On a good day, I’ll leave Google well alone. A bad day? Well, my search history reads like 17 pages of an agony aunt column; endless questions, all with the hope that someone, logging on somewhere in the world, will either permanently quash or substantiate my relationship doubts.
The thing I struggle with? Relationship anxiety; a fear-driven by my own ever-buzzing, ever-questioning mind.
This isn't to be confused with the way in which general anxiety can have a negative impact on close relationships — just as it can career, health, parenthood – but refers to when an individual suffers symptoms of anxiety specifically about their interactions with other people, and particularly their significant other.
For me, I lack confidence in most relationships – all too quick to overanalyse and see the negative in the motives and actions of old friends, colleagues and family members — but romantic connections are unquestionably my personal nemesis, thanks to the intimacy and vulnerability they demand. The main question that plagues me: is my relationship OK?
Dr Elle Boag, a senior lecturer in Social Psychology at Birmingham City University, says that relationship anxiety can stem from our past experiences. “A lot of what we call relationship anxiety relates to attachment; that is, your internal working model and expectation of what relationships are all about and how one should behave when in them. What this means to each individual often depends on their relationship history. That could be the relationship your parents fostered with you as a baby, or past experiences of romantic partners.”
Boag characterises the issue as an over-analysis of the quality of one’s relationship, usually in an obsessive way. It can manifest in various ways, she says: “Those with 'preoccupied' and 'fearful' attachment styles crave closeness and intimacy with others, with a strong desire to play a vital role and be needed. On the other hand, people with 'fearful' attachment are more concerned about whether they’re worth love and care, and as such constantly look for validation while fearing that they’ll end up getting hurt.”
I’m over in the 'fearful' camp.
If you’re constantly fixated on your relationship status or the strength of your partnership, this suggests a high level of anxiety
So how can we tell the difference between healthy self-examination and relationship anxiety?
According to Boag, it comes down to obsession. “If you’re constantly fixated on your relationship status or the strength of your partnership – whether that means incessantly thinking about the negative or positive state of it, looking to others to compare or regularly referring to your partner when the conversation doesn’t call for it — this suggests a high level of anxiety.”
She continues: “Notice how you talk about your partner or relationship; are you constantly justifying their actions or behaviour, or the strength of your relationship, to others? Additionally, tune in to signs of mental and physical discomfort. If you feel that you’re losing sleep, not eating normally or feeling particularly tense, your body is telling you something is wrong.”
One of the problems with relationship anxiety, is that it can be met with scepticism, even among those who are enduring it; ‘Maybe this is a clear sign that something in my relationship isn’t right’, ‘maybe I have commitment phobia’ and ‘if there’s this much doubt and misgiving tied up in a relationship, it can’t possibly be fulfilling or long-lasting?’
I’ve got a friend – let’s call her Sarah — who I’ve heard these doubts from. When a mutual friend once admitted to us that she’d felt a gut-wrenching sense of fear when her boyfriend proposed and asked us both whether we thought she was doing the right thing by marrying him, Sarah didn’t hesitate to argue (albeit gently — she’s not an arsehole) that the very fact our friend needed to ask us was proof that she shouldn’t go through with it. But are we really saying that to merely question is to essentially sign the death certificate of a relationship, whether it ends sooner or later?
Natasha*, 31, is trying to see her relationship anxiety for what it is and more importantly, what it isn’t:
“Every relationship I’ve had, from flings to long-term, live-in boyfriends, have always been plagued with doubts,” she explains. “I get a feeling that things aren’t quite ‘right’ and once that sets in, any negative comment or silly argument makes me question the whole relationship. I can’t help thinking everyone around me is feeling a ‘better’ kind of love and I run my relationship into the ground. But I know it isn’t rational and that I’m too focused on the idea that ‘when you know, you know’ happens for everyone — just think about the amount of couples who claim they knew from the first moment they met that it was going to last forever then end up in divorce.”
The common factor is that these doubts fester and develop into intrusive thoughts, which cloud the mind and become really difficult to sift through, deal with and let go
Psychologist and therapist Sheryl Paul has built her entire professional career around her belief that relationship anxiety exists, and can be cured. Her website Conscious Transitions was created to help people understand these specific feelings of doubt and anxiety and offer online guides and one-to-one counselling for people who, like me, find themselves constantly questioning their relationship.
“We’re not talking about a phobia of commitment, or the belief that your partner is an inherently bad person, but a regular pattern of asking yourself, ‘Do I love my partner?’ ‘Does this feel right?’ ‘Will it last forever?’
Sheryl’s words resonated with me; “For some, the doubts may have been there from day one. For others, they come as a total surprise, months or years into a great doubt-free relationship. The common factor is that these doubts fester and develop into intrusive thoughts, which cloud the mind and become really difficult to sift through, deal with and let go.”
Interestingly, Sheryl believes that how we’ve come to culturally view love is fundamentally what breeds relationship anxiety and makes it so debilitating.
“Almost everyone I work with admits that the fantasies of love they hold are drivers of anxiety. The fantasy of marrying the perfect spouse, a man or woman without flaws, one’s soulmate and ideal partner, which comes largely from the massive dispersion of false information disseminated by our culture through magazines, films, books and advertisements… If the fantasy doesn’t match the image, we wonder what’s wrong with us.”
I’ve gradually learned that the celebrity world is a major catalyst for my personal brand of relationship anxiety, because of its endless opportunities for comparison. The fact is, I’ve got no idea what Kim and Kanye’s relationship is like, but seeing the romantic photos and reading these soundbites of romantic perfection makes my own doubts escalate. Social media is the same; for every romantic holiday sunset shot, there’s someone else seeing it on screen, gripped with fear that their own feelings don’t match up.
Dr Boag assures me that feeling anxious within a relationship doesn’t mean the only choice is to pack it in and get out. “All relationships go through ups and downs and it’s completely normal to feel anxious. The issue comes when people feel too fearful to confront their anxiety or question where it’s coming from.”
So, what can we do?
“Firstly, try to recognise that you might be struggling with relationship anxiety. Sometimes identifying the root cause of your worry may well be enough to settle your mind and focus on the positives,” explains Boag.
“Sitting down and talking to another securely-attached couple can help to get a sense of perspective; people don’t tend to want to admit their relationship takes work or has bad days but the more open you can be among friends, the more you’ll be able to work out what is irrational anxiety and what is real cause for concern.
“And don’t be scared of couples counselling. Far too many people see it as a last chance saloon but it can be helpful for anxiety sufferers to air their doubts in a neutral way and allow you to work through them together.”