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Read This if You Feel Insecure in Romantic Relationships

Updated: Nov 10, 2020

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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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

  1. Work with a therapist to learn more about your attachment style and how you can cope.