affect the relationships we form with others, particularly romantic relationships. You can read more on attachment theory here.
Expecting the behaviour of past partners
If you have been cheated on, lied to or treated poorly in a past relationship, you might bring the scars of the past into your current relationship if you expect your current partner to behave the same.
Thought processes can be emotionally dependent and, more often than not, are not an accurate reflection of reality. All of us make mistakes in our thinking, or in terms of CBT, we all have negative automatic thoughts.
If you are anxious about your relationship, these irrational thoughts can include thinking that
- your partner is cheating on you
- they do not like you
For more information on thought processes, please see the following articles
Ways to deal with relationship anxiety
Start with mindfulness. There is plenty of information freely available on the internet on mindfulness, and a great place to start is to read through Mindful.
Mindfulness is simply paying attention to what is happening right now, and it is a valuable tool when your emotions are getting the better of you. For example, when Sandra was in the nightclub and went over and grabbed her partner Graham ( in the example above), she was acting on emotions. If she were being mindful, it would have given her the ability to stand back from the situation, almost like an observer, and steady herself, before deciding what to do as opposed to her emotions compelling her forward.
Cognitive behavioural therapy will also help you identify your irrational thought processes and lower your anxiety.