My last boyfriend was an adrenaline fiend and seemingly never ruffled. He drove fast cars and motorcycles, talked easily to strangers, navigated foreign cities with little forethought, and always showed up to the airport just one hour before a flight’s departure; I prefer at least two.
I am often drawn to men who move through the world with ease. As someone with anxiety, my ex’s worry-free existence was a nice counterpoint to my hypersensitive one. But it also made explaining my irrational fears to him somewhat challenging, especially when they related to our relationship.
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I probably need more consistency and reliability than the average person, just to remind me that everything’s okay with my partner. I like regular texts, phone calls, and dates. If there’s a problem, I prefer to talk it out immediately and be told directly. If my partner seems distant for a few days, I’m concerned they will lose interest for no apparent reason.
Most of these preoccupations are irrational, but they’re not uncommon. Roughly 40 million American adults suffer from anxiety, which equates to about 18% of the general population. “Relationship anxiety” is also fairly common. About 20% of us has an anxious orientation toward partners, according to the principles of attachment theory.
What is “relationship anxiety” and why do some people have it?
According to Karla Ivankovich, PhD, a clinical counselor and couples therapist at OnePatient Global Health in Chicago, it’s “when one or both people in the relationship spend more time in anxious thought about the relationship than tending to the relationship itself.” Fears can vary, but the uncomfortable concerns are the same. “A fear of abandonment, feeling as if they care more, incessant worry about infidelity, or an overall fear about the relationship’s viability result in a lack of trust,” Ivankovich says.
There are many reasons you might have relationship anxiety; for me, two manipulative partners early in my adult life set the tone for future fears. Ivankovich also cites anxious attachments to parents, toxic exes, poor communication, and bad advice as triggers. “Relationship self-help books, for example, can often encourage elusive, distant, and mysterious behavior to keep a partner hooked,” Ivankovich says. “None of these things promote a solid trusting relationship.”
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A person with relationship anxiety doesn’t necessarily have an untrustworthy partner, says Ivankovich. If you don’t voice your fears and needs, your significant other could very well just be living their life, totally unaware of your concerns. “At the same time, any behavior that causes one partner to question the other promotes unrest,” she says. “Secretive conversations, text messages, micro-cheating, and not communicating with your partner might spike anxiety.”
Similarly, your anxiety might skyrocket when you’re not feeling your best and most secure. Facebook doesn't help. “I see relationship anxiety flare up when comparing relationships on social media,” says Ivankovich. “The compare-and-contrast game promotes worry that your relationship is not as successful as others, and causes anxious thoughts to develop as you ruminate about why your relationship isn’t as ‘successful’ as others.” Which is, of course, all projection.
Relationship anxiety is a two-person problem
If you have relationship anxiety, your first instinct will probably be to cover it up—especially if you know your fears are likely overblown. After all, no one wants to act emotional for no reason or seem overbearing. But that’s the tricky bit about anxiety: Although it’s often only felt by one party in the partnership, Ivankovich says it’s the problem of both.
If you're an anxious partner, your job is to communicate as clearly as you can about what’s bothering you and why. “Is this anxiety stemming from past baggage?” she says. “The anxious partner has to be able to honestly identify the fears. Do you not feel wanted, needed, valued, or as if you’re the only one? Is the relationship lacking an emotionally intimate connection? Is the relationship lacking a physically intimate connection?”
As a partner, this is where I fell short. Anxiety can be hard to put into words; it feels messy, frantic, confusing. When I was experiencing a medical crisis earlier this year, I downplayed the severity of the issue to my long-distance boyfriend. At the same time, I wasn’t being fully honest about my concerns, he seemed distant; I worried he was pulling away from me, when, really, I was the one pulling away. Ivankovich says when you are experiencing a trigger for anxiety, you may behave in ways that can exacerbate the problem and actually push your partner away.
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I did try talking to my ex about my relationship anxiety—but in whispers, not direct requests. I had no idea where to start. If you're unsure as well, here’s the formula: Identify the source of the anxiety, tell your partner the source, suggest a solution. “If a partner understands where the anxiety stems from, it is easier to address,” Ivankovich says. “Additionally, no problem should be without a solution. Tell them what you think you need to feel more secure. Maybe you need reassurance, maybe you need them to be less secretive about who they’re texting. Offer your partner insight into your thoughts.”
I ultimately did—way later and after lots of (unnecessary, damaging) worry. I said that when I’m experiencing a lack of reliability in one area of my life, like I was with constantly fluctuating medical symptoms, I often need extra consistency in my relationships. When I’m already ruminating more than usual, if he’s not texting as regularly or skips a phone date or two, I start to worry he’s going to leave.
If you don’t have anxiety but your partner does, you can definitely help with an attitude of acceptance and spirit of support. Ivankovich says relationship anxiety is your problem, too, since the repercussions affect both partners. “Each partner has to work to make the other one feel secure,” says Ivankovich. That means listening closely, asking questions, always being honest, and communicating more often than might seem necessary to you.
Whenever my ex did those things, I felt a lot less anxiety about the relationship.
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What my anxiety taught me
At the end of the day, my ex and I worked on my relationship anxiety together—but he wasn’t as consistent as I probably need in a partner.
Ivankovich says that honest discussions about your fears, and your partner’s response to your needs, are going to show you the mettle of your relationship. “If you are both committed to the relationship, dealing with the anxiety won’t be a problem,” she says. “The willingness to work through the little stuff and the big stuff is what relationships are made of. Couples who are not ‘all in’ will allow anxious thoughts within the relationship.”
For us, that was certainly the case. Whether it was the wrong person or the wrong situation, my ex-partner never felt all in for me. We had a three-hour time difference, busy lives, and demanding careers, so the odds were stacked against us. But I’m glad it happened. In the demise of our relationship, I learned an enduring lesson about what I need in a partner.
By acknowledging that I am prone to relationship anxiety, I've realize that unstable bonds are the opposite of what I need. Every day, I’m working to identify the sources of my worry. I plan to speak up about my needs earlier when dating someone new—and look specifically for a partner who wants to be consistently all in. Loving someone isn’t always enough, but finding someone who has the capacity and desire to meet your needs probably is.