Mild anxiety about a relationship is normal. We worry because we care what people think of us; we worry because relationships are important to us. As human beings, we generally prefer being together and sharing our lives. Which means we have a vested interest in our relationships succeeding.
So if we spot problems, it’s natural to feel a little worried.
The problem comes when those feelings of anxiety do not stem from reality; when they get out of hand. Let’s take a look at some of the ways you can recognize whether your feelings are normal or whether there might be a more serious problem.
Relationship anxiety can crop up when you least expect it, whether you’re in a long-term relationship or a new one. It might stem from lack of trust, concerns about the future, or perhaps you have niggling doubts about whether this person is ‘the one’ for you. The effects of relationship anxiety can be far reaching.
Most people will experience feelings of doubt and unease at some point in their relationship. But how can you tell if it is becoming a problem that needs to be ‘fixed’, or something you can safely ignore?
Do you find yourself constantly looking out for problems in your relationship, questioning everything your partner does and says? Over time this can erode how secure you feel and damage the connection you have with your partner. Actions that tell your partner you don’t trust them, like jumping to conclusions, calling them repeatedly, checking their emails or even distancing yourself emotionally, are likely to cause disputes and resentment. And what’s more, repeatedly engaging in these types of behavior can actually make moderate anxiety worse.
What about when those feelings of anxiety start to spiral out of control? That’s when they can begin to affect your mental health and ultimately impact your quality of life. And when you find you’re spending more time worrying about the relationship than just enjoying it, something needs to be done.
While it can be difficult to take a breath and run a diagnostic on yourself in a particularly anxious moment, if you choose a time when you’re feeling a little calmer you may be able to look for patterns.
Start by trying to figure out whether there is a connection between the anxiety in your relationship and what has come before. Have a think about the root cause of the anxious behaviors. When you really get to the nitty gritty of it, what’s the problem here? When did these symptoms of anxiety begin in the first place? Are these feelings you’ve experienced in previous relationships or only this one?
Numerous studies have identified a range of reasons people struggle with relationship-based anxiety.
One of the most compelling is thanks to the way we formed a relationship with our primary caregivers as a child. Known in the scientific literature as attachment theory, the principle of this thinking is that the type of care we receive in our earliest days shapes the way we think about ourselves and others. A secure attachment style allows us the confidence to go off and explore the world around us. Or not. An insecure attachment style, or anxious attachment style, can result from an inconsistent or insensitive bond with our primary caregiver. And that can lead to difficulties in emotional expression, not to mention anxiety in relationships in the future.
Of course, romantic relationships are different from parent-child relationships, but the lack of a secure attachment style in the early years can affect our current relationship without us even realising. The effect can be seen in how accessible we are when our partner needs us, how responsive we are to those needs, and how emotionally engaged we are with what they need from us. All behaviors and understandings that are key to healthy, intimate relationships in adult life.
PTSD, or past trauma, can also impact the way we view ourselves and our relationship with our current romantic partner. If you’ve been treated cruelly or unfairly in a previous relationship, the psychological distress can be difficult to shift, leading to negative effects on your mental health. If difficulties with confidence or feelings of self-worth result, these can impact the way we feel about future relationships and even the way we feel we deserve to be treated. Acute stress or elevated anxiety are natural feelings as you learn to trust a new partner following a difficult break-up or relationship.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, if you suffer from generalized anxiety disorder that impacts on daily life, you can expect to see some signs of relationship anxiety creeping in, too. This, combined with poor sleep quality, may lead to feelings of paranoia and mistrust over a partner’s motives. Plus it’s always hard to manage difficult feelings and emotions when you haven’t had enough sleep.
If you’re worried about something specific, you could be reading the situation correctly. Don’t forget that sometimes mild anxiety can actually serve as a useful warning. It can be our brain’s way of saying ‘stay alert, there is danger here'. In the best case, less severe forms of anxiety can be a good check-in and change so they definitely shouldn’t be discounted. But if you feel you are facing severe anxiety, and it is become all-consuming or overwhelming, it can be damaging. It’s important you seek help.
Some quick tips for reducing symptoms of relationship anxiety: