How to Overcome Relationship Anxiety: 5 Causes and Solutions

What is Relationship Anxiety?

Have you ever found yourself weighed down by worries surrounding your relationship? Do you question yourself or your partner out of fear of judgement and evaluation? Are you often analyzing your relationship? Preoccupation with your relationship may be a sign of relationship anxiety.


Relationship anxiety is a specific form of social anxiety that can be defined as a persistent and irrational fear of intimacy and romantic relationships. As couple’s therapist and clinical counselor Karla Ivankovich, PhD puts it, relationship anxiety is “when one or both people in the relationship spend more time in anxious thought about the relationship than tending to the relationship itself.” (Birch & Ivankovich, 2018) This article aims to explore some of the reasons you or your partner may be experiencing relationship anxiety. 


What Causes Anxiety?

It may seem like there is never an “off button” for anxiety. For relationship anxiety in particular, this anxiety light may seem to linger on in the back of your head no matter what stage of the relationship you are in.


Relationship anxiety can stem from a multitude of factors and scenarios. Biological predispositions and anxious temperaments are only part of the cause. As Psychology and Brain Sciences professor James Averill stresses, “there is a strong bias towards viewing emotions as biologically basic and pan cultural”, however anxious behaviors and emotions are typically triggered by social interactions and past experiences (Averill, 1976). In short, there may be both biological and situational factors behind our anxiety. Anxiety is a multifaceted phenomenon that is subjective to each individual. While we all experience anxiety in our own unique way, research has broadly found 5 reasons that may be causing your relationship anxiety.


5 Potential Causes of Relationship Anxiety

1. Perfectionism

You may be too focused on being perfect. Research has found a connection between perfectionism and a fear of intimacy as it can interfere with close, meaningful relationships (Martin & Ashby, 2004). A study expanding on past research on maladaptive perfectionism gathered 170 couple participants in a study where they were each assessed on a Romantic Relationship Perfectionism Scale or RRPS (Lafontaine, 2019). The participants then measured themselves in a self-reported dyadic coping scale. As hypothesized, maladaptive perfectionists reported much greater anxiety surrounding relationships than non-perfectionists. Participants scoring high in the relationship perfectionism scale also transferred these perfectionist tendencies onto their partners. As a result, this increased overall levels of anxiety and negative coping mechanisms in times of relationship adversity. As proven by this research, an obsession with perfectionism can lead to anxious feelings when one’s relationship or partner does not meet these expectations, or when one feels that their partner expects perfection from them as well. 


2. Body image

Social anxiety especially in relationships can also be linked to one’s body image. A study of 103 male and 125 female adult participants indicated a significant relationship between low body image evaluation and social, romantic, and intimacy anxiety. (Cash, Theriault & Annis, 2004) Within the study, each participant was first asked to evaluate their body image and later completed standardized assessments of “social-evaluative anxiety, fear of romantic intimacy, general adult attachment, and romantic attachment.” (Cash, Theriault & Annis, 2004). The results indicated that participants who were more critical of themselves and their bodies were also more socially anxious as they became preoccupied with romantic attachment and pleasing their partners. Raising your own personal confidence may be the key in feeling less anxiety around the idea of judgement or evaluation from in your relationships 


3. Past trauma

Oftentimes, relationship anxiety can stem from childhood or past experiences. Based on past research detailing the long‐term consequences of divorce and parental conflict, social anxiety levels in young adults were significantly higher in those with negative parent experiences. A study sampled 556 young adults from both divorced and non-divorced families and had each participant self-report the quality of their parent relationships (Riggio, 2004). Participants were then assessed on their anxiety levels in personal relationships. Those from intact families reported positive parent-child relationships and reduced levels of anxiety in their past and present relationships. However, participants from divorced families were more likely to report negative family relationships as well as higher levels of relationship anxiety, especially surrounding partner attachment, support, and relationship conflict (Riggio, 2004). With this in mind, it is important to reflect on how your past experiences may manifest as relationship anxiety within your current relationships. 


4. Mental health

You may be experiencing some interpersonal consequences of depression. Rejection is something that is expected at one point or another when navigating relationships and dating. However, studies have shown that rejection can significantly worsen dependent and self-critical depression. Research was conducted on 44 individuals with dependent depression and 44 with self-critical depression where they each received a scientifically-manipulated rejection (Deng,Wang, Leng, Chen, Yang & Liu, 2019). Before and after this manipulation, each participant’s amount of dependency and self-criticism was measured. They found that while dependents and self-critics each reacted differently to the rejection, their depression and anxiety levels increased. Self-critics became more likely to withdraw from relationships and dependents became more likely to seek romantic affirmation. Whether your dependency increases after a bad relationship experience or you feel like withdrawing completely, both can ultimately lead to anxiety around the very idea of getting into a relationship.


5. Need for control

Lastly, relationship anxiety can stem from feeling a lack of control in your life. A study was done on the perception of anxiety control and its relationship to confidence and performance. The researchers interviewed participants to determine the presence of anxiety symptoms and how these related to their level of self-confidence (Hanton & Connaughton, 2002). When participants believed their symptoms of anxiety were under their control, they attributed failures in their performances to these symptoms but did not significantly lose self-confidence. However, when they believed their symptoms were out of their control, their overall self-confidence levels decreased. Your perception of control can impact both how you experience and reflect on your relationships. Not feeling like you are in control will make you lose confidence in and produce anxiety around having a successful and meaningful relationship. 


Long Term Effects of relationship anxiety

Despite relationship anxiety being a seemingly specific subset of anxiety, many of its symptoms are present in regular anxiety as well. In a previous article on 11 strategies to manage stress and anxiety during quarantine, we discussed the various long term symptoms anxiety can cause. Just like with regular anxiety, the long term effects of relationship anxiety can include emotional exhaustion, loss in motivation, fatigue, and emotional and physical distress (McLeod, 1986). The mind and body are especially connected when it comes to anxiety. Anxious feelings often result in very real physical responses such as upset stomachs, muscle tension, sweating, and insomnia, just to name a few (McLeod, 1986). As a result, it is crucial to manage your anxiety. No relationship is perfect and we commonly have doubts. But, if you start to notice physical symptoms, it may be a sign of something more serious, and it may be wise to address the issues underlying your anxiety.


Combating Relationship Anxiety

Earlier on, we discussed relationship turbulence and how to handle it. Although relationship anxiety may not arise from any actual problems in the relationship, its long term effects may very well cause distress in both partners which in turn can damage the relationship. Researchers studying the presence of anxiety disorders and their effects on relationships discovered that anxious behaviors are heavily related to relationship distress. The study observed relationship quality (RQ) in correlation with couples in which one partner was diagnosed with some anxiety disorder (Zaider, Heimberg & Iida, 2010). The 33 participants provided daily reports of their moods and overall RQ. In the end, researchers found that couples whose partners were diagnosed with an anxiety disorder reported significantly lower relationship satisfaction on days where they experienced more anxiety. With the non-diagnosed partner in distress, the anxious partner experienced even more anxiety. This cyclical and damaging cycle proved the researcher’s hypothesis that anxiety is linked to relationship distress


These stresses on the relationship as a result of anxious behaviors may be relieved with communication. Being aware of these behaviors yet not speaking about them to your partner will only harm your relationship in the long run. Another study found that communication was the most common and important factor in determining relationship satisfaction even against other variables. The study, consisting of 142 university students with past or present relationship experience, utilized a hierarchical regression analysis with variables including “communication skills, attachment styles and various problem-solving skills including sense of control, confidence, and attitudes of approach-avoidance.” (Eğeci & Gençöz, 2006) Even with these other variables present, participants with high levels of communication skills were consistently more likely to be associated with relationship satisfaction


across many variables, communication skills stood out as one variable consistently associated with relationship satisfaction. 

Address it From the Start

It is never a good idea to act like your relationship is fine if something feels off. A poll of mental health professionals reported that 65% of them found lack of communication to be the number one factor causing couples to split or marriages to end in divorce (Watson, 2013). By encouraging your partner or yourself to address your relationship anxiety from the start, healthy communication will begin to be seen as the norm for your relationship. Once you or your partner feels safe in expressing their feelings or concerns, you may both work to better your relationship in a healthy direction to foster well-being. 


Looking for couples counseling alternatives? Try LIFE Intelligence

If you’re interested in more relationship counseling advice or dating coach tips without the price or hassle of actually going to one, try the LIFE Intelligence app. LIFE encompasses scientific research on 9 core topics, or “missions,” that comprehensively address your self, career, and relationships. It address general anxiety, social anxiety, and relationship anxiety, all in different areas of the app. Mission 1 discusses cognitive behavioral therapy for anxiety. Mission 6 talks about social anxiety and self-esteem and confidence. Mission 7.4 delves into the complex world of love, relationships, attachment styles, and in particular, learning to love. All three are essential parts of a healthy relationship with yourself and others.

Love is not something that you are expected to master right away. Especially for those with relationship anxiety, learning to love in a healthy manner is crucial in order to promote well-being for both partners. Addressing problematic behaviors before they become major issues will help both in alleviating relationship anxiety and in understanding love in order to build lasting relationships.

Olivia Simon
December 31, 2020

References:

Averill, J. R. (1976). Emotion and anxiety: Sociocultural, biological, and psychological determinants.

Cash, T. F., Theriault, J., & Annis, N. M. (2004). Body image in an interpersonal context: Adult attachment, fear of intimacy and social anxiety. Journal of social and clinical psychology, 23(1), 89-103.

Birch, J., & Ivankovich, K. (2018). I Have Relationship Anxiety—Here's How It Affects My Dating Life. Retrieved from: https://www.health.com/relationships/relationship-anxiety

Deng, Y., Wang, S., Leng, L., Chen, H., Yang, T., & Liu, X. (2019). Pleasing or withdrawing: Differences between dependent and self-critical depression in psychosocial functioning following rejection. Personality and Individual Differences, 140, 4-9

Eğeci, İ. S., & Gençöz, T. (2006). Factors associated with relationship satisfaction: Importance of communication skills. Contemporary family therapy, 28(3), 383-391.

Hanton, S., & Connaughton, D. (2002). Perceived control of anxiety and its relationship to self-confidence and performance. Research quarterly for exercise and sport, 73(1), 87-97.

Lafontaine, M. F., Péloquin, K., Levesque, C., Azzi, S., Daigle, M. P., & Brassard, A. (2019). Beyond the simple association between romantic attachment insecurity and dyadic coping: An examination of romantic perfectionism as a mediator. Journal of Relationships Research, 10.

Martin, J. L., & Ashby, J. S. (2004). Perfectionism and fear of intimacy: Implications for relationships. The Family Journal, 12(4), 368-374.

McLeod, D. R., Hoehn-Saric, R., & Stefan, R. L. (1986). Somatic symptoms of anxiety: Comparison of self-report and physiological measures. Biological psychiatry, 21(3), 301-310.

Riggio, H. R. (2004). Parental marital conflict and divorce, parent‐child relationships, social support, and relationship anxiety in young adulthood. Personal Relationships, 11(1), 99-114.

Watson, E. (2013). Want Your Marriage to Last? Retrieved from: https://www.yourtango.com/experts/rochelle-bilow/want-your-marriage-last

Zaider, T. I., Heimberg, R. G., & Iida, M. (2010). Anxiety disorders and intimate relationships: A study of daily processes in couples. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 119(1), 163.

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