Have you ever been in a healthy, loving relationship where everything seems to be great – but you’re still anxious? This is different from reacting to actual red flags in your relationship; you trust one another and there’s nothing wrong. However, you’re still anxious whether you’re in the right relationship and questioning your partner’s feelings for you, overthinking every interaction.
This experience is often referred to as relationship anxiety, and while it’s not an official diagnosis, it is widely recognized, common, and it can severely impact your life and relationships if left unaddressed. Relationship anxiety can also impact family relationships and platonic relationships – it’s not exclusively related to our romantic relationships.
Signs of relationship anxiety
Relationship anxiety can show up in many ways, and two people who both experience relationship anxiety may have completely different experiences with it. Many things that are associated with relationship anxiety can, in moderation, be completely ‘normal’ and ordinary things to consider: it’s quite rare to never feel insecure in a new relationship, and reflecting on your own feelings and the way you feel when you’re with your partner is a great way to check-in with yourself.
With relationship anxiety, however, this tends to go beyond passing concerns or insecurities, showing up in ways that can be incredibly distressing and feel all-consuming. When you’re experiencing relationship anxiety, you might completely forget to enjoy the relationship and the other person’s company as you’re spending all your time worrying, overthinking, and doubting.
Questioning how you feel about your partner
One way relationship anxiety might show up is by making you question your feelings for your partner. You might spend a lot of time questioning things like…
- Do I actually love my partner?
- Are we compatible?
- What if there’s someone better for me?
While there’s nothing wrong with checking in with yourself and reflecting on how you feel about your partner, with relationship anxiety, these thoughts can show up in a way that goes beyond ordinary considerations and starts to feel distressing. This kind of relationship anxiety can sometimes lead to impulsive breakups, trying to find reasons to break up, or pushing people away – even when you don’t really want to do so. Your anxiety might also be triggered by ‘milestones’ like anniversaries or meeting your partner’s parents, and it can lead to avoiding or dismissing those things.
Questioning your partner’s feelings for you
Relationship anxiety can also show up by making you doubt how your partner feels about you. This can sound like…
- Does my partner prefer their ex?
- What if they don’t really like me?
- What if they’re cheating on me?
- Overthinking and overanalyzing conversations and situations
- Expecting your partner to break up with you at any moment
When you’re experiencing relationship anxiety that focuses on you doubting your partner’s feelings for you, it can often show up as excessive insecurity. You might ask for reassurance about your partner’s feelings or overthink what they said to you or how they behaved in a certain situation and what that could mean for your relationship.
You might also constantly dread that your partner will break up with you when you make a mistake, when you disagree with them, or when they don’t text back, which could lead to a lot of internal distress when you’re apart from your partner. This can show up as clinginess, controlling behavior, and/or people-pleasing instead of expressing your authentic self.
On the other hand, relationship anxiety can also show up as unconsciously or consciously sabotaging your relationship. One way this can present itself is through ‘testing’ your partner. This can look like expecting your partner to read your mind or to anticipate a need without you communicating it to them – and jumping to conclusions about how your partner feels about you when they don’t respond like you wanted. You might even do something that jeopardizes the relationship to see how they react; to see if they ‘really love you’ instead of communicating with your partner about the concerns you’re having.
Causes of relationship anxiety
What causes relationship anxiety? The answer can be different for each person struggling with it: it’s not always caused by the same thing, and figuring out the root cause of your relationship anxiety is not always easy. Here are some factors that can contribute to relationship anxiety.
If your past relationships have been less than ideal, it could be contributing to your current relationship anxiety. Toxic or abusive partners or family dynamics can make relationships feel extremely anxiety-inducing, and experiencing things like being cheated on, lied to, or manipulated can also make you prone to relationship anxiety as you’re constantly expecting those things to happen again.
Attachment theory was initially developed by John Bowlby in the mid-1900s and developed further by Mary Ainsworth in the 1970s. Attachment theory aims to understand how early emotional bonds with caregivers impact people’s lives. Having a non-secure attachment style, such as anxious attachment that tends to revolve around fears of being alone and having a positive view of others but a negative perception of yourself can make you particularly prone to relationship anxiety.
Other non-secure attachment styles such as avoidant attachment, where the person may feel like they can trust no one except for themselves, or disorganized attachment that’s characterized by feelings of helplessness and unworthiness and oscillating between anxious and avoidant behaviors, can also contribute to relationship anxiety.
Relationship OCD is quite similar to relationship anxiety: both are characterized by worries and anxieties related to relationships. With relationship OCD, you have intrusive thoughts about your relationship or your partner, and these thoughts cause immense anxiety, distress, and feelings of urgency, which tend to lead to compulsive behaviors and compulsive thought patterns that aim to temporarily reduce this anxiety.
OCD also tends to revolve around trying to find “perfect certainty” through this compulsive behavior or thought patterns. If you think you might be experiencing OCD, it’s a good idea to reach out to an OCD specialist.
Struggling with self-worth and self-esteem
When you’re struggling with seeing your own worth, it’s easy to become anxious in your relationships as well. When you have low self-worth and low self-esteem you might feel unworthy of a healthy relationship or your partner, and this can contribute to feeling uncertain about your relationship and your partner’s feelings for you.
If you and your partner are struggling with clear communication, it can make it very hard for you to feel secure and confident in your relationship, thus contributing to relationship anxiety. If you feel like your partner is not communicating with you clearly, it’s easy to fall into the trap of relationship anxiety.
External pressures and standards
Sometimes, even when we’re in a relationship that meets our needs and makes us happy, we might be impacted by external expectations and standards for what a relationship is ‘supposed to’ look like, which can contribute to anxiety levels.
For example, you might not want to get married to your partner and be perfectly content with the relationship you have, but you might still experience bouts of relationship anxiety if your external environment is pressuring you towards marriage.
Ways to overcome relationship anxiety
As there are many potential causes for relationship anxiety, overcoming it is also a deeply personal thing. Journaling can be a great tool to process your past experiences and work on understanding yourself, which can help you overcome and make sense of your relationship anxiety. Journaling can be done using ‘traditional’ methods like a notebook and a pen, or digitally by using a mental health app (like Mooditude!) for writing down your thoughts and feelings.
Learning to communicate with your partner about the things that are bothering you can reduce relationship anxiety substantially, especially if your relationship anxiety is rooted in a lack of communication or feeling like you can’t trust your partner. Talking to your partner about your relationship anxiety can also help you both understand your relationship dynamic and allow you to work on it together.
Therapy is also a great way to do a deep dive into your experiences with relationship anxiety, and talking to a mental health professional can help you understand and work on your relationship anxiety.