Relationship anxiety: What causes it and when you *really* need to worry

by | Apr 11, 2023 | Relationships

By Melanie Pritchard

Human beings are hardwired to feel stress. It dates back to caveman days when we were on high alert for danger like enemy attack, or being ambushed by a wild beast.

Fast forward to the modern day, and this reflex is useful if we are genuinely under threat… and potentially problematic if we are not. So what’s the difference between helpful and unhelpful anxiety in relationships? How does relationship anxiety show up? And how can we handle it?

What are the signs of relationship anxiety?

Cinderella fairy tales don’t talk about relationships triggering anxiety (even good relationships). This might look like worrying about exes or that a partner may cheat, not speaking up about something that’s concerning you or people pleasing instead of expressing your needs. It may also manifest in your partner avoiding intimacy and sharing vulnerabilities, overthinking worries, irritability and shut-down or unease around commitment. This can have a ripple effect on your own anxiety levels especially if you start mind-reading and catastrophizing about the future.

What causes relationship anxiety?

Relationship anxiety can come from different places. This could include having been burnt on dating apps and betrayal in previous relationships, lack of self-esteem and common fears in the early days of dating, lack of communication, social media ‘comparisonitis’ or childhood trauma.

It can also accompany life changes such as new jobs, moving in together, ageing and fertility worries, or the arrival of children. Stress can also be triggered by clashing attachment styles (how we perceive and approach love), which are usually determined by the behaviour of our primary caregivers in our early childhood.

‘Securely’ attached people become close to others with relative ease whereas ‘insecure’ attachment styles spark greater relationship anxiety. This could be insecurity about a partner’s feelings to fears around intimacy or abandonment. You may also have different love languages to your partner. Gary Chapman explains these are words of affirmation, acts of service, quality time, gifts and physical touch. For instance, if physical touch makes you feel loved and your partner expresses love through words, this may give rise to misunderstandings.

Is relationship anxiety always bad?

Broadly speaking, there are two types – healthy and less-healthy anxiety. Everyone feels anxious from time to time in relationships. This could be noticing that your partner seems attracted to someone else or fretting about sharing vulnerabilities.

Healthy anxiety may also show up as helpful alarm bells which signal that all is not well. For instance, you may have a gut instinct not to trust a partner because they’ve done something concerning. Examples of this include hiding their phone or meeting up with an ex behind your back.

This will either be an opportunity to deepen trust through healthy communication and reassurance or be a helpful signal to leave an unhealthy relationship. In this instance, anxiety may be a roadmap to safety.

Less helpful anxiety is disproportionate to the threat. It’s characterised by cognitive distortions (or illusions) that can cause stress or distress. For instance, you may worry that your partner is cheating because they haven’t responded to a text quickly or you may mind-read that they’re planning on breaking up with you because they’re quieter than usual. In reality, they may just be stressed about work.

Less healthy anxiety may fall into disordered territory if it’s persistent, irrational and overwhelming. It could also be affecting concentration, sleep, eating or physical health.

How do you handle relationship anxiety?

So how can you tell if your fear is False Evidence Appearing Real or an alarm system for genuine threat?

This simple cognitive behavioural therapy trick is a game-changer for thinking in a more balanced way.

Handling relationship anxiety

  • First, identify the stressful thought.
  • Then ask yourself which cognitive distortion(s) you notice. For instance, ‘he’s not been up for sex lately. He’s not attracted to me any more’.
  • You may spot distortions like catastrophizing and black-and-white thinking here which cause your worries to spiral.
  • Identifying these distortions takes the sting out of stress.
  • Then ask, ‘What hard evidence do I have that this thought is real?’
  • Imagine you’re a barrister in court – the evidence must be irrefutable! This will help you see things more objectively.
  • Now ask, ‘What’s an alternative way of looking at this thought?’ For instance, maybe he’s stressed with work.
  • Finally, ask yourself what you’d say to a best friend, for instance, ‘It’s probably nothing to do with you. Why don’t you talk to him about it?’ This helps you step outside the situation and nurture a more rational perspective.

If that doesn’t help, it may be that your anxiety is founded in truth. If not, a therapist can help you get clearer on what’s really going on.

Finally, if you want a healthy relationship, sharing your feelings and needs is key. Remember, vulnerability is a great connector of people, even if it feels hard to speak up.

As Susan David PhD says:’Discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life.’

Mel is a qualified family lawyer and certified personal coach. She’s a member of The European Mentoring and Coaching Council, The Career Development Institute and The Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services. Find out more about her work and services here.

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