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Starting a new relationship or making a long-term commitment causes many people to feel insecure. For some people, frequent negative or anxious thoughts about the relationship can take a toll, leading to relationship anxiety.
Relationship anxiety doesn’t have to mean anything is wrong with you, your partner, or your relationship. Sometimes, anxious or doubting feelings creep up unexpectedly. Thankfully, there are options to help you feel better and have more fulfilling relationships. Read on to learn more about what relationship anxiety is, its signs, and treatment options.
What is relationship anxiety?
Many people recognize relationship anxiety as an important mental health concern. Still, there are no clinical criteria for it within the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). The DSM-5 is the gold standard for setting guidelines for diagnosing mental health conditions.
Relationship anxiety sometimes gets grouped with social anxiety disorder, a type of anxiety disorder causing fear of social situations and other people’s opinions (Chand, 2021).
Relationship anxiety is intense worry, fear, doubt, and insecurity about a relationship. It can happen with a romantic partner, best friend, family, or caregiver. However, it is more common in romantic relationships.
Sometimes, people experience relationship anxiety at the beginning of a relationship when still trying to establish trust. Over time, this may go away. For other people, the feeling may continue or develop well into a long-term relationship. Relationship anxiety can cause difficulties in relationships for yourself and your partner, such as:
- Emotional distress
- Physical or emotional exhaustion
- Lack of interest or motivation
- Increased fighting
Relationship anxiety doesn’t mean there is a problem in the relationship or a problem with compatibility. It often isn’t caused by something you or your partner did. Still, it can be distressing and potentially lead to behaviors that cause problems within the relationship.
Sometimes the distrust and doubt within the relationship lead to sabotaging behaviors that create problems with your significant other—a self-fulling prophecy of sorts.
Social anxiety disorder: signs, causes, how to overcome
Signs of relationship anxiety
Common thoughts and behaviors that may be signs of relationship anxiety include (Paprocki, 2015):
- Frequently seeking reassurance: Wanting the occasional validation from your partner is normal, but constantly worrying if you matter to your partner may be a sign of relationship anxiety. You may frequently wonder or ask your partner if you matter to them. Maybe you doubt if they would support you during challenging times. Often, people with relationship anxiety will ask their partner for reassurance that they still have feelings for you or ask them to prove their love.
- Self-silencing: Choosing to remain silent, withholding your opinions, and not expressing yourself in other ways are signs of relationship anxiety. Self-silencing is usually an attempt to fit into who you believe your partner wants you to be. People do this to avoid conflicts, disapproval, and the loss of affection from their partner.
- Partner accommodation: Another common sign is consistently putting your partner’s needs above your own in an attempt to gain approval and love. It’s normal to do this from time to time, but if you find yourself doing this often, it’s a good sign of relationship anxiety.
Relationship anxiety may lead to the physical and emotional symptoms of other types of anxiety, such as (Chand, 2021):
- Increased heart rate
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain or pressure
- Sweating, chills, or hot flashes
- Intense fear or worry
- Tense feeling or nervousness
- Low self-esteem and self-doubt
- Fear of abandonment
- Trembling in legs
Causes of relationship anxiety
We don’t really know what causes anxiety in general or relationship anxiety in particular. It’s likely affected by multiple factors like your genetics, life experiences, and family history.
One possible factor is attachment style, which refers to how you relate to other people. It develops during childhood and likely affects your relationships as an adult. A secure attachment style helps people feel more comfortable in their relationships. People with an anxious attachment, on the other hand, tend to feel more dependent on their partners. Research shows people with an anxious attachment style are more likely to display hurt feelings and exaggerate their feelings to make their partner feel guilty (Overall, 2014).
Borderline personality disorder (BPD): testing, types, and traits
Another study showed people with an anxious attachment style were more likely to experience negative emotions in their relationships. They felt more stress and believed others rejected them more often than those with non-anxious attachment styles (Sheinbaum, 2015).
People with an avoidant attachment style are more likely to feel less comfortable being in relationships. They are more likely to end relationships early (Sheinbaum, 2015).
Triggers for anxiety in relationships
There won’t always be a specific behavior that will trigger relationship anxiety. Sometimes the anxious thoughts and feelings will appear seemingly out of nowhere.
Stressful past experiences may play a role in future relationship anxiety, such as:
- A previous partner cheating on you
- Being repeatedly or significantly lied to
- Past relationships ending unexpectedly or sudden breakup
- The sudden death of a partner
- Physical, emotional, or sexual abuse
Having had a poor relationship with your parents or parents divorcing may increase your risk of developing relationship anxiety or separation anxiety (Platt, 2016).
Treatment for relationship anxiety
If you’re experiencing relationship anxiety, there are options to help.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of psychotherapy that may help. With this approach, a mental health professional will help you build your coping skills to handle negative thoughts and emotions better. CBT focuses on helping you transition negative thinking into more positive thoughts, feelings, and actions.
Another option is couples therapy, which can help you grow in your relationship and learn skills to help support each other. A therapist will help you and your partner work through any problems to understand each other better.
If you’re experiencing severe anxiety, your healthcare provider may recommend antidepressant or anti-anxiety medications to relieve your symptoms. Examples of medicines used to treat anxiety include selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), and benzodiazepines (Chand, 2021).
SSRIs: everything you need to know
How to overcome relationship anxiety
It might be difficult to imagine overcoming relationship anxiety, but it is possible. It may feel safer to avoid your relationship anxiety in the hopes of it just going away. However, the earlier you address how you’re feeling, the sooner you can feel better. Addressing it early also prevents it from snowballing into a more significant problem.
It can be helpful to address your anxiety with the help of a mental health professional. However, there are also options you can try yourself to start easing your anxiety, including the following:
- Practice communicating with your partner regularly: Practicing listening to each other and expressing how you are feeling may help ease concerns about your relationship.
- Try a mindfulness practice: Starting a mindfulness meditation practice can help to reduce social anxiety and increase positive thoughts about yourself (Thurston, 2017). Consider trying guided meditation audios, even just for five minutes, to ease your way into a meditation practice slowly.
- Get enough quality sleep: Frequently, getting inadequate sleep affects more than just your energy levels. Research shows poor sleep can increase anxiety and depression symptoms (Kushnir, 2014). Try to practice good sleep hygiene by keeping the same sleep schedule, turning off all lights, and limiting time spent on your phone before bed to get a better night’s rest.
- Exercise regularly: Studies show that regular exercise can help reduce anxiety symptoms (Aylett, 2018). Find a type of exercise you enjoy and do it regularly to help you feel better physically and mentally.
- Practice feeling your emotion: Pay attention to your emotions and physical sensations without reacting (yelling or acting impulsively). This practice may help you process your feelings without saying or doing something you might regret later. If you are angry, allow yourself time to calm down before deciding how you want to respond.
You likely won’t be able to eliminate any anxiety you feel in relationships completely. But with time and effort, you can learn to quiet some of the negative thoughts about your relationships.
Working with a mental health professional can help you process your emotions and build relationship skills more quickly. Whichever option you choose to start managing your relationship anxiety, know that there is hope to feel better and have a healthy relationship.
- Aylett, E., Small, N., & Bower, P. (2018). Exercise in the treatment of clinical anxiety in general practice – a systematic review and meta-analysis. BMC Health Services Research, 18(1), 559. doi: 10.1186/s12913-018-3313-5. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6048763/
- Chand SP, Marwaha R. (2021). Anxiety. StatPearls. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK470361/
- Kushnir, J., Marom, S., Mazar, M., Sadeh, A., & Hermesh, H. (2014). The link between social anxiety disorder, treatment outcome, and sleep difficulties among patients receiving cognitive behavioral group therapy. Sleep Medicine, 15(5), 515–521. doi: 10.1016/j.sleep.2014.01.012. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24767722/
- Overall, N. C., Girme, Y. U., Lemay, E. P., Jr., & Hammond, M. D. (2014). Attachment anxiety and reactions to relationship threat: The benefits and costs of inducing guilt in romantic partners. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 106(2), 235–256. doi: 10.1037/a0034371. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24079298/
- Paprocki, CM. Baucom, DM. (2015). Worried about us: evaluating an intervention for relationship-based anxiety. doi: 10.1111/famp.12175. Retrieved from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/famp.12175
- Platt, R., Williams, S. R., & Ginsburg, G. S. (2016). Stressful life events and child anxiety: examining parent and child mediators. Child Psychiatry and Human Development, 47(1), 23–34. doi: 10.1007/s10578-015-0540-4. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4570859/
- Sheinbaum, T., Kwapil, T. R., Ballespí, S., Mitjavila, M., Chun, C. A., Silvia, P. J., & Barrantes-Vidal, N. (2015). Attachment style predicts affect, cognitive appraisals, and social functioning in daily life. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 296. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00296. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4364085/
- Thurston, M. D., Goldin, P., Heimberg, R., & Gross, J. J. (2017). Self-views in social anxiety disorder: The impact of CBT versus MBSR. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 47, 83–90. doi: 10.1016/j.janxdis.2017.01.001. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5376221/
Dr. Steve Silvestro is a board-certified pediatrician and Senior Manager, Medical Content & Education at Ro.