One explanation relates to attachment style. During a critical period in our lives – the first two years – when we develop attachments, separation from a primary caregiver could negatively affect our emotional and social development and lead to attachment and anxiety issues, psychologist John Bowlby’s work showed.
Many researchers have studied this theory to understand what this anxiety looks like in relationships. Psychologist Mary Ainsworth noticed patterns in children that are associated with their “attachment styles”.
The secure attachment style is the healthiest and results from a child having a predictable, warm and consistent primary caregiver who attends to their physical and emotional needs. Another attachment style, however, is known as anxious ambivalent attachment. A child with this style of attachment has an inconsistent primary caregiver who vacillates between warmth and distance, and behaves unpredictably. The child feels insecure and often struggles to determine when and how they will get affection and warmth from their caregiver.
Many children with anxious ambivalent attachment grow up to be needy or clingy adults with a fear of rejection and abandonment, and low self-confidence and self-esteem. They tend to project those early childhood experiences onto their partners and require them to fulfil the needs that were not met by primary caregivers.
The signs of relationship anxiety
These are some signs of relationship anxiety:
- Frantic efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment. Those struggling with relationship anxiety are so worried about being left that they try not to disagree, dissent or cause tension in the relationship. For instance, one of my patients said they engaged in unwanted sexual activities at the request of their partner to keep them “satisfied enough to stay”.
- Recurrent, consistent need for reassurance. They have an insatiable need for security and often require continued verbal affirmations that they are loved and that the relationship will not end soon. For example, they may ask their partner, “Would you still love me if I gained weight?”
- Emotional outbursts around minor struggles. When the relationship experiences a rough patch (no matter how small), they have intense emotional reactions disproportionate to the situation.
- Trouble making decisions. People with relationship anxiety lack self-confidence, not motivation. They have ideas and plans, but often need to run those by their partners to ensure they won’t be rejected if they proceed.
- Fear of being left. They typically ruminate on how to survive without their partner and what they would do if the relationship ended. This preoccupation can lead to racing thoughts, a cognitive symptom of anxiety.
- Misreading feedback as a rejection. They tend to see most feedback, even positive comments, as rejection or evidence that their partner is unsatisfied with the relationship. For example, if their partner says, “I like your shirt today,” they might respond with, “Does that mean you don’t like the way I normally dress?”
Relationship anxiety can be crippling
It’s normal to experience anxiety in high-stress situations in a relationship such as when one partner wants to move to a town three hours away from family and friends.
When someone has relationship anxiety, though, the primary stressor is a fear of abandonment, even when there is no pressing evidence that the relationship is headed toward Splitsville.
Relationship anxiety and the fear of abandonment underlying it can be crippling. Those who struggle with it desire closeness, but their symptoms tend to push away others, who see them as needy and draining.
Many times, they have insight into their behaviour. They can typically admit, “I know I’m a lot” or “I know you get tired of me being so needy”.
They, however, seem to have little to no ability to stop their behaviour. The longer they go without reassurance, the more desperate they become for a shot of assurance.
How to heal relationship anxiety
Healing from relationship anxiety is tough, but it can happen with effort. Here are some steps to explore:
- Stop venting to friends. Venting may feel cathartic, but it won’t help you because we tend to vent to like-minded people. You also may be venting to someone with similar concerns and could transfer anxiety between the two of you.
- Study yourself. When is the anxiety heaviest? Is it right after an argument? While your partner is travelling for work? When they are working late? Once you figure out the patterns, you can use coping strategies to control your anxiety.
- Don’t make your partner your therapist. They don’t have an objective view of you, and their history with you makes them vulnerable to biases that an objective party wouldn’t have. Even if your partner is a professional therapist, they aren’t your therapist.
- Seek professional therapy. The fear of abandonment and the anxiety it produces has been with you since your childhood. A trusted professional can help you explore your trauma, process those early childhood experiences and learn coping skills for your anxiety.
- Consider pausing your relationship. There’s only one formula for a healthy relationship – one healthy person + one healthy person. It’s much better to pause your relationship, get the help you need and re-engage.
Advice for partners
Being the partner of someone with relationship anxiety can be draining. The constant requests to make your partner feel secure can be daunting and suffocating. You may be subjected to crying spells and angry outbursts related to your partner’s fear of abandonment.
Many well-meaning people think if they stop feeding their partner’s need for assurance, the partner will stop asking for it. Withholding emotions and affection does the opposite. It diminishes the other person’s self-confidence, which was low to start, and is often received as mean and uncaring. It also puts you in the role of the unpredictable caregiver.
Do support your partner in getting therapy and trying other ways of managing their fear of abandonment and anxiety. This may feel uncomfortable at first, but it’s the healthiest move.
La Keita D. Carter, PhD, is a clinical psychologist specialising in relationships, intimacy, sexual health and wellness, trauma and women’s issues.
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