Relationship Anxiety

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Romantic rejection hurts—badly. The sharp pain lingers, preventing sleep, interrupting sustained thought. Significant casualties of the heart leave lasting marks on the psyche. Future relationships must contend with the bitter memories that implant a sensitive skittishness to closeness. Impoverished childhoods of pain, rejection and abuse often creates a life time of relationship anxiety; but painful adult experiences also assault the soul, pummeling security, leaving us wary of others; the more severe the pain, the deeper the wound. The emotional demons of the past trigger defensive behaviors that intrude on closeness and prevent intimacy.

For the romantically anxious, the new relationships they hope will heal, often suffer from the critical blows of dramatic and defensive reactions, formed by harsh and damaging memories. In the present, small actions trigger painful memories, igniting anxiety and unpredictable action. A sad paradox, the relationship which means so much, and is desired above all, becomes the impetus for anxiousness.

The Relationship Anxiety Cycle

Connection, vulnerability and intimacy bless and curse our lives. Imprinted on our biological structures is the drive to connect; we seek the companionship of others. But the mode of connection, in rapidly evolving communities, is not instinctual. We approach to seize our desire but fumble and stutter, suffering shame and leaving alone. Many normal people respond to the unquenchable drive to bond in a destructive manner, hurting themselves and their partners.

The underlying vulnerabilities inherent in connection spark anxieties that provokes defensiveness, manipulations, and hurtful outbursts—the very behaviors that strangle closeness and engender fear. Often our lacking skills of bonding is a cruel gift from our pasts, that sabotages the very relationships we need to heal; reactionary emotions surface, sparking behaviors that disrupt.

Hurt  > Defensiveness, Clinging, Aggression, Manipulation > Failed Relationships > More Hurt

“But the mode of connection, in rapidly evolving communities, is not instinctual. We approach to seize our desire but fumble and stutter, suffering shame and leaving alone.”

~T. Franklin Murphy

Past Trauma and Relationship Anxiety

Relationships are complex. Trauma filled past magnify the emotions, contributing to even more relationship complexity. Self-protective instincts quickly intrude hindering connections. Relationship anxieties motivate early departure, violent outbursts, subtle manipulations, and intense jealousies. Unmodified, these insecurities damage the bonds we desire. The emotions rumbling through our bodies are real and intense, demanding action. Even though the triggering threat may be slight, the reactionary emotion must be accepted as relevant and addressed; our bodies demand a response.

The paradox is we must accept the emotion but understand the external trigger is not the culprit. Our emotion, although focused on an outside trigger, is often misdirected, ignoring unrealistic beliefs magnifying the feeling. Our strong feelings don’t jive with the minor triggering event. The emotion is generated from internal fears. The fears need attention, not the external triggers. Our fear must be soothed instead of condemning the outside force (see Focus on Feeling).

Relationships with People Who Have  Anxiety

​Felt emotions appear justified because our vision is blurred. Fixing the outside trigger seems logical; but this path doesn’t relieve anxiety, another event, look, or word will strike our sensitivities again, prodding unhealthy responses. When we expect (usually unconsciously) a partner to relieve every anxiety, our demands will eventually overwhelm; our partner constantly forced to tip toe through the shards of emotional glass we have shattered.

Extreme reactions leave  partners fearing another episode. They walk gingerly around sensitive communications. Protecting the peace by curtailing by avoiding a long list of dangerous topics creates anxiety for them, drawing more wellness and energy from the relationship. Instead of feeling confident and secure, partners feel pressure to act within undefined boundaries, not knowing when the next explosion will intrude. The ever-present insinuation that their inadequacy creates division eventually drives a partner, fulfilling the fear of abandonment—another lost love. The repeating drama is painful to watch. The victim desires a trusting relationship; but every time closeness begins, fear sparks an unrelenting anxiety, and self-destruction. The repeated cycle of closeness and rejection destroys the enjoyment of intimacy.

The close relationship—instead of enjoyed—is feared. The relationship anxiety haunts the relationship; one partner constantly grappling with debilitating fear while the other is apprehensive, carefully measuring words and actions. Warm connections fail to form under these pressures. The learned and inherited forces destroy the hopes of good people driven to connect. The trust, security and acceptance can’t be found in high anxiety. Everybody involved feels hollow. Starved for connection.

Hope for Change

​Trauma filled pasts create a rugged terrain, with fractured skills and emotional deficits, the sufferer must contend with obstacles that those grounded in security take for granted. Trust is part of the answer; and part of the problem. Past experiences of disloyalty diminish capacity to trust. But healing requires trust—the security of loyalty and compassion.

We must maintain hope, trusting in the human gift to change. Human minds are powerful. We can initiate change. We might need professional assistance and insightful friends to transcend old destroying patterns. But small changes start the large processes. Initially our openness to vulnerability may be limited—long embedded fears easily triggered. But the small improvements help, slowly inviting more changes, inviting more trust and new feelings of security. A healthy cycle has begun. Eventually fears subside and relationships flourish. While pasts will still occasionally interfere, we can rejoice in our gains and relish hope of a continually improving future.

Building Trust

Before we can trust, we must find a trustworthy partner. Only then will courageous vulnerability be rewarded. Overtime and careful observation, our sense of security strengthens as our partner honors the trust given by loyally fulfilling commitments of fidelity. The initial steps of trust require vulnerability. We can’t know how a partner will act without allowing freedom to choose. 

​Healthy couples do this seamlessly. Connection doesn’t demand overt tests but natural holding and letting go. But when fears overwhelm, letting go becomes a burden. Insecurity demands constant vigilance, exploring every doubt (life without trust); the slightest deviation screams impending abandonment and we react—clinging, isolating, manipulating, punishing.

Freedom allows time to prove or disproves a partner’s commitment. The history provides answers to the unspoken question, “Will my partner be there for me?” But in the storms of unrelenting anxiety, we fail to give sufficient space for behaviors to answer this critical question.

Emotions Drive Behavior

Intense emotions demand relief—that’s their purpose. Emotions signal change and mark an event. Active emotions motivate behavior. Relationships, for the romantically anxious, signal danger—reminding of pasts. Closeness spikes emotions, sending the body into full alert.

​Organisms respond to internal drives for action to restore biological balance—calming the emotions. We learn methods of calming emotional disruptions—some healthy, some not. We may address the triggering event—our partner’s behavior. Or perhaps distract with drugs, sex, or entertainment. Some simply flee. But healthier options are available. We can sooth emotional upheavals through meditation, exercise or focused breathing. By calming our fears in a non-damaging way, we can approach relationship problems with calmness and creativity, acting in ways that strengthen rather than harm, establish more security, and invite closeness.

Once calm, we can engage with more complex strategies—redefining an event, identifying the internal causes of an emotion, and communicating with our hearts. Healthy strategies strengthen the relationship and satisfy the relationship needs of security and acceptance.

Building connections while drowning in anxiety may seem daunting, but there is hope. There is always hope. Human brains adapt and change. Painful memories remain but we can limit their impact. We can gracefully live with painful pasts. And in most cases, still enjoy healthy relationships.

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