Approximately 50% of us struggle with anxiety in our intimate relationships. If youre one of them youre certainly not alone! Be aware! The anxiety problem can be hidden. It manifests as a seeming inability to attract the right partner and falling for the wrong one time and time again; falling in love, but then experiencing difficulties due to the feelings intimacy provokes; or not having the resources to manage difficult feelings and dynamics and, hence, your relationships always seem to fail.
Dont let fear ruin your relationships: know the signs:
Do you employ behaviors, and techniques, in an attempt to feel safe? Do you try to get your needs met by asking that innocent question? Or hinting? Are your expectations realistic? Do you become unhappy if your partner doesnt respond how youd like them to? Do you ever attempt to control, via fear, or bullying? (This can be disguised by punishing behaviors such as being angry if you dont get your way, or emotional outbursts if your partner is triggering fear in you. Withdrawing from your partner can also be a form of punishment. Remaining connected to the relationship is important for love to thrive). Do you feel anxious when your partner comes and goes?
Whats Really Going On?
1 Are you afraid of intimacy?
Do you avoid intimate relationships altogether (think commitment phobic)? Do you choose partners with whom intimacy will not be possible (think unavailable)? Do you become difficult once in a relationship (think here I am shouting and upset all over again pushing them away)?
The fear of intimacy is essentially the fear of being vulnerable, of allowing someone to see who you truly are. It is being afraid to open yourself to the chance that another person may not like who you are, or may leave you. For many people, the fear of intimacy can elicit conscious, and unconscious behaviors, which limit, or sabotage, any reality of forming a close relationship with another. Sure, we keep on trying but the same old patterns play out over and over again.
You can overcome any intimacy fear. Follow the guidance at the end of this article.
2 Do you have attachment issues?
Your closest relationships will likely trigger your most primitive fears. Relationships with a romantic partner often replay the dynamic between you and your father, or you and your mother, or the relationship they had to each other. The intimacy involved in a romantic relationship will often provoke your original attachment style.
You are either securely attached, anxious, or avoidant. Psychologists suggest nearly 45% of the adult population have problematic attachment styles (Berstein, 2012).
Berstein (2012) writes:
Anxious people who worry about whether their partner loves them often had parents who were inconsistently nurturing. Avoidant people, whom psychologists also call dismissive, try to minimize closeness and often had parents who didnt tolerate neediness or insecurities.
From childhood, your brain becomes wired to work in allegiance with this attachment style. It can look for evidence of it. Think about it. Do you look for evidence to confirm your worst fears? Are you vigilant about your partners behavior? Are you constantly alert in case your terrors become a reality?
Dr Shorey is quoted as saying, [T]he brain structure that picks up on threats, the amygdala, triggers the release of adrenaline faster than the thinking part of the brain, the cortex, can analyze the threat. It releases an automatic response that will trigger even if you know you should not feel this way. (2012)
At its most extreme, problems with attachment can manifest as separation anxiety. This has now been included as a disorder in the DSM (Knappe and Clark, 2013). Separation Anxiety Disorder is identified by intense distress, or withdrawal, when threatened by the comings and goings of an intimate other. It sounds extreme, but maybe you can identify? After all, 45% of us suffer from one degree to another.
Separation anxiety can feel terrifying and is poison to a relationship. It is reversible, however. Start with the suggestions at the end of this article.
3 Are you codependent?
worrying about people and problems doesnt help. It doesnt solve problems, it doesnt help other people, and it doesnt help us. It is wasted energy.
Codependency used to be attributed to those in relationship with someone struggling with addictions such as alcoholism, or drug dependency. However, as codependency has been studied further, the traits of co-dependency (like separation anxiety) are much more mainstream than previously thought.
Do you always put others first? Are you vulnerable to others taking advantage of you? Can you always, understand, or justify, anothers poor behavior? Codependents in relationships have difficulty defining clear boundaries between their needs and the needs of others. They often take on a care-giving role within a relationship and, as suggested in the above quote, spend lots of time worrying about others. Does this sound like you?
There may be a pay off. If someone needs us, then they will not leave us. However, by making the problems of others our responsibility, we deny them the right to take responsibility for themselves. We enable their behavior. And, we dont get our needs met. There are now support groups. If you suffer from co-dependency, try one! Look up your local Coda meeting.
4 Is an anxiety disorder affecting your relationship?
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR), anxiety is characterized by a feeling of persistent worry that hinders an individuals ability to relax .
You can see from this quote how extreme anxiety might affect your ability to feel safe in a relationship, right? Anxiety disorders can make it harder to be in a relationship but there is help. If you suffer from social anxiety disorder, acute phobias, generalized anxiety disorder, borderline personality disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (to name a few) seek professional support.
These disorders can make you push others away, suffer extremes of emotion which are hard for you, (and your partner), to navigate, and create immense suffering within you, which can be avoided.
Get Support! Talking therapies and cognitive behavioral therapies can help to manage, and in some cases, transform anxiety related feelings and behaviors. Once your symptoms are under control, a close, supportive, harmonious relationship with another is possible.
What can I do if anxiety is ruining my relationships?
1 Be aware of your patterns of behavior
You must work on yourself! There is nothing you can do to change, or control, another in order to meet your needs, or expectations. Healthy relationships rely upon genuine respect for who your partner is and the ability to allow them the freedom to grow and change.
Taking responsibility and recognizing your patterns of behaviour is essential. Think about your last few relationships were there any commonalities between the partners you had? How did the relationships end is there a pattern? If you are in a relationship now, what usually causes conflict, or uncomfortable feelings? Is there a clear dynamic? What are your set ways of reacting?
Segal and Jaffe (2014) say:
When we can recognizeknee-jerkmemories, expectations, attitudes, assumptions and behaviors as problems resulting frominsecure attachment bonds,we can end their influence on our adult relationships.
Resetting your hard-wired brain is going to require discipline and wont happen over night. It will happen, however. Give yourself lots of encouragement and seek professional support.
2 Learn to manage intense feelings of fear
Learning to master your feelings is key to sustaining a close andloving relationship. If youre used to lashing out, or verbalizing panicky feelings, or engaging in behaviors such as pleading with your partner, you are giving them the control and responsibility for how you feel. You need to take this back.
Leaving any situation, momentarily, is a good place to start. Say an argument has flared up, or your partner has said something that has distressed you. Walk away to take some time out. Work with your body in whatever way feels best. Deep breaths will calm your nervous system. Shake your body, or punch a pillow if you need to discharge aggressive feelings. Go to the gym, or run. Taking a walk can clear your mind and de-activate any destructive energy.
List ten things that you can do in any moment that will distract you instantaneously and take you to a happier place. This can be anything from painting your nails or fixing shelves, to writing out your feelings. Keep this list close by, so you can refer to it, quickly, when you need to.
3 Focus on yourself
If you truly know and accept your own value and worth as a person, then you know that rejection is not the end of the world (Fritscher, 2014)
Cultivating self-love, and self worth, will leave you feeling less vulnerable to the actions of another. Pour energy into loving yourself in every area of your life. Find passions and follow them. Create a life of joy that is separate from your partner.
List ten things right now that you can do to put the focus back on your life and start bolstering feelings of worthiness and self-esteem.
4 Trust yourself and your boundaries
By developing a strong sense of self, and learning to trust yourself, you are taking responsibility for yourself in relationship. You know that you can live without another and that you will not tolerate bad behavior. Many people with anxious, or avoidant, attachment styles, codependent issues, or other forms of poor mental health, find it difficult to communicate effectively and to set boundaries.
Communicating a boundary is simple. State what you want clearly. Do not criticize the other. Keep it about you. Make it clear what will happen if your boundary is not respected. Follow through.
A simple formula is: when I am shouted at, I feel afraid. I dont want to feel afraid. If I am shouted at again I will walk away. Then do so. Repeatedly, if needs be.
5 Take it Slowly
Ive already mentioned that change doesnt happen over night. If you are in a relationship right now, be patient with yourself. Dont beat yourself up, every time you have deviated from your desire to make changes. If you are looking for a partner, or dating, be patient. Dont rush into a relationship too quickly. Take your time to get to know someone first. Keep in mind that you are trying, little by little, to move away from the types of relationship you usually attract. These havent been working out for you. Stay aware of your patterns as you get to know another person.
Beattie, Melody. (1986) Codependent No More: How to Stop Controlling Others and Start Caring for Yourself. Hazelden, Minnesota.
Bernstein, Elizabeth. (2012) When it Never Gets Easier to Say Goodbye. Available at:
Bogels SM, Kanppe, S Clark, LA. (2013) Adult Separation Anxiety Disorder in DSM-5. Available at:
Fritscher, Lisa. (2014) Fear of Intimacy. Available at:
Jaffe, J, Segal, J. (2014) Available at: http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10000872396390443995604578002352537833908