“Maybe you need to break up then.” The amount of times well-meaning people have said this to me in response to doubts I was having about people I was dating, well, it’s a LOT. It’s understandable – when friends hear that you aren’t attracted to your partner, or feel panic when you are around them, they assume it means you don’t like them. No one ever says “hmmm, are you sure it’s not relationship anxiety?”
I’ve talked a lot about my anxiety, but really, most of it rears its ugly head when I get into romantic relationships. If I’m single, I have barely any anxious thoughts. I cruise through life – a little lonely, sure, but a calm sea inside.
As soon as someone I’m dating turns into someone-I’m-dating-seriously though, it’s all on. I can go from being completely smitten with a guy to repulsed by him in a day. Sometimes, people call this “the Ick” (I don’t believe in the Ick, more on that here). I now know this is my relationship anxiety.
What Is Relationship Anxiety?
Simply put, relationship anxiety is anxiety you get specifically around relationships. It’s obviously more complex than that – for me, it’s to do with commitment phobia, fear of intimacy and control issues. When I fall in love, I want to run away. Some people say they go off sex out of nowhere, some nitpick their partners and find flaws everywhere. At the core is this sudden need to escape the relationship even though everything was going really well.
I used to do the nitpicking, but these days I find my brain latching onto wild fantasies about some sort of idyllic nomad life where I never form any deep connections and just traverse the world until I die. Sounds great, right? Also sounds a bit unrealistic for someone who, currently, cries weekly because she can’t see her parents and found herself needing constant check-ins with friends and family on a solo road trip she did a few years ago? I know I crave connection. I’m just terrified of what it could cost me.
How Do You Overcome Relationship Anxiety?
For me, it’s been a real journey, and I’m not there yet. I’d say this current relationship is the strongest I’ve felt when battling relationship anxiety. My first relationship I was a mess – constantly afraid my boyfriend wasn’t right for me, based off every fleeting feeling I’d have. We broke up after two years of mental torture, me backflipping with my feelings every few weeks. My second boyfriend was commitment phobic, so I didn’t really have time to express my relationship anxiety. I felt the fear in a series of short-term relationships, then one 9 month long distance relationship (people with relationship anxiety LOVE the non-commitment of long distance). Then, I met my boyfriend Tom. I finally feel stronger mentally to challenge the anxiety thoughts, but it’s an ongoing practice.
It’s only been over the past couple of years that I’ve really felt sure my issue isn’t picking the wrong guys, it’s relationship anxiety. I looked at the pattern – every time something got serious, that’s when the doubts kicked in. Every time I resolved one doubt (“I don’t know if I think he’s funny”, “I don’t like his hair and it’s made him completely unattractive”) I would find another to latch onto.
This is probably why friends felt it was all a sign I didn’t like the guy in question – we’re conditioned to believe, thanks to movies and TV and other bullshit, that relationships should be soaring highs ONLY. “The One” is this mythical person you *just know* is perfect for you.
Some people have these feelings, sure. Some of us don’t. I never have – my current partner, Tom, is by far my most compatible relationship. But we were a slow burn to get together, and while I love him to pieces, it’s not exclusively soaring highs and never has been. I don’t “know” he’s the one for me. But I can see a future with him because we work together as a couple and I love being around him.
How Do You Know If It’s Relationship Anxiety Or You Need To Break Up?
The difficulty with relationship anxiety is that your brain is always telling you to extricate yourself from the relationship, and unfortunately that’s what our brains do when we actually DO need to leave, too.
The difference, I believe, is that when it’s anxiety it’s so, so urgent. You have to do it NOW. You can’t sit with the uncomfortable feelings and see if they dissipate. When I genuinely haven’t been interested in a guy I’ve been dating, the feelings are more of a niggling doubt that slowly grows until I’m sure I would rather be alone than continue dating the person.
Anxiety also, in my experience, comes on suddenly and with intensity. You are smitten one day, completely off them the next. You have one fleeting thought and in an instant, your feelings change.
What Worked For You?
I am not a psychologist. I have seen many and seen them regularly, so please don’t take this as a solution because it’s what worked for me, not necessarily for you. It’s always important to seek professional help when it comes to anxiety.
For me, the biggest help was medication. I was on a low dose of Zoloft, an SSRI, for generalised anxiety. Then, 2 months ago, I increased my dosage at the advice of my GP, and I’ve found the torturous thoughts are much more manageable.
From a practical standpoint, BE PRESENT. The only way I’ve been able to challenge my relationship anxiety is to bring my head back into the moment when I’m with my partner, and enjoy that time. Anxiety wants you thinking of the future, but you can’t build a relationship if you’re not mentally in it. If you’re having lunch and you feel your mind drift, a good tip from my psych is to spot something red (like a stop sign) and bring yourself back to the present. It’s a constant challenge but it did help me.
Feeling scared of commitment is not the same as feeling fear for your safety in a relationship. If you are concerned for your safety in a relationship, or concerned for someone in your life, please contact 1800RESPECT. If you are in immediate danger, please call 000.