Relationships naturally involve high levels of uncertainty and unexpected complications – which is perhaps what explains why there are many different reasons relationship anxiety is such a common phenomenon in today’s society. Although not an official disorder itself, relationship anxiety may stem from other anxiety disorders or other mental health issues: meaning there are a range of underlying factors that
could be causing and contribute to it – all of course, with varying levels of severity. Anxiety itself, is our body’s natural response to situations we feel threatened or endangered.
Subsequently, we experience a certain level of distress and worry that usually passes after the trigger has been removed. The main indicators that it may be time to seek help, are when these worries don’t show signs of improving, and begin incessantly occupying individuals’ everyday thoughts and actions.
Some of the physical symptoms common to anxiety include:
- Rapid heartbeat
- Overwhelming and intrusive worries
- Nervous sweating
- Lack of concentration
- Feelings of detachment or loss of self- control
- Feeling on edge and persistent tenseness/ restlessness
- Inability to sleep because of worry
- Headaches, nausea or diarrhoea
Depending on what the anxiety is centred around, most- if not all anxieties, are embedded in an underlying cause. Some of the most common include:
- Fear of being emotionally vulnerable
- Exposure to negative family relationships growing up
- Insecure attachment to parents, or lack of affection given during childhood
- Stress build up
- Poor communication
- Low self- esteem / poor self- acceptance
- Previous relationships that ended in emotional turmoil
- Fear of not being accepted or negatively evaluated by partner if conflict arises between the in laws.
- Fear of partner leaving them
- Fear of marriage
- Appearing over protective, clingy or needy
- Push-pull behaviour: causing unnecessary conflict in the relationship, followed by closeness
- Pull-push behaviour: the act of luring a partner in and pushing them away when they get too attached
- Avoidance of situations or people that may trigger increased anxiety
- Becoming socially withdrawn
- Panic attacks
- Increased irritability
- Not being able to maintain a long-term relationship
- Constantly fearing negative judgement from partner
- Fear of partner leaving
- Need to be constantly surrounded by partner or know their whereabouts
- Need to be constantly reassured or comforted by their partner
- Decreased libido
- Inability to manage routine daily tasks
- Responding to partner with unnecessary anger or defensiveness
Commitment phobia affects many people on a subconscious level – they often don’t know why they engage in the behaviour, or they may be in denial, claiming that they “like things the way they are”. In both cases, it leads them through a nasty pattern of loneliness and distress, in an attempt to seek control, perfection, and pleasure.
Individuals with commitment phobia, avoid intimacy with others for fear of emotional upset, fear of being “trapped” and losing independence, or fear of not being able to control the “unknown”. They like to be able to be the one in the relationship who “calls the shots” – who can foresee the outcomes.
Their behaviour is best described as “pull- push”, or “hot and cold”, primarily based on seduction. In some cases, after they have “hooked” their match, the individual obsessively look for flaws in them: convincing themselves why they are not right for them – justifying their behaviour, and returning to their “emotionally safe” haven.
There are many possible contributing factors that may cause commitment phobia, although the most typical scenarios involve past exposure to instability in relationships, including:
- Loveless relationship between parents
Individuals who have been brought up in a family whose parents disengage from one another, (displaying lack of affection, communication and warmth) often affects their perception of what to expect from relationships as adults. From a young age, this “loveless” family environment, is normalized. Without having been exposed to the behaviours of healthy romantic relationships growing up, feeling intimacy and connection with another, is unfamiliar territory to them.
- Volatile, aggressive or addiction-based family
Often individuals who have been brought up in a loud, aggressive, or unsafe family environment as children, learn to associate emotionally committing themselves to others as a hurtful, risky and worthless divesting endeavour. These individuals may also lack trust in others for fear of being emotionally hurt, as they were during childhood.
Regardless of whether individuals experience anxiety because of the relationship itself, or whether it was pre-existing before the relationship began: anxiety in general, can have a domino effect on relationships’ longevity and strength. Anxiety, if not properly addressed early on in relationships, may either prompt a variety of other complications to unravel between partners, or result in recurring short lived relationships for the individual’s future. Because most people experiencing anxiety tend to avoid situations that either trigger their distress, or make it worse, it is common for individuals to disengage in typical events they once enjoyed doing, either with or without their partner (depending on the cause of their anxiety).
Some common scenarios include:
- Avoiding situations, topics, or people that may cause conflict and fighting with their partner
- By-passing social events or places with their partner, to avoid particular people or instances that may cause jealousy, criticism, negative judgement or rejection
- “Tip-toeing” around their partner: hiding their true emotions for fear of rejection or conflict
It is typical for most individuals to experience anxiety at some stage of their relationship (particularly during the early stages, when partners are still learning about each other). However, it turns problematic when this worry becomes overwhelming: constantly chipping away at their mind and taking control of their every thought. These negative thoughts work in a cyclical fashion, and if not resolved, the anxiety can pile up and bleed across to other areas of their life –placing a heavy burden on their overall wellbeing and outlook. This is why psychotherapeutic treatment is so essential to obtain when anxiety problems are first detected: preventing escalation and any further dishevelment’s from unravelling.
How can relationship anxiety damage wellbeing?
If the causes for relationship anxiety are left untreated and are not openly aired out between partners, it may only lead to increased inner turmoil- acting as ammunition for other mental health issues to arise. Similarly, if individuals notice anxiety seeming to be the root of their problematic (short lived) past relationships, if left unresolved, these patterns may only continue to recur for them in the future – lending to perpetuate their personal insecurities and doubts about their relationship competencies.
Anxiety may not only be debilitating for the person experiencing it – often it has a negative ripple effect on all areas across their life: including their interpersonal relationships. As a result of the common behaviours anxiety triggers, family and friends often cop the brunt of it, and if they lack knowledge and understanding themselves, it can lead to serious long-term damages.
Research suggests individuals who already experience high anxiety prior to beginning their relationship, have a higher tendency for problems to occur within the relationship. Similarly, extensive numbers of studies have shown insecure relationship attachment styles, particularly anxious and avoidance types, to have harmful effects on the quality of romantic relationships (including relationship satisfaction, commitment, emotional experience in relationships, and conflict resolution strategies). To distinguish between the two, anxious attachment is characterised by the desire to be close with others for fear of being abandoned. On the other hand, avoidance attachment, is characterised by fear of emotional intimacy for fear of losing independency (or fear of being dependant on others). According to the attachment theory (Shavar, 2000) there are two components of the attachment system: one that monitors the availability of the partner, and one that regulates attachment related behaviours. Higher anxiety is considered to have a higher sensitivity to the monitoring component for rejection cues; whilst higher avoidance, triggers withdrawal related behaviours in the regulating component. Both anxious and avoidant attachment styles in relationships, have been reported to be strongly connected with higher general conflict, negative emotional indicators of relationship quality, and destructive interactions between partners.
- Talk about how you feel with your partner
- Ask about the doubts you may have: find evidence rather than drawing conclusions and assuming you can mind-read
- Confront your anxiety: it sounds counter intuitive, but facing your fears relinquishes anxiety, by enabling you to pursue solutions to your problems
- Remain calm and approachable: sorting out your problems rationally with your partner will prevent unnecessary reactions based around anger, accusation, or defensiveness. These negative reactions will only exasperate the problem, leading to increased avoidance and unresolved issues.
- Stay in the present moment
- Bottle up your emotions
- Assume you know what others are thinking
- Avoid your fears, it only perpetuates distress and leaves problems unresolved.
- Don’t get angry or defensive
- Let your thoughts run wild – catastrophizing into the future with “what if” scenarios only leads to more fear and anxiety.
Many individuals experiencing anxiety may feel very alone and trapped. It is important for anyone suffering from anxiety to know they are not alone, professional help is available, and their anxiety is TREATABLE! There are many forms of treatment known to benefit those with anxiety, although the most common is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). The concept of CBT is changing the individual’s thoughts (cognitions) and associated habitual like behaviours that have been learnt and engrained in them over time (resulting in their current undesirable predicament), with the guidance and support from a psychologist. The therapist works with the individual to identify their current (negative) thought patterns, and from here, teaches them new methods to restructure the way they think (and behave) –replacing their dysfunctional thoughts with rational ones, based on the evidence they learn from gradual exposure to their fears.
Author: Dr Ea Stewart (DPsych (Clin); BSc [Hons]; Assoc MAPS)
Calm Clinic. (2009-2014). 5 Causes and 5 Solutions for Relationship Anxiety. Retrieved from http://www.calmclinic.com/anxiety-types/relationship-anxiety
Paul, S. (2013, June). The Initiation of Relationship Anxiety. Retrieved from http://conscious-transitions.com/the-initiation-of-relationship-anxiety/