You love your partner and you trust them completely, and yet, every time they take longer than 30 minutes to answer a text, you start to worry. Are they ignoring you? Did you say something weird? Did you accidentally offend them? Or maybe you get extremely nervous every time your partner talks about something funny their new co-worker did. How often do they talk? Is your partner secretly attracted to them? It’s normal to worry about your relationship every now and then, but if those worries are hurting your relationship or taking over your life to the point that you can’t focus on anything else, you may have relationship anxiety.
As Christine Scott-Hudson, psychotherapist and licensed marriage and family therapist, tells Bustle, “Relationship anxiety is when a person experiences extreme worry about their relationship. These worries can be about the past (such as worries over your significant other’s exes), the present (worries related to being good enough for your partner, or about your partner developing feelings for someone at work), or the future (fears that your partner will leave you for someone else or move away for a job opportunity).”
Unlike other forms anxiety, like general anxiety disorder or social anxiety disorder, there isn’t a specific diagnosis for relationship anxiety due to its exclusion from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. However, Susan Zinn, licensed therapist and certified trauma specialist, tells Bustle. “Mental health and wellness professionals are aware of this type of anxiety.”
Relationship Anxiety Vs. Typical Relationship Concerns
It’s common to have worries over your relationship, especially when you’re in the early dating phase. After all, if something is really important to you, it’s normal to be protective over it. If you haven’t officially defined the relationship and you’re really into your partner, there’s even more to be nervous about.
According to Zinn, relationship anxiety can be defined as, “intense worry and fear about a romantic or friendly relationship hindering a person's ability to function in that relationship.” Even if things are going well, a person with relationship anxiety may end the relationship or self-sabotage as a result of constant worry, insecurity, or doubt.
Needing excessive reassurance, self-silencing one’s thoughts and opinions to please or accommodate their partner, constantly doubting the relationship’s long-term potential, and participating in behaviors that may sabotage the relationship are other things that tend to happen when someone has relationship anxiety.
“Their anxiety may not result from anything in the relationship itself, but it can eventually lead to behaviors that do create issues and distress for them and their partner,” she says. “If anxious thoughts grow into excessive fears or worry and creep into a person's daily life, this would be a time to seek professional support.”
What Causes Relationship Anxiety?
Relationship anxiety is highly correlated with codependence, low self-esteem, and trauma, Scott-Hudson says. Negative past experiences even as far back as childhood can contribute to someone developing relationship anxiety. For instance, someone who felt abandoned by a parent may fear being left behind by a partner. Someone who was cheated on in a past relationship may also develop relationship anxiety and will act out based on those fears.
“What happens is, a person uses the relationship as a way to cope in unhealthy ways, much like an alcoholic would use alcohol or a shopaholic uses purchases in order to regulate their own moods,” she says. “If things feel like they are going well in the relationship, the person may temporarily feel regulated.”
For example, if a person with relationship anxiety isn’t hanging out with their partner for one day, they may get extremely nervous about what their partner is doing and who they might be with. They may have a heightened sense of anxiety throughout the day until they hear from their partner and know exactly what’s going on with them.
“The same way an alcoholic may stop off at the bar on the way home from work in order to attempt to regulate their own mood, a person with relationship anxiety may constantly feel the need to check in on their partner to alleviate their own elevated anxiety over the relationship,” Scott-Hudson says.
How To Cope With Relationship Anxiety
Like other forms of anxiety, coping with your relationship concerns will take some time and patience. Since some fears are deeply rooted, you may still experience moments of extreme worry or distress. However, there are things you can do to manage those fears in a healthy way.
To start, be mindful and aware of your patterns. If you’re comfortable enough, open up to your partner and have an honest discussion about your concerns. “Unresolved emotions build if they aren’t addressed, so communication is critical,” Zinn says. “Even when someone is in a loving relationship, past trauma and attachment styles can hinder the relationship if there is not a commitment to change old behavior patterns. Being more present can help to keep anxiety from spiraling.”
Practicing self-regulation skills like going on a brisk walk or repeating affirmations like “I am safe” or “I love myself” can be really helpful. Scott-Hudson also suggests waiting 15 minutes before checking in on your partner instead texting them multiple times in a row.
Lastly, consider therapy if you think it will be helpful. A professional can help you move forward from past trauma and give you helpful tips for the future.
Christine Scott-Hudson, psychotherapist and licensed marriage and family therapist
Susan Zinn, licensed therapist and certified trauma specialist