What is Relationship Anxiety?
Falling in love is exciting and relationships are, for the most part, one of the most pleasurable things around. However, relationships naturally involve some amount of uncertainty, and for some people, relationships can be a significant source of anxiety. Although relationship anxiety is not a disorder in itself, relationship anxiety can stem from other anxiety disorders such as Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (see R-OCD) and also various personality disorders such as Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD).
Relationship anxiety can arise at any stage of the relationship; for some, the idea of being in a relationship can be daunting: “Will I find someone who will love me?”. In the early stages, common worries include: “Will he/she like me?”, “How serious is this relationship?”. As the relationship progresses and things become more serious, these worries can intensify, which for some individuals results in them distancing themselves from their partner. Some of these worries can stem from insecurities about the self, for example: “I am not pretty enough” or “I don’t deserve him/her” or “I’m unloveable”. Alternatively, these worries can also stem from negative experiences in past relationships (e.g., experiencing infidelity in a past relationship) or witnessing others’ negative experiences in relationships (e.g., hearing about other people cheating/being cheated on or being treated poorly in relationships).
Alternatively, these worries may be the result of a fear of commitment (commitment phobia). Individuals with commitment phobia desire long-term commitment to others but tend to avoid intimacy with others for fear of emotional upset, being “trapped”, and losing their independence, or fear of not being able to control the “unknown”. Their behaviour is best described as “hot and cold”; in some cases, after they have “hooked” their match, they then begin to obsessively look for flaws, convincing themselves why they are not a right fit, to justify their behaviour and return to their “emotionally safe” haven.
Relationship anxiety may also step from difficulties in trusting others generally, often as a result of early life experiences. It can be difficult to trust others if an individual has an underlying fear that others may harm them in some way, or ultimately abandon or reject themselves.
Signs of relationship anxiety include:
- Frequent anxious or worrying thoughts about your relationship
- Fear of committing to the relationship
- Feeling anxious when your partner is away from you
- Being cold/aloof towards your partner
- Easily irritable toward your partner
- Being preoccupied with your partner (e.g., what they are doing, checking their social media feeds)
- Overthinking what you want to say to your partner
- Frequently finding fault with your partner
- Doing things to intentionally sabotage your relationship
Treatment for Relationship Anxiety
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is known to be highly effective in treating anxiety and can be effective in addressing relationship anxiety. CBT works on helping individuals identify their negative thoughts and associated habitual behaviours which reinforce the anxiety. Under the support of a specialised psychologist, individuals are then taught new strategies to change the way they think, and subsequently, how they behave within relationships.
Schema-Focused Cognitive Therapy is also useful in the treatment of relationship anxiety. Schema therapy is particularly effective in treating longstanding “maladaptive” patterns of behaviour. The theory underpinning schema therapy is that our early life experiences lead to particular beliefs we have about ourselves, the world and others. Our schemas influence how we interpret the world around us, including the actions of others. Over the course of schema therapy clients work with their psychologist to identify their ‘schema’ and the various patterns of thoughts, feelings and behaviours associated with each schema. Treatment also focuses on establishing more healthy and adaptive schema and associated patterns of behaviour.