I’ve had anxiety issues since I was a kid. Not that I knew it until I was 20, but when I was little I’d fret over everything from whether Rudolph and his reindeer had enough carrots to eat, to the world ending. Then, at 20, I had my first panic attack – I’d just gotten together with my first boyfriend and all of a sudden it was like a dark cloud moved in to reside over my head at all times. This was relationship anxiety – although I also didn’t know it at first.
That first boyfriend copped the full force of my relationship anxiety issues, dealing with random break-ups and mood swings as I let every thought into my brain and ruminated on it all. I hadn’t seen a psychologist yet because I honestly didn’t realise my mental function wasn’t normal – I assumed all my negative thinking was me working out if the relationship was “right”.
Back then, I was in church – a born again Christian, my anxious thoughts centred around “does God approve of this relationship?” and “do I need a sign from God to know this is right?”. Even when my church mentors told me I was over-thinking things, I fixated on this belief that, because I hadn’t “heard from God” about dating my partner, it was fundamentally wrong.
Eventually, we split up because the thoughts were too much for me. I then visited a psychologist and realised what I had was anxiety, but my partner and I remained broken up, as I was also starting to move away from the church.
Years of calm mental seas followed until my next relationship – an on/off tumultuous experience with a guy who wasn’t emotionally available and broke up with me every three months. Even though things never progressed with us beyond that 3-month mark, when things were stable I would start to panic. I’d question the relationship when things weren’t dramatic – am I bored? Is this right? How am I supposed to feel?
After two years we broke up (he dumped me) and I experienced more calm before getting together with my third partner. A month into dating and I started feeling the same rumblings of unease. By now, I’d been seeing psychologists for years to deal with my anxiety. I was starting to realise these feelings were coming up whenever a dating thing started to feel serious to me – not necessarily when the guy I was seeing made any movements toward a commitment, just when within myself, it felt like more than casual.
I had a panic attack and decided to see a psychologist weekly to work through my shit. But that relationship ended within 3 months c/o the guy splitting with me, so I didn’t really get the chance to deal with the majority of the anxiety.
Ayear later I met another guy – by now, I had a year of working on this relationship anxiety under my belt, and could see negative thoughts for what they were, for the most part.
Still, it wasn’t easy. I remember one time when he suggested we go for a ride on his motorbike, a day-long thing. For some reason this sparked anxiety within me and I spent a full hour debating whether I wanted to go, or if it would give me a panic attack to go. I felt trapped – a core part of relationship anxiety, I’ve realised – and couldn’t put my finger on what was making me feel that way. Why would a simply bike ride cause so much emotional turmoil?
But we also split after 3 months. My psychologist hinted that I might have been gravitating toward emotionally unavailable men – guys who, for whatever reason, weren’t ready for a relationship. She suggested it might be that I want my relationships to fail, so I don’t have to get to the full-on commitment part.
Then I met my current boyfriend.
We’ve been together for six months now and it has been, at times, absolute HELL. Because he’s a) invested in the relationship and therefore doesn’t pull away and b) I’ve made it past my relationship end date for the first time in ten years, the six months has been an exercise in working on my mental shit, 24/7.
It might be easier to divide this part up into sections, to fully explain my experience with relationship anxiety – this current relationship has been the most insightful, in part because I’ve got years of experience under my belt and in part because I’ve seen a psych for the entirety of it.
1. Relationship Anxiety Comes And Goes
I don’t want you to think I’m permanently unhappy in my relationship. I’m not – there’s weeks where everything IS a calm sea and days where I’m besotted. But there’s also weeks where I feel under that black cloud again, where nothing feels right and every negative thought takes up all the air-time in my brain. I ruminate on all the usual shit – is this right, is this how I’m meant to feel, what does love feel like, people say you should just know but I never know – over and over until, usually, I can’t keep up appearances with my boyfriend and break down crying over it all.
Eventually, the bad period passes and normalcy ensues. Sometimes I get a month or more of feeling fine, sometimes I get a month or more of feeling shit.
2. It Convinces You, Even When The Evidence Says Otherwise
Because relationships are based on feelings (at least, that’s what film/everyone tells us), they are absolute hell for an anxious person. Anxiety likes the unknown – it thrives on twisting things, and often you feel that cold, hard facts are all that can quiet those anxious thoughts.
So I can go from enjoying my relationship to questioning everything because I read one quote from someone’s Instagram caption about how their person is “their world” and “nothing matters without you”, and I convince myself that because I enjoy other things like hanging with my friends, hanging by myself, or like, eating a really big bowl of pasta in front of Ever After, maybe my relationship isn’t right.
I’ll spiral and spiral, nitpicking things apart until I am revolted by my entire relationship – then I’ll usually talk to my sister or friends, who remind me of some realities. Like the time my sister explained that when she split from her ex, it was because she was bored in his presence and felt like they’d moved apart and had nothing in common anymore. I then see things in a far more balanced way.
3. It Thrives On The Notion Of “Is This Right?”
Relationship anxiety, in my experience, is entirely fixated on the “rightness” of your relationship. Is the sex good enough? Are you attracted enough? Is there someone better? Do you laugh enough? Do you talk enough? Blah blah blah it’ll always find something to fixate on. Maybe you cover off the first two questions but then get stuck on how much you laugh when you’re with your partner. Then you get over that, and a new sneaky thought comes in about whether you should be in love yet, and are you in love, and what is love.
It never ends, and the modern life is not in your favour. Instagram fucking SUCKS when you deal with relationship anxiety (see above example of caption content). The best thing you can do is to talk honestly with your nearest and dearest, because my friends in long term relationships have been SUCH a help with talking me out of a spiral.
They’ll tell me how they “fell” into their relationship by just continuing to date because it felt good, and continued to feel good. How they have ebbs and flows feelings-wise, and that’s okay. How sometimes they won’t have sex for weeks and that’s also okay.
I won’t lie to you – I still deal with “is this right” constantly. I don’t even know if the answer is yes or no. But I do know that my level of fixation ON the question isn’t normal mental function.
4. It Is Real
The last thing I will say is this. A lot of people have tried to tell me in the past that what I was actually feeling was a lack of interest in the relationship – that the thoughts and fear were signs it wasn’t right (see above) and I should break up with the person.
I did believe this for a long time – until it happened in every single serious relationship. When you experience the same crippling anxiety with five different men, across ten years? Yeah, I think it’s safe to say that’s not just “you need to break up”.
If people are telling you that you just don’t want to be with the person you’re with, and you think that maybe it might be a bit more than that – see a psych. That’s my best suggestion. They’re an outside party and they’re not there to pander to your feelings, so they’ll give it to you straight if you need it but they’re also tuned in to mental health issues.
These days I see my psych every so often, when I lose my way a bit and my brain gets murky. I find it far better to listen to her advice than to buy into what every man and his dog has to say about my experience. I’ve somewhat managed my brain – at the very least, I can usually recognise most of the thoughts for what they are, and don’t buy into every bloody thing that flits through my brain.
If you’re relating to this article, I want to tell you a few things.
First – the best advice I ever got was from my psych (der) who told me it’s not life and death, you don’t need to make any decisions right now. Most of the time relationship anxiety makes you feel like you have to break up NOW or decide to stay forever NOW. You don’t – just cruise. If you’re not sure, just go with the flow, spend time with your partner, enjoy the moment and take the pressure off yourself. Second – call it what it is. A huge step forward for me was recognising that anxiety was causing my mental chaos, not “lack of interest”. And finally, don’t make decisions when your brain is on spin cycle. Let things calm down, then reassess. No panic break ups, if you can help it.
I hope this has helped you in some way. <3Image: Skins