Amelia* and I try to gain our composure after having a good laugh in session—something that certainly isn’t uncommon for the two of us. I’ve been seeing Amelia for more than a year now and have come to look forward to hearing her tales of what it’s like to date virtually during a pandemic. Of course, not all of the stories are light-hearted, but it’s for this reason that we’ve come to appreciate the ones that we don’t have to take as seriously—where we can simply laugh about the absurdity of certain life moments from afar.
Once we’ve recuperated from our much-needed laugh together, Amelia’s tone shifts. She’s saying, “I’ve met someone I really like,” but her face paints a different picture: all I can see is fear and uncertainty. Sure enough, she proceeds to tell me that her anxiety levels have skyrocketed since meeting someone special for fear that she’ll “mess things up” or that he’ll lose interest.
Our session got me thinking: what is it about romantic relationships that has the power to stir up so much anxiety in some of us? And what can we do about it?
First Thing’s First: Why Do Some People Experience Anxiety in Relationships?
Theory 1: Attachment Styles
The first theory revolves around our attachment styles, which describe the ways that we interact and behave in relationships. Most of the ideas and research about attachment styles stem from a psychological experiment from the 1970s called ‘The Strange Situation,’ where mothers were asked to play with, leave, and return to their infants over the course of 21 minutes. The goal was to observe how the children played, how they reacted to their caregiver’s departure, how anxious they became thereafter, and how they responded once the caregiver returned.
The researchers concluded that there were four different styles of attachment that were associated with different characteristics and patterns, which have been exposed to continual research, exploration, and discussion in the psychological community ever since.
While the topic of attachment styles could be an entire blog post, the four main ones that exist are:
Secure Attachment: child grows up with a caregiver who they experience as being consistently available and empathetic, meaning they come to believe that they are a person of worth and that other people are reliable.
Anxious Attachment: child experiences caregiver as distant and disengaged and thus comes to believe that his/her/their needs won’t be met. Child may come to feel insecure about their worth as a person and may “cling” to people in relationships.
Avoidant Attachment: child experiences caregiver as being inconsistent in their responses, which fluctuate between being sensitive and available versus neglectful and insensitive. The child may come to believe that their needs will not be met and that they have to rely on themselves. Usually are very independent and autonomous for fear that they will be let down by others.
Disorganized Attachment: child grows up in an environment with extreme highs and lows that are usually characteristic of abusive relationships substance misuse issues. The child comes to crave attachment but fears the person with whom they wish to attach, causing them to feel extremely confused about if their needs will be met and unsure about how to have them met at all.
Theory 2: Relational Trauma
In the world of psychology, we differentiate between “Big T” and “Little T” traumas. “Big T” traumas are events that are most commonly associated with PTSD, such as experiencing a life-threatening situation (i.e. going to war, getting in a horrific car accident, etc.), whereas “little T” traumas are highly distressing events that impact someone’s life but don’t fall into the “Big T” category (i.e. ongoing emotional abuse, bullying or harassment, death of a pet, etc.). The degree to which such events impact a person depends on a number of factors like the conclusions that were drawn from the event or the support they had at the time.
It is not uncommon for individuals who have endured a number of unhealthy relationships to experience anxiety once they enter a healthy one. This is because the fear centre of their brain, which is only concerned with their survival, may have come to associate certain neutral stimuli with fear and anxiety. For example, if they don’t get a text back from someone within a certain amount of time, they might immediately associate a lack of responsiveness with a feeling of abandonment, which will create anxiety. The anxiety pathway of [perceived lack of responsiveness —> abandonment —> anxiety] might happen in a fraction of a second, triggering intense feelings of anxiety.
The point is, the experiences we’ve been through can shape our emotional responses and cause us to jump to conclusions that support the feelings we’re experiencing in that moment.
Theory 3: Underlying Mental Health Concerns
It is not uncommon for someone’s experiences in romantic relationships to be a red herring for a different underlying issue, whether that be generalized anxiety, social anxiety, or something else.
For example, if someone says they feel anxious about being in a romantic relationship, it's easy easy to jump to the conclusion that they have an anxious attachment style. However, upon asking them more about this, I might learn that they’re terrified about the idea of being physically intimate with someone due to experiencing intense insecurities about their body. In this case, then, their anxiety in relationships might be a symptom of undiagnosed body dysmorphia. It’s important to get curious about the thought patterns and sensations the person is experiencing—and why—so we can address the root cause of their concerns.
Theory 4: Low Self Esteem
I personally don’t like the term “low self esteem” as I feel as though it’s a big buzzword that can feel too vague to work with effectively (plus, there’s a lot of evidence that striving for 'high self esteem’ can actually be problematic). Someone with “low self esteem” usually has a loud inner critic but lacks the necessary skills to help change their thought patterns and self-talk in a way that's helpful.
Strategies to Help You Feel More Secure in Relationships
Work with a therapist to learn more about your attachment style and how you can cope.
Becoming aware of what might trigger you to experience anxiety in a relationship—and why—is empowering. You’ll be able to distance yourself from the pattern rather than seeing it as a “personal failing” but also be able to devise a plan of how you can respond more effectively in the moment.
2. Avoid asking for constant reassurance.
People with relationship anxiety frequently ask for reassurance from their partner or friends as a coping strategy. The problem is, however, that this creates a vicious cycle that actually increases the anxiety over time. This is because although getting reassurance provides relief in the short-term, you’re actually strengthening the idea that these triggering thoughts are stress-inducing by continually acting on them. Said differently, the more you ask for reassurance, the more “real” the anxiety-related thoughts feel, which is a real problem because we want to reduce the hold that the anxiety has over you. Stop asking for reassurance and instead learn to make some space for the anxiety without acting on what it’s asking you to do.
3. Maintain your independence.
Feeling anxious in relationships is often part and parcel with obsessing about the other person to a certain degree. If you find yourself asking hundreds of questions that revolve around what this person thinks of you and why they might think or feel that way, you’re obsessing.
The antidote to this is to remember that you have a life—and have had a life—that is totally separate from this person. You may also be a sibling, friend, employee, son/daughter, artist, athlete, whatever. You are so many things and you have so many talents that exist regardless of your relationship status.
And don’t forget the strengths that you bring to this relationship, too. Oftentimes I see people becoming so fixated on the bad things the other could be thinking about them without spending a single second focusing on all of the amazing parts of themselves that the person will have the pleasure of getting to know. Make sure your thinking is balanced.
4. Stay in reality and be in the moment.
I see a lot of people living in the land of “what if” questions and living in the future. What if this person isn’t The One? What if she ends up cheating on me? What if I’m not enough for them? We are only able to answer these questions when we live in the moment and let the world bring the conclusions to us. We have to experience the situation of being upset at the end of a long day and seeing how our partner responds to know if they’re someone who can be supportive. We have to experience difficult moments with them to know if a strong team dynamic exists. Submit control and simply allow life to bring you the answers you’re looking for. They will come if you let them.
5. Learn new skills.
Of course everyone’s situation is unique, but the main skills that can help if you are experiencing relationship insecurity include:
Learning to be more compassionate with yourself
Learning emotion regulation techniques
Exploring strategies to help de-escalate your self-talk in the moment. In my experience, people who feel insecure in relationships tend to engage in catastrophic thinking, which involves jumping to extreme conclusions about small events. For example, your partner is a bit “off” one night and you see it as a sign that your relationship is “destined for unhappiness,” that you'll break up, and that your life will be over. Learning to address these thoughts and being able to maintain perspective during emotionally intense moments can make a huge difference.
Identifying what your emotional needs are in a relationship and developing communication skills so that you know how to bring this up with your partner.
The Bottom Line
As exciting as entering a new relationship can be, it can also be very scary. It’s hard to imagine putting yourself out there and potentially discovering that you and another person aren’t meant to be, but we do it anyway because the idea of finding something amazing makes it all worth it.
At the end of the day, feeling anxiety in a relationship is a sign of how much you are about connection with another person. Wondering if you’re good enough for someone can be reframed as a sign that you respect this person a lot and that their opinion matters to you. Worrying that things might not work out can be reframed as a sign that you’ve met someone who you can envision having a future with. These actually aren’t bad things at all.
Simultaneously, there are a number of things we can do to ensure that our relationship anxiety isn’t running the show. We can learn about our attachment style and devise a plan of what we can do differently during high-anxiety moments. We can learn to maintain our independence and be intentional about spending time on our own or with our friends, while also actively stopping ourselves from asking our partner for reassurance. Finally, we can remember all of the wonderful things we do have to offer, that we do have confidence in, and that we do bring to the table.
*names and identifying details have been changed, removed, or amalgamated to protect client anonymity
If you or someone you know could benefit from individual, couples, or family therapy or nutritional counselling, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.