Romantic relationships used to be the number one trigger for my anxiety. I would experience some stress and anxiety related to academics and a little in response to friendships but dating was what consistently caused me to feel most anxious. And there’s good reason, in contrast to a lot of areas of our lives, romantic relationships are one place where we don’t have much control. Sure we have agency over how we engage with the person we are dating but we can’t control how they feel about us. We can feel like we are doing “all the right things” but we can’t make someone like or commit to us. Also, romantic relationships put us in a place of vulnerability. In romantic relationships more than other types of relationships, we open up to our partners and share parts of ourselves that we are scared to let the world see. This combination of dynamics coupled with my desire for everyone to like me and the pressure I felt starting around age 23 to meet and marry the right partner made relationships a powder keg for my anxiety.
Thankfully, I have emerged from that period of my life more calm and grounded in myself, which has helped me to be much less anxious in relationships. My last relationship was a true testament to the growth that I’ve experienced in this area. While there were times when I felt anxious I was able to manage these periods and communicate constructively with my then boyfriend about what I needed. Instead of getting overwhelmed and leaving the relationship abruptly or beginning to criticize my partner in response to my anxiety I learned to soothe myself and identify when I wanted to address a concern and when I could let things go.
Below, I highlight some of the primary challenges people encounter related to anxiety in romantic relationships along with strategies to begin effectively managing your anxiety so that it does not ruin your relationship.
Interpreting everything as a sign the person you’re dating doesn’t like you
When we feel anxious about whether or not our relationship is going to work out and insecure about ourselves we tend to interpret everything as signaling that our partner or potential partner does not like us. They didn’t respond to your text immediately? They must have lost interest. They want to hang out with their friends on Friday night instead of spending time with you? They must like their friends better than they like you. They are not constantly affirming your physical appearance? They must think you’re ugly. Some of these things may sound silly as you read them here but when we are in the throws of anxiety these possibilities feel all too real. It feels like we are being rejected and unless we know how to soothe ourselves we may cause problems in the relationship in our attempts to seek reassurance.
I think that our anxiety about whether or not a partner likes us is linked to our self worth. My anxiety in romantic relationships reduced significantly once I saw that my worth was not linked to being in a relationship but was unchangeable. I encourage you to develop a sense of your worthiness that is not attached to your relationship status, income, or accomplishments. Work to connect with the part of you that is always worthy. Additionally, I would encourage you to work on liking yourself; we tend to be much less anxious about whether other people like us when we truly like ourselves.
Expecting your partner to get rid of your anxiety
Anxiety often drives us to try to control things and that can include the person we are dating. We may try to control how and when a partner communicates with us, how and when we spend time together, or what types of things our partner does when they are not with us. All of this can be an attempt to quiet our anxiety. If your partner would just respond quickly to your texts messages then you wouldn’t be anxious. If they would never interact with people who you think they might be attracted to then you will be okay. Unfortunately, attempting to control your partner often erodes the passion and connection in a relationship. It is hard for people to feel free to be themselves when they are worried that anything they do might make you anxious.
I want to be clear that setting boundaries and having expectations for your partner’s behavior is still important and there is a difference between proactive boundary and expectation setting and reactive attempts to control another person’s behavior in response to anxiety. My primary recommendation to address the problem of expecting your partner to get rid of your anxiety is to learn to soothe yourself when you feel anxious. This may involve going to therapy to work through underlying issues related to your anxiety and you can also check out my previous post on Understanding & Managing Anxiety. Try to be kind and compassionate to yourself when you are anxious, ground yourself in the moment, and take some time to breathe before acting out of your anxiety. This does not mean that you can’t ask your partner to help you calm down when you are anxious; I think it is when wonderful when partners support each other through difficult emotional experiences. If you want your partner’s support, see if you can tell them how you are feeling (not what you are thinking about their behavior) and ask them just to listen and maybe hold your hand or give you a hug. It will help if you can acknowledge that the anxiety is related to your stuff more than their behavior.
Trying to move the relationship forward to quickly
When we are anxious we look for something secure and stable to grasp on to. In the context of a relationship that usually means a commitment. We may push for a commitment before we and the person we are dating are truly ready for it because we hope that the commitment will allow us to relax. The challenge is that pushing for a commitment before both partners are ready can cause stress and issues in the relationship. Additionally, committing to a relationship because you want to feel less anxious about being with your partner is not a good rationale. Committing to a relationship, moving in, getting engaged, or getting married should be about the positive feelings you have towards your partner and the mutual sense that you know each other well enough to take your relationship to the next level.
In order avoid moving your relationship forward too quickly because of anxiety I encourage you to focus on the present. Pay attention to what the relationship is like for you right now. What do you like? What do you dislike? Often we try to move our relationships forward in the hopes that something will get better. We think that if we are in an exclusive relationship the person we are dating will treat us the way we want to be treated. The reality is that how a partner treats you should come from within and be reinforced through a commitment; if someone is not treating you well that’s a sign that you should end the relationship not seek a deeper commitment. Focusing on the present can help you to enjoy the relationship just as it is right now. I think our society’s focus on marriage makes us overlook the wonderful dynamics we experience in the early stages of romantic relationships. I encourage you to enjoy dating and getting to know a new partner, learning about each other as your relationship develops over time, and soaking in the lightness of the relationship without the added pressure of living together, planning a wedding, or having children.
Trying to be perfect
Feeling anxiety in the context of a relationship can also push us to attempt to hide our flaws in the hopes that our partner will think we are perfect and thus choose us forever. There are several problems with this: first when we try to be perfect we always have the sense that if our partner were to see our flaws they would stop loving us. Essentially, in our attempt to be unconditionally loved and accepted we end up feeling only conditionally loved and accepted. Another issue related to trying to be perfect is that we don’t allow the person we are with to see the real us, to understand our quirks and funny ways.
To address this I encourage you to embrace your full self and as you get to know the person you are dating let them really get to know you. When you develop an unconditional relationship with yourself it is much easier to let go of trying to be perfect and allow a partner to see your flaws. If you are longing for unconditional love and acceptance the best way to get that is to give it to yourself. This will give you the security that you need to show up as your whole self in your relationships. It will also allow you to be there for yourself if your relationship does not work out as you hoped.
Having unreasonable complaints
The last problem I want to highlight related to anxiety in relationships is that it can prompt us to make unreasonable complaints about our partners and relationships. I remember projecting my insecurities about how I looked and felt onto past boyfriends. I expected them to make me feel worthy and when they didn’t I blamed my feelings of unworthiness on their behavior. While I think some of the things that I wanted from my partners were reasonable, my anxiety turned understandable desires into unreasonable complaints.
In order to address this concern it is important to sort through what is prompting your complaints and requests and determine whether or not they seem reasonable. My best friend has been a godsend for me related to this. Whenever I felt anxious about something my last boyfriend did I would text her about it to see if my frustration and anxiety seemed reasonable or not. Taking the time to consult with someone I trust helped me to identify when my concerns were coming from my own anxiety and insecurities and not directly linked to my boyfriend’s behavior. This clarity helped me to figure out what concerns I could let go of and which concerns I would talk to my boyfriend about because I wanted to address them. Additionally, taking the time to think through what I was anxious about allowed me to calm down enough so I could address things in a constructive way instead of starting a fight.