Well-Being//

How to Handle Relationship Anxiety

These tips will help you feel safer in your relationship.

By fizkes/Shutterstock
By fizkes/Shutterstock

You’re in a relationship with a great person who you love. You’ve developed trust, established boundaries, and learned each other’s communication styles.

At the same time, you might find yourself constantly questioning yourself, your partner, and the relationship.

Will things last? How do you know if this person is really the right one for you? What if they’re hiding some dark secret?

What if you’re just incapable of maintaining a healthy, committed relationship?

This constant worrying has a name: relationship anxiety. It refers to those feelings of worry, insecurity, and doubt that can pop up in a relationship, even if everything is going relatively well.

Is it normal?

Yep. “Relationship anxiety is extremely common,” says Astrid Robertson, a psychotherapist who helps couples with relationship issues.

Some people experience relationship anxiety during the start of a relationship, before they know their partner has an equal interest in them. Or, they might be unsure if they even want a relationship.

But these feelings can also come up in committed, long-term relationships.

Over time, relationship anxiety can lead to:

Your anxiety may not result from anything in the relationship itself. But it can eventually lead to behaviors that do create issues and distress for you and your partner.

What are some signs of relationship anxiety?

Relationship anxiety can show up in different ways.

Most people feel a little insecure about their relationship at some point, especially in the early stages of dating and forming a commitment. This isn’t unusual, so you generally don’t need to feel concerned about passing doubts or fears, especially if they don’t affect you too much.

But these anxious thoughts sometimes grow and creep into your daily life.

Here’s a look at some potential signs of relationship anxiety:

Wondering if you matter to your partner

“The most common expression of relationship anxiety relates to underlying questions of ‘Do I matter?’ or ‘Are you there for me?’” Robertson explains. “This speaks to a fundamental need to connect, belong, and feel secure in a partnership.”

For example, you might worry that:

  • your partner wouldn’t miss you much if you weren’t around
  • they might not offer help or support if anything serious came up
  • they just want to be with you because of what you can do for them

Doubting your partner’s feelings for you

You’ve exchanged I love you’s (or maybe just I really, really like you’s). They always seem happy to see you and make kind gestures, like bringing you lunch or walking out of their way to see you home.

But you still can’t shake the nagging doubt: “They don’t really love me.”

Maybe they’re slow to respond to physical affection. Or they don’t reply to texts for several hours — even a day. When they suddenly seem a little distant, you wonder if their feelings have changed.

Everyone feels this way from time to time, but these worries can become a fixation if you have relationship anxiety.

Worrying they want to break up

A good relationship can make you feel loved, secure, and happy. It’s perfectly normal to want to hold on to these feelings and hope nothing happens to disrupt the relationship.

But these thoughts can sometimes transform into a persistent fear of your partner leaving you.

This anxiety can become problematic when you adjust your behavior in order to secure their continued affection.

For example, you might:

  • avoid bringing up issues, such as frequent lateness, that are important to you in a relationship
  • ignore when your partner does things that bother you, such as wearing shoes inside your house
  • worry a lot about them getting mad at you, even if they don’t seem angry

Doubting long-term compatibility

Relationship anxiety can make you question whether you and your partner are truly compatible, even when things are going great in the relationship. You might also question whether you’re actually happy or if you just think you are.

In response, you might start focusing your attention on minor differences — they love punk music but you’re more of a folk-rock person — and overemphasize their importance.

Sabotaging the relationship

Sabotaging behaviors can have roots in relationship anxiety.

Signs of sabotage

Examples of things that might sabotage a relationship include:

  • picking arguments with your partner
  • pushing them away by insisting nothing’s wrong when you’re in distress
  • testing relationship boundaries, such as grabbing lunch with an ex without telling your partner

You may not do these things intentionally, but the underlying goal — whether you realize it or not — is usually to determine how much your partner cares.

You might believe, for example, that resisting your efforts to push them away proves they really do love you.

But, Robertson points out, it’s very hard for your partner to pick up on this underlying motive.

Reading into their words and actions

A tendency to overthink your partner’s words and actions can also suggest relationship anxiety.

Maybe they don’t like to hold hands. Or, when you take the plunge and move in together, they insist on keeping all their old furniture.

Sure, these could all be signs of a potential issue. But it’s more likely that they have sweaty hands or just really love that living room set.

Missing out on the good times

Still not sure if you’re dealing with relationship anxiety?

Take a step back and ask yourself: “Am I spending more time worrying about this relationship than enjoying it?”

During rough patches, this might be the case. But if you feel this way more often than not, you’re probably dealing with some relationship anxiety.

What causes it?

Identifying what’s behind your anxiety can take time and dedicated self-exploration, since there isn’t a single clear cause. You might even have a hard time identifying potential causes on your own.

“You may not be aware of a reason for the anxiety,” Robertson says. “But no matter how it presents, the underlying reasons generally reflect a longing for connection.”

These are some common factors that might play a role:

Previous relationship experiences

Memories of things that happened in the past can continue to affect you, even if you think you’ve mostly gotten over them.

You might be more likely to experience relationship anxiety if a past partner:

  • cheated on you
  • dumped you unexpectedly
  • lied about their feelings for you
  • misled you about the nature of your relationship

It’s not unusual to have difficulty placing trust in someone again after you’ve been hurt — even if your current partner doesn’t show any signs of manipulation or dishonesty.

Certain triggers, whether you’re aware of them or not, can still remind you of the past and provoke doubt and insecurity.

Low self-esteem

Low self-esteem can sometimes contribute to relationship insecurity and anxiety.

Some older research suggests people with lower self-esteem are more likely to doubt their partner’s feelings when experiencing self-doubt. This can happen as a type of projection.

In other words, feeling disappointed in yourself can make it easier for you to believe that your partner feels the same way about you.

People with higher levels of self-esteem, on the other hand, tended to affirm themselves through their relationship when they experienced self-doubt.

Attachment style

The attachment style you develop in childhood can have a big impact on our relationships as an adult.

If your parent or caregiver responded quickly to your needs and offered love and support, you probably developed a secure attachment style.

If they didn’t meet your needs consistently or let you develop independently, your attachment style might be less secure.

Insecure attachment styles can contribute to relationship anxiety in various ways:

  • Avoidant attachment could lead to anxiety about the level of commitment you’re making or deepening intimacy.
  • Anxious attachment, on the other hand, can sometimes result in fears about your partner leaving you unexpectedly.

Keep in mind that having an insecure attachment style doesn’t mean you’re doomed to always experience relationship anxiety.

“Just as you can’t change from one kind of personality to another, you can’t completely change your attachment style,” says Jason Wheeler, PhD. “But you can certainly make enough changes that an insecure attachment style doesn’t hold you back in life.”

A tendency to question

A questioning nature can also factor into relationship anxiety.

You might need to ask yourself about all possible outcomes of a situation before deciding on a path. Or maybe you just have a habit of carefully considering every decision.

If you tend to ask yourself a lot of questions about your choices, even after you’ve made them, you’ll likely spend some time questioning your relationship, too. This isn’t always a problem. In fact, it’s usually healthy to take time to think about choices you make, especially significant ones (like romantic commitment).

It could become an issue, though, if you find yourself stuck in an endless pattern of questioning and self-doubt that doesn’t go anywhere productive.

Can you overcome it?

It might not feel like it in the moment, but relationship anxiety can be overcome, though it does take some time and effort. And doing so usually involves more than simply being told that your relationship is fine.

“I can tell someone their anxiety doesn’t necessarily mean there’s an underlying problem in the relationship, and indeed they may be well loved,” Robertson says. “But until they have felt [a] sense that all is well, that they truly are safe and secure, the anxiety will likely persist.”

She encourages addressing relationship anxiety early, before it becomes a problem.

These tips can help you get the ball rolling:

Maintain your identity

As you and your partner become closer, you might find key parts of your identity, individuality, or even your independence shifting to make room for your partner and the relationship.

This often happens naturally as you and your partner become a couple. And while some changes — such as getting used to sleeping with the window open — may not have a big impact on your sense of self, others might.

Losing your sense of self in the relationship or changing to accommodate what you think your partner wants doesn’t help either of you.

Remember, your partner’s reasons for wanting to date you probably have a whole lot to do with who you are. If you start pushing down parts of yourself in order to hold on to the relationship, you might begin to feel less like yourself. Plus, your partner might feel as if they’ve lost the person they fell in love with.

Try being more mindful

Mindfulness practices involve focusing your awareness on what’s happening in the present moment without judgement. When negative thoughts come up, you acknowledge them and let them move on.

This can be particularly useful when you’re stuck in a negative thought spiral. It can also help you to prioritize your day-to-day experiences with your partner.

After all, maybe the relationship will end in a few months or a few years, but you can still appreciate and enjoy it in the meantime.

Practice good communication

Relationship anxiety often comes from within, so it may have nothing to do with your partner.

But if something specific is fueling your anxiety — whether it’s playing with their phone when you talk or not wanting to visit your family for the holidays — try bringing it up in a respective and non-accusatory way.

Pro tip

Using “I” statements can be a big help during these conversations.

For example, instead of saying “You’re being so distant lately and I can’t take it,” you could rephrase it as, “I feel like there’s been some distance between us, and it makes me feel like you’re withdrawing because your feelings have changed.”

Even if you know your partner truly does love you and that your anxiety is coming from within, it can help to loop your partner in.

You can explain what you’re thinking and how you’re trying to deal with it. Their reassurance may not fully alleviate your anxiety, but it likely won’t hurt.

Plus, opening up and being vulnerable can strengthen the bond you already have.

Avoid acting on your feelings

Feeling anxious about your relationship or your partner can sometimes make you want proof that everything is all right.

It’s natural to want to reassure yourself, but resist the impulse to find this proof in unhelpful or harmful ways.

Pay attention to the difference between your usual behaviors and impulsive actions. Texting regularly might be normal in your relationship, and keeping up a steady conversation can help reinforce your sense of connection. But sending several texts in an hour asking your partner where they are and what they’re doing, when you know they’re hanging out with friends, can lead to conflict.

When you feel these impulses, try to distract yourself with some deep breathing, a walk or jog, or a quick phone call to a close friend.

Talk to a therapist

If you’re having a hard time working through relationship anxiety on your own, talking to a therapist can help you get some clarity. It’s also a great way to learn how to cope with the effects of relationship anxiety.

For relationship anxiety, a therapist who works with couples can be particularly helpful.

They can help you both:

  • understand your own and each other’s feelings and underlying needs
  • hear each other’s experiences without judgment or defensiveness
  • show you care in ways that will soften or calm the anxiety

It doesn’t have to be a long-term thing, either. One 2017 studyTrusted Source suggests that even a single session of therapy can help couples dealing with relationship anxiety.

Concerned about the cost? Our guide to affordable therapy can help.

The bottom line

No relationship is certain, and that can be tough to accept.

You may not be able to entirely avoid all relationship anxiety, but there are things you can do to quiet the constant questioning and spend more time actually enjoying what you have with your partner.

Originally published on Healthline.

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