What does relationship anxiety look like?

Relationship anxiety is a very common form of anxiety. It is the feeling of intense worry when you are either separated from your partner or there is an emotional threat (disconnection) to the relationship. 

There are very good reasons why you have developed relationship anxiety so please do not feel embarrassed about it. We will talk about these reasons below and and I offer you suggestions on how you can heal your relationship anxiety. 

Previously, I have written about Childhood Emotional Neglect and Childhood Trauma which are related to relationship anxiety.

Here are a few examples of situations that you may identify with. These situations may look different for different individuals but have common elements. 

In men…

Dave* would not have said that he has relationship anxiety because it was so well masked under everything else. He had a successful career and he was in a relationship but any time he had to go away for a business trip he felt anxious. One time when he had an argument with his partner just before going away for a week-long business trip, he felt distraught. During that week there was a lot of drinking with his work colleagues and one night, he made the drunken decision to cheat on his partner. He wasn’t thinking he just existed and it felt like a good idea at the time. The day after he felt terrible. He then told his partner. Dave also had a pattern of self-sabotaging in his relationships. 

Other behaviour patterns in men: 

Short relationships – Wanting to get into a relationship but when it starts to get serious then breaking up because it feels too overwhelming. 

Overthinking – It could be about continuously overthinking about what the other person is doing or thinking about. “Is she really interested in me?” or “Am I enough?”

People pleasing – It is about not being able to set boundaries in your relationships. You may be so laid back about everything and always saying in the sub-text: “Everything is fine, I do whatever you like me to..” but deep down you fear considering you and setting a boundary. You may have attracted a woman who is very strong and you may at times feel quite emasculated.

Checking for partner’s safety – Whilst it may on surface look like you are caring for your partner and checking if they are safe when out of the home, but there could be anxiety driving this. You may be continuously preoccupied with thinking about your partner’s safety when they are not in the close proximity.     

These are by no means an exclusive list of relationship anxiety and many different variations exist.

In women…

Emily* was single and moved from one long-term relationship to the next. When she got into a relationship, she started obsessing over whether her partner would leave her or not. She messaged several times a day and continuously sought reassurance. Emily often attracted partner’s who were quite distant so her anxiety got even worse in the relationship. When the relationship then ended, she blamed herself for it. 

Other experiences in women:

Critical thinking – Obsessing over, for example, one’s appearance and worrying that partner will not like her as she is. 

Accusing partner of cheating – Imagining that partner has cheated when they are preoccupied with their own e.g. work problems. 

People pleasing – Deep down being fearful of expressing one’s needs in the relationship and being “easy going” on the surface and deep down suffering in silence. Being a good girl who does not rock the boat. Often this is manifested by agreeing to always help and do things for other people.  

There are numerous ways relationship anxiety manifests but in the heart of it is that one feels worries in the relationship.  

What causes relationship anxiety?

Relationship anxiety usually stems from earlier relationship experiences when one was not seen and heard. Perhaps in childhood you grew up with very anxious, overprotective parents that wanted to protect you all the time. 

Or you may have experienced parent(s) who were absent (even for good reasons like work) a lot of the time in your childhood and you were often left wondering when will you see them again (young children don’t have the content of time). 

We learn about relationship blueprints in childhood and absorb what we experienced in them.

Of course, you may have had a very loving and secure relationship with your parents and other caregivers in your childhood but later on in life you were with a partner who was unreliable. 

Later on when your even a reliable partner goes away even if it is for work for the day, your attachment system gets activated and feel this urge to seek reassurance.

The difficulty is if you have experienced childhood emotional neglect or some form of childhood trauma, we tend to gravitate unconsciously towards the same relationship dynamic we experienced in childhood. But this does not mean you can’t feel more secure in future relationships, it just needs a very specific kind of work. 

How can you heal your relationship anxiety?

Healing your relationship anxiety requires learning to reparent yourself and giving yourself the same loving attention a loving parent would give. It is about nurturing your inner child, your younger parts. 

  • Get to know yourself and your younger parts by journaling daily. 
  • Meditate and learn to sooth your nervous system.
  • Breathwork to ground yourself. 
  • Increase your emotional awareness through journaling and mindfulness. 
  • Set boundaries – Keep asking yourself before agreeing to anything: How does this work for me?
  • Practice self-compassion and talking to yourself like you were your own best friend.
  • Seek therapy – Relational psychotherapy or attachment focused EMDR (eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing therapy) are good choices for healing those parts of you that need attention. 

Finally, 

When you attend to your needs daily, you will start to see yourself as a priority and detach from relying on others as the primary source of your comfort. Relationships are great but essentially we need to learn to soothe ourselves first and then then the relationship can help to co-regulate too.

If you need more support, check out my services pages and book a FREE 15min  consultation to talk about how therapy could help you with relationship anxiety. 

Mari

*The names have been changed and do not refer to any action either present or previous clients but are examples of the stories I have heard over the years.