Relationship anxiety is normal and can be part of a healthy relationship. When your partner leaves on a trip for an extended period, or you haven’t yet reconciled from a fight, you may feel on edge, waiting for a signal that will reassure you everything is okay.
But what if your relationship anxiety feels like too much? What if it makes you:
- Frequently doubt your partner and overanalyze their actions?
- Worry about your relationship even when there’s nothing amiss?
- Seek frequent reassurance from your partner, friends, and family about your relationship?
- Check for signs that your partner still loves you?
- Feel exhausted by yourself and the worry you feel?
Understanding Relationship Anxiety
Your partner gave you a look this morning, which triggers doubt in your mind that he’s still in love with you. The panic this thought causes is nearly unbearable (anxiety), so you call your best friend (action), who reassures you that your partner loves you. You feel much better, but only for a few hours before the doubt returns. Why is that?
The answer may surprise you: your efforts to get rid of your anxiety accidentally reinforced what you were feeling. You taught your brain that because you took action to get rid of the anxiety, it should pay attention to it. Over time, your brain learns that your relationship doubts are worth paying attention to, and if they’re worth paying attention to, it must be because they are realistic, valid, and credible fears.
The Cycle of Relationship Anxiety
1. Something triggers anxiety. “My partner didn’t say I love you this morning. Is he angry with me? Is he thinking of ending things?”
2. You take action. “I’ll have a glass of wine/ read relationship self-help blogs/ text him first.”
3. You feel temporarily relieved because you feel relaxed, get the reassurance that you need (the blog says, “he’s probably stressed about work”), or successfully rationalize your anxiety away (“I don’t need him anyway”).
4. Because you took action, your brain thinks there must have been danger. It learns to take your anxiety seriously and becomes more sensitized as it scans for “threats” to your relationship.
5. Because your brain is looking harder for them, more “threats” are discovered. Your relationship anxiety occurs more frequently.
Overcoming Relationship Anxiety
The most extreme form of relationship anxiety is a subtype of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) called relationship obsessive-compulsive disorder. However, you don’t need a diagnosis to benefit from the principles of OCD treatment (called Exposure and Response Prevention) to overcome your relationship anxiety.
Breaking this cycle for good is a simple, two-step process, but can be painful and frightening and should be done under the guidance of a licensed therapist.
Breaking the Cycle Exercise
(1) Wait for a trigger or imagine one. Expose yourself to the doubt you have about your relationship and the fear it causes. (“My partner is annoyed! Does she secretly hate me?”)
(2) Prevent yourself from taking action to lessen your anxiety about it. (“I’m going to sit here and be with the feeling instead of taking action. I am not going to reassure myself or rationalize these thoughts away.”)
(3) Sit with the doubt you have. Stop trying to fix it. Stop trying to feel less anxious. In fact, ask for more anxiety. Say to yourself, “I hope I am scared about this forever.” Accept your worst what-ifs as a possibility.
(4) As you stay in this place of letting yourself be as anxious as possible without taking action, your anxiety will naturally rise, peak, and fall. Whether it takes 5, 15, or 90 minutes, sitting with your fear in one-pointed concentration and not letting yourself do anything else will eventually give way to boredom that will then compete for your attention. Stay with it until your anxiety is half or less of the intensity it was when you started.
It may feel utterly counterintuitive to sit with the anxiety, lean into the doubt, and refuse to seek reassurance about your worst fears. Research shows this practice to be one of the most helpful methods of overcoming relationship anxiety, and it may be exactly what you need. This process teaches your brain that your fears are not such a big deal. In turn, your brain learns to give your doubts less emotional weight.
Anxiety attacks what’s most important to you; if you have relationship anxiety, it’s because you value your relationship highly. You may have past trauma that makes it hard to trust you are loved. Our highly-trained and empathetic therapists have the gentleness and expertise to help you overcome feeling disconnected from your partner, anxious, and looking for answers.
There’s hope. We are here for you, as a couple or individually. Reach out to us to schedule a free 15-minute consultation.