As your relationship with someone develops, and the other person becomes more important to you, you may find that relationship anxiety begins to creep in.
Invariably you will become more sensitive – to perceived rejections, signs of indifference, or expressions of conflict. This is because you are now vulnerable to the pain and anguish of losing your partner, especially as they become more important to you.
As your emotions become more intense and complex, your capacity for regulating (containing and managing) your emotions becomes increasingly necessary.
The truth is that when another person becomes important to you, feelings of insecurity are inevitable, at least to some degree or another. These insecure feelings can manifest in many different forms, from being anxious to please, to withdrawing and shutting down completely. The intensity of the underlying anxiety, and how it is managed, depends on multiple factors such as disruptions in your own early childhood attachment history, to current challenges relating to compatibility, etc.
As a relationship becomes more important to you, you typically feel excitement, hope, passion, pleasure, pleasant anticipation, and affection. But at the same time, you may feel anxiety, insecurity, sadness, frustration, anger, and shame (not feeling good enough). Why do these negative emotions arise along with the positive ones?
The Experience of Being Evaluated
There is no escaping the reality that in the early stages of a relationship you are being evaluated. And when you are subjected to evaluation, you tend to become defensive.
It is entirely natural to assume a stance of self-protection especially if you are anticipating rejection. You will inevitably find yourself thinking about your interactions with your partner or a potential partner. However, this can become problematic if you start overthinking all your interactions with your partner. Have you become preoccupied with incessant speculations such as :
- “What does she think about what I did?”;
- “How can I please him?”;
- “Will she be disappointed that … !”
Such overthinking not only exacerbates anxiety; it makes it almost impossible to remain open and engaged with your partner. Instead, you end up becoming oversensitive, guarded, defensive and self-conscious.
Self Doubt and Relationship Anxiety
Against this backdrop of evaluation, you may be at risk not only of overthinking how your partner is evaluating your actions; but also of analysing your own performance in the relationship, entertaining doubts about how your behaviours and actions could reveal your personal deficits or failings.
This process usually culminates in you typically presuming the worst scenario or possible outcome. Once you have fallen in the trap of presuming that you “KNOW” what your partner is thinking or feeling, you become defensive – or alternatively, you begin to feel hopeless and withdraw from the relationship altogether.
Perceptions of Negative Motives in the Partner’s Behaviour
If you suffer from relationship anxiety, over time you are more likely to become vigilant about the underlying meanings and motives of the other person’s behaviour. What this means is that you are more likely to infer (read between the lines) that there are ulterior motives, and that the other person’s actions are disingenuous, and then you are more likely to take what they say and do personally. As a result you may even retaliate vehemently to something that you have imagined about the other person’s behaviour or motives.
Taking things personally not only betrays an underlying insecurity, but it can create real problems for your relationship. Insecurity and anxiety inevitably undermines the relationship, through the conflicts that emerge when you infer and presume that negative motives underpin your partner’s behaviour.
To demonstrate what this might look like, imagine John and Angela arriving home from work one evening. John is in a bad mood. In response to his bad mood, Angela becomes distressed. Her distress is because she has made the assumption that John is annoyed at her. She has taken it personally and then verbally attacks him for not caring about her feelings. Meanwhile the reality may be very different – John has had a bad day at work, or worries and concerns that have nothing to do with Angela.
Misunderstandings and Differences of Opinion
If you are insecure in the relationship, differences of opinion and conflict may be perceived as a threat to the relationship. If this is the case, then differences of opinion and conflict are to be avoided at all costs.
However, it is imperative to acknowledge conflict and for a couple to cultivate the shared capacity to repair their relationship. The ability to repair relationships is critical, if the relationship is to remain secure.
Relationship Anxiety and Anger
If you feel insecure about your relationship, you are more likely to anticipate its loss and therefore feel more vulnerable.
If this feeling persists most people become invariably more controlling. And anger is by nature coercive. You can use threats of anger to coerce your partner to do what you want, thereby creating the illusion of security. As long as your partner acts in a certain way, you can experience some confidence that this person cares for you and is committed to the relationship.
However, when your partner does not act that way, you may experience that person as uncaring, insensitive and selfish. You become angry as you make the assumption that the person is violating an unspoken agreement that they will only act in ways that you consider to demonstrate his or her care and commitment.
Moreover, if you suffer from relationship anxiety and feelings of insecurity, you may ensnare your partner in what I call a “caring paradox”. In a caring paradox, you interpret and take everything your partner says and does as evidence that they care – even going so far as setting tests to determine that they do indeed care. Invariably, the other fails at these “tests”, leaving you feeling insecure, hurt and dejected.
Control and Relationship Anxiety
Children, for example, who are extremely insecure in their relationships with their caregiver, tend to be very controlling. They want things to be their way and when they are not, they often become angry. Their anger is their way of managing their anxiety about not being important enough to their parents to feel safe that they will be cared for.
If you find yourself frequently becoming angry with your partner for doing things that you wish that they didn’t do, more than likely you are feeling a similar anxiety to the insecure child. Your attachment relationship is being threatened.
Counselling, whether for you as an individual, or as a couple, can help you to understand the roots of your relationship anxiety, and equip you with better ways of managing and expressing your emotions.
Author: Cobus Kleynhans, BA (Hons), MA (Clin Psych).
A Clinical Psychologist with over a dozen years’ experience in working with individuals and couples, Cobus Kleynhans has specialist training in the techniques and practice of Couples and Family Therapy.
He has pursued extensive development in mindfulness-based treatment models, and is excited by the wealth of research revealing how mindfulness is effective in helping to enhance and promote healthy brain function.
Please note: Cobus’ books are currently closed.
- Hughes, Daniel A. 2013. “8 Keys to Building your Best Relationship”. New York: W W Norton and Company.