If you experience chronic anxiety, it has likely impacted your life in significant ways. You may have felt its effects at your job or in your social life. Perhaps your hobbies and passions have taken a back seat because you’re so often consumed by anxious thoughts.
Anxiety can also take its toll on another important area of your life – your romantic relationships. Anxiety and relationships are a tricky combination, because when you already struggle to keep your emotions and fears in check, allowing yourself to be emotionally entangled with and vulnerable to another person can be confusing, overwhelming, and challenging.
Anxiety’s Effect on Your Romantic Relationships
“Relationships act as a mirror — reflecting our insecurities, mistakes, and unpleasant habits. There is nothing more anxiety provoking than looking into a mirror and seeing yourself — not the you that is primped and pressed, but the naked you,” wrote Amy Przeworski, Ph.D., in an article for PsychologyToday.
I like that quote because I think it rings true for so many people, those with anxiety in particular. Anxiety sufferers report that the condition impacts all their relationships, but their romantic relationships suffer the most.
Persistent fear and worry are defining characteristics of anxiety, and we tend to project our anxiety onto whichever situations are in the forefront of our minds. When we have an important intimate relationship, it’s that relationship that is often central to our thoughts.
Unfortunately, worry in the context of a close relationship commonly manifests as jealousy, suspicion and insecurity. You may have an overwhelming fear of being abandoned, worry your partner is cheating on you, or agonize over the possibility of a breakup, even if your partner has not given you any reason to think these things.
Anxious people tend to require a great deal of reassurance, which can be draining to their partners, only adding to the stress of the situation. Those who are able to recognize their irrational or anxious behavior end up blaming themselves for acting out the same patterns over and over again and feeling helpless to stop it.
In addition, anxious partners are known for their “pushing and pulling” behavior. Persistent “what-if” thinking and overanalyzing every detail of the relationship can make them question whether they should be in the relationship at all; yet at the same time, they are often extremely emotionally dependent on their partners.
This leads them to perpetuate a cycle of pulling their partners in close and then pushing them away. Daniel Smith, the author of Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety, details this phenomenon and how his anxiety impacted his relationship with his now-wife in an excellent piece for CNN.
Conflict is a normal part of relationships, but it can escalate more quickly and cause more problems when one partner has an anxiety disorder. In relationships that are touched by anxiety, it is more likely there will be major issues causing rifts between the partners. In a 2004 study by the Anxiety Disorders Association of America, participants with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) who were in relationships were:
- Half as likely to report being in supportive, healthy relationships
- Twice as likely to have one or more major relationship problems
- Three times as likely to have issues with intimacy
Also of note: In the same study, three-quarters of participants with GAD said that the anxiety inhibited normal relationship activities such as going out and socializing. These effects are common among partners with all types of anxiety disorders, not just GAD. Avoiding behavior and anxiousness around other people can significantly strain a relationship when the anxiety sufferer doesn’t want to attend social events, family obligations, or even go out in public.
Communication is Essential
When it comes to relationships and anxiety, communication can be the most important ingredient that is too often missing. Anxious partners tend to avoid discussing serious issues with their significant others because they worry how any kind of confrontation might negatively impact the relationship. Therefore, many points of contention are left unresolved until they boil over. In an article for PsychologyToday, Susan Heitler, Ph.D., outlines some common mistakes anxious partners make all too often:
- Believing they can read their partner’s mind. They may assign a motive to their partner’s words or actions without actually asking what their partner intended.
- Refusing to address problems directly for fear of the repercussions.
- What-if thinking and projecting fears into the future instead of focusing on the present.
Sometimes, when it seems our anxiety is swallowing us whole, we forget that not everyone in the world understands what it’s like to feel this way. We want the people in our lives to accommodate us and to act sympathetically when our anxiety gets the best of us — and those aren’t entirely unreasonable expectations for the people who love us most. However, we cannot expect these things of our partners and loved ones if we are unwilling to properly communicate with them.
The first step to fixing the destructive influence of anxiety in your relationship is to recognize that you have a problem with anxiety. Relationships are much more likely to implode when one partner has an undiagnosed/unacknowledged anxiety disorder. So if you are reading this blog, you’ve already taken that important step! The next step is to sit down and explain your anxiety to your partner. This requires that you are an open book – you owe your significant other much more than the bare bones of your diagnosis. You need explain your anxiety in-depth, including the specific ways it impacts your day-to-day life as well as your thoughts and actions when you’re in a romantic relationship. Once the partners of anxiety sufferers have a more complete understanding of the condition, they often feel some of the weight lift off their shoulders and are more equipped to react appropriately to their partners.
More Steps to Manage Anxiety in Your Relationship
Explaining your anxiety to your partner is not the only step you’ll need to take, however. There are also some other strategies you should employ to lessen the negative impact of anxiety on relationships.
1. Take the appropriate steps to manage your anxiety – whatever it involves. Whether it’s cognitive-behavioral therapy, clean eating, daily exercise, supplements/medication, or anything else that helps you, you must force yourself to do it. It is unfair to expect a partner to do everything he or she can to support you if you aren’t doing all you can to help yourself.
2. Understand that in order for your partner to remain healthy in the relationship, he or she will likely need to set some boundaries. This does not mean your significant other doesn’t love you; rather, these boundaries help him or her to maintain a supportive, loving connection with you.
3. Know the scenarios that make you tick. It is important to learn to recognize the signs that you’re getting overwhelmed, or that something – whether it’s related to your relationship or not – is triggering your anxiety. You should explain your triggers to your partner so he or she can be aware of them as well.
4. Check in regularly to ensure you’re maintaining your self-care. We all sometimes get wrapped up in our romantic relationships and allow them to become the primary focus of our lives. However, it’s easy to get carried away and neglect yourself. This can happen to all people, but is especially detrimental to those with anxiety or other disorders. If you notice something is out of balance, take a step back and re-establish your self-care routine.
5. Bring your partner on-board with your anxiety-management strategy. For instance, if you are trying to eat healthy and exercise, it will help if your partner wants to participate too. You can even explore partner exercise classes, such as partnered yoga, which can be a great way to bond while also reaping the benefits of exercise. You can also meditate together, cook healthy meals in on date night instead of going out, or take a daily walk after dinner.
I know from personal experience that struggling with severe anxiety while in a relationship can sometimes make a person feel hopeless and unworthy of love. But know that you are not a lost cause, and that you are just as worthy of receiving love and support as any other person. Feel free to share your anxiety and relationship struggles and triumphs in the comments section below … we’d love to hear from you!