If you’re in a relationship and obsessively questioning why they’re with you or when it will inevitably end, chances are you’ve got some relationship anxiety going on. Though it manifests differently from person to person, relationship anxiety is generally characterized by excessively worrying about a romantic relationship. This isn’t butterflies, folks. It’s the opposite. So, fleas maybe? Bottom line: It sucks and can destroy your romance from within. Let’s get into it (so we can get over it). Here, we break down anxiety, where it comes from and the eight ways you can overcome relationship anxiety.
Types of Anxiety
Stress is nothing new to most of us. We worry here and there about upcoming social events, work deadlines and life milestones. However, according to the American Psychiatric Association, an anxiety disorder is a diagnosable mental disorder involving more intense and frequent bouts of extreme apprehension. Generalized anxiety disorder can be diagnosed after someone has experienced six consecutive months of extreme anxiety over everyday occurrences. Social anxiety disorder (which affects roughly 15 million people in the United States alone, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America) is the overwhelming fear of judgement from others in social situations.
Similar to social anxiety disorder, relationship anxiety revolves around a specific circumstance or set of circumstances, namely, romantic ones. It’s important to keep in mind you don’t need an official anxiety disorder diagnosis from a doctor to suffer relationship anxiety. Meaning even a little anxiety over romance still qualifies as relationship anxiety—and anyone can experience it, not just those of us with an existing diagnosis.
What does relationship anxiety look like?
Relationship anxiety, like all forms of anxiety and really big hats, looks different on everyone. Generalized anxiety disorder can cause restlessness, indecision, fatigue, insomnia, tense muscles, irritability and depression. Relationship anxiety can manifest similarly; the only difference is those manifestations emerge through the lens of the partnership. Note: Many of these symptoms are easily internalized. Someone suffering from relationship anxiety may work extra hard to hide it.
In fact, Kathleen Smith, PhD, a licensed professional counselor, wrote on Psycom that pretending everything is fine because you’re afraid to have a serious conversation with your partner is a big indicator of relationship anxiety. Similarly, if you feel extremely anxious when your partner isn’t next to you or within eyesight, you could be experiencing relationship anxiety. This could mean you imagine all the ways they are cheating on you when they’re out somewhere else or you simply cannot stand to be apart from them. Now, if there’s evidence they’ve been unfaithful, that’s a different story. But, brainwashing yourself into believing someone is cheating with no proof beyond your own imagination is a big indicator of relationship anxiety.
Another manifestation is convincing yourself your partner will leave you at any moment. This negative thinking often coincides with an inability to bring up your fears. “If I bring up my anxiety over being abandoned, it’ll freak out my partner and they’ll leave me for sure.”
On the flip side, someone who relies solely on their partner to be a sounding board for these—and any other—worries could also be suffering from relationship anxiety. If your partner is the only person in the entire world who is able to soothe your nerves or talk you down during moments of extreme apprehension, relationship anxiety is likely swirling around somewhere (and could worsen over time).
Finally, if you actively avoid dating or committed relationships entirely, you may have a general anxiety about relationships. Not earth-shattering news, but worth mentioning because pre-existing anxiety about relationships can bleed into new romances.
What ‘causes’ relationship anxiety?
Again, everyone is different, and every couple has its own quirks. Relationship anxiety can build in both partners over time, one partner can come in frantic from the beginning, one person does something to instigate anxiety; the possibilities are endless. Either way, pinpointing the root cause is crucial to nipping it in the bud or whittling it down to a manageable size.
1. A previous diagnosis
Some diagnosable disorders like social anxiety disorder may lead to or feed relationship anxiety. Because social anxiety is rooted in fearing the judgment of others or worrying constantly what people think about you, it’s not hard to see how those thoughts could spark a relationship anxiety fire.
2. Breach of trust
If your partner has been unfaithful to you in the past (and you’ve got proof or they’ve copped to it), this can lead to distrust and anxiety about the relationship moving forward. You also may find yourself wondering if they’ve changed, knowing they’d been unfaithful to previous partners.
3. Abusive behavior or language
Any type of abuse—physical, verbal, emotional—can lead directly to anxiety. Physical abuse is never OK. Please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline if your partner is harming you physically. Verbal and emotional abuse wears people down or instills fear through words. If your partner routinely “jokes” about your faults or pretends to be mean more often than they are genuinely kind, you could suffer relationship anxiety from this type of emotional and verbal abuse.
4. Unproductive fights
Aka fights that end in empty apologies. Productive fights end in learning something about yourself or your partner and growing together as a couple.
5. Worrying about the future
Will you two get married? Do they want the same things out of life? When is a good time to ask these questions?
6. Anxious attachment
In contrast to people who display secure attachment, those with anxious attachment are constantly uncertain of their partner’s devotion. This in turn leads to destructive behaviors that may actually push the partner away.
7. The myth of the perfect partner
Constantly wondering if there’s someone else out there better for you than the person you found is incredibly detrimental. News flash: Your perfect match does not exist. Esther Perel, relationship therapist (and cultural icon), adamantly repeats this fact to her clients. This means that neither you nor your partner can ever expect to handle every situation ideally or rationally. It also means when you’ve found a great thing, don’t worry about greener grass in some other yard.
So, is it anxiety or plain old stress?
Here’s the thing: Everyone, at some point, probably experiences some anxiety about a relationship. If we didn’t, we might be sociopathic. When we like someone, we hope they like us too! When we’re married to someone, we work hard at it and it’s not always easy. Continued, overwhelming anxiety about relationship-specific issues is what requires some major rewiring.
Luckily, the stigma around mental health has been challenged in recent years and people are much more open to discussing anxiety disorders and learning how to tackle them, one step at a time.
8 Ways to Overcome Your Relationship Anxiety
1. Ask yourself, “Is the relationship worth it?”
Behavior psychologist Wendy M. Yoder, PhD, encourages people to start alleviating relationship anxiety by leveling with themselves honestly. Is the relationship worth it? This is not an easy question or one to take lightly. But, at the end of the day, is this person right for you? Keep in mind, as Esther Perel tells us, there is no perfect partner. Humans are imperfect and that’s OK! The question isn’t, “Are they perfect?” The question is, “Are we good for each other?”
Pro tip: If you don’t know the answer to that question (indecision is a big factor in the anxiety equation), start with small steps. Try some of the tactics listed below. As you progress, whether or not this is the person for you will become much clearer.
2. Face it head on
You can’t solve a riddle without looking at the clues; you can’t fix relationship anxiety without calling it what it is and talking to your partner about it. Romantic partnerships are not solo ventures (though we want everyone to love themselves unconditionally!). It takes two to tango, and your partner must be included in this endeavor. One thing to steer clear of? Talking about this via technology. It’s gotta be face to face. Dr. Alexandra Solomon, a licensed clinical psychologist and author of the book Loving Bravely: 20 Lessons of Self-Discovery to Help You Get the Love You Want, insists tough conversations must occur in person. Texting “is devoid of subtlety, non-verbals, and nuance,” according to Solomon. Being in the same room as another person during tough discussions is key to more meaningful conversations.
Pro tip: If you’re not sure the relationship is worth fighting for, your partner’s reaction to your anxiety will be a strong indicator of whether or not they’re in it for the long haul (and worthy of your time, energy and love).
3. Talk about it—and each other
Solomon talks a lot about power dynamics in relationships and references research done by Dr. Carmen Knudson-Martin and Dr. Anne Rankin Mahoney on the subject. When contemplating your anxiety or bringing up fears with your partner, think about who holds the power in your relationship. Unbalanced power, like one partner always giving in to the needs of the other at the expense of their own, can fuel anxiety.
Trying too hard to be calm about your rocky emotions or not wanting to stir the pot isn’t any way to maneuver through a relationship. Often, especially at the start of something new, we avoid confrontation in an effort to appear totally chill and put together. This is a recipe for disaster.
Pro tip: Even if there are only inklings of relationship anxiety prickling here and there, bring it up immediately. Start conversations now about both of your worries, needs and wants so if things do get harder later (which inevitably, in long-term relationships, they will), the language already exists to tackle new anxieties.
4. Invest in solo therapy
Therapy is literally a place you go to vent, except instead of your best friend nodding and pouring you another glass of pinot, your therapist helps you talk through ways in which you can prevent bad feelings from taking over. It’s enormously important. Yes, relationship anxiety may have something to do with one’s partner, but looking inward to uncover personal demons is really necessary as well. Not only can therapy help you better understand, interpret and handle your own emotions; it can provide you with tools to better understand, interpret and handle the emotions of others.
Pro tip: It’s totally OK to shop around for a therapist before settling on one who gets you.
5. Consider couples therapy
Everything just mentioned, except for couples. Couples therapy can improve communication and define expectations between partners, which in turn can build trust and give both people more methods for expressing themselves in the future. Also, therapists tend to be pretty good at asking questions that spur discussion about important topics. A third party, with extensive training in psychology and relationships, will be able to make suggestions on enhancing the relationship based on observing the way you and your partner speak to and treat each other. This is also a great place to bring up trickier topics you may need help addressing face to face. Professionals have seen these problems before and are here to assist you in solving them.
Pro tip: Going to couples therapy isn’t just for couples on the brink of divorce. It’s for all couples, even healthy ones, who want to get the most out of their relationship.
6. Date yourself
We don’t mean break up with your partner and just date yourself, but we do mean invest in your own passions. Esther Perel says individuals are constantly trying to find the right balance of freedom and security, and when we lose one or gain too much of the other, it can cause anxiety. Relationship anxiety that stems from feelings of inadequacy or loneliness can often be rerouted once the person rediscovers and reinvests in themselves (harnessing their own freedom). You’ve got to have a life outside your partner. Sign up for that class you’ve been meaning to take! Set a personal goal and outline the steps necessary to meet it! You are 50 percent of a relationship; bring the best version of yourself to the table.
Pro tip: Think about being an active, rather than a reactive partner. Your world shouldn’t revolve around your partner’s, nor should theirs revolve around you. You should be there for each other (security) without stifling growth.
7. Rewrite your thoughts
A huge part of conquering anxiety (and many mental health disorders) is changing the way we talk to ourselves. Fixating on negative thoughts (“He hasn’t called. He’s obviously cheating on me.”) fuels anxiety. Instead, train your brain to consider other possibilities first (“He hasn’t called. His phone could be out of battery. He might still be in a work meeting. He’s transfixed by a game of Fortnite.”). Jumping to conclusions isn’t healthy—nor is imagining what your partner will say when you confront them about what you think they’ve been up to. Rather than building a tall tale in your mind, check in with your partner the next time you are together.
The same goes for the way you talk to yourself. Try employing Dr. Dan Siegel’s “Name It to Tame It” method. Many people with anxiety return to the same negative thought patterns over and over (in relationship anxiety, this could be “I’m worthless, of course she’ll leave me.”). Dr. Siegel says being able to label something empowers us to choose how we react to it. So, as soon as you start fabricating a story about your partner’s infidelity, stop yourself, call it what it is (“I am feeling anxious” or “I am feeling insecure”) and make a strong choice about your next move.
Pro tip: That next move could be telling yourself you’re a catch and your partner is lucky to have you (even if you don’t believe it at the time). It could be writing down a list of good moments in your relationship. It could be saying things you like about yourself out loud. It could be calling a friend or reading a book or anything that makes you feel good about yourself.
Speaking of feeling good, exercise is a superhero in the land of mental health! Again, relationship anxiety is a form of anxiety. Exercise—specifically yoga—has been shown to decrease cortisol levels (the hormone in charge of stress). One recent study showed a 27 percent lower incidence of new anxieties popping up in people who exercised regularly than in those who didn’t. So, while exercise certainly won’t solve relationship anxiety on its own, it’s an important part of a well-balanced lifestyle.
Pro tip: Even one yoga class can positively improve mood. If exercise ain’t your thang, start small.
If you find yourself in the midst of a relationship anxiety nightmare, take a deep breath. You are not alone. There are lights at the end of this tunnel, you just have to start walking.