Relationship anxiety is a relatively new term on the scene. It connotes a variety of unpleasant responses to stressors in a relationship. A simple Google search of the term shows that there is no consensus on its meaning. Nevertheless, more and more people are identifying their experience of partner conflicts in this way. Some of the meanings one finds for this term include fear of abandonment, jealousy, possessiveness of one’s partner, and a whole host of other relational problems. What is interesting is that people are labeling this panoply of problems under the single heading of “relationship anxiety”. In fact, according to the Deconstructing Anxiety model*, this makes sense, since the model proposes that all problems, including those in a relationship, do in fact arise from anxiety. So if one is looking for solutions about how to deal with relationship anxiety, one may well start with the question “what is the best way to deal with anxiety in general?”
Before we get to that, however, let’s look for specific signs of relationship anxiety. We’ve already mentioned fear of abandonment, jealousy and possessiveness. But, as our Deconstructing Anxiety model suggests, any problem in the relationship can be traced or “deconstructed” down to a single source of anxiety. Anger, for example, is a forceful way of saying “stop scaring me“. The energy of anger is intended to scare the other person so they will stop doing whatever behavior was scaring you. Similarly, greed or possessiveness can be understood as the anxiety of losing what one loves or is otherwise attached to. In fact, we can take any negative state, whether a relational conflict or not, and deconstruct it down to a single source, rooted in anxiety… What we call a “core fear“.
You may say “I understand that, but it doesn’t tell me how to deal with bad anxiety”. Whether labeled mild, moderate or “bad“, the degree of the anxiety doesn’t make a difference. The only important question is: “how can I deal with anxiety?”. The answer lies in realizing that the problem, regardless of its intensity or form, is but a disguise for the original core fear. And this is good news because we never have to be mystified again about the true culprit of our suffering. Even better, when we understand the core fear we know what to do about it. It’s like putting clothes on the invisible man. Now you can address the problem, whereas before you were completely at its mercy.
The three steps to deal with anxiety—and more specifically to get help with relationship anxiety—then, are as follows: 1) Name the problem, 2) deconstruct it down to the core of fear at its root, and 3) then “do the opposite” of what the core fear usually would have you do.
The first step may seem simple but it is not necessarily so. It requires catching oneself in the middle of an automatic way of thinking about, and responding to, the problem. In a relationship, it’s easy to see how automatic our responses are. No matter how many times we get caught in the same merry-go-round of a particular argument or difference of opinion or preference, the temptation to continue on that merry-go-round can be so very powerful. It takes great courage simply to interrupt the process and ask “what is going on here?” The answer will always involve both people. Taking responsibility for your part, even when it may seem offensive to your sense of justice (“after all, I know I’m right here”), gives you the opportunity to be the first to make a meaningful change in the relationship.
The next step is more obviously challenging: to deconstruct the problem down to the true core fear at its root. In the Deconstructing Anxiety program, there is a process called “Digging for Gold” that is designed to accomplish just this. There is no space in this article to lay out that technique, but the interested reader can refer to chapter 8 of my book* For now, suffice it to say that we want to look for the fear that is motivating our behavior. It may not be the core fear, but it will still give you a wonderful start toward repairing the conflict and resolving the relationship anxiety.
And finally, we have the all-important principle of “doing the opposite”. In Deconstructing Anxiety, we go into great detail about the specific ways (there are three) to do the opposite of what our fear commands that we do. Again, space will not allow us to explore the principle to that degree of detail, but we can still get great value out of simply noticing our habitual reaction to a relational (or other) problem and resisting that reaction. Resisting the reaction is clearly “opposite” to our usual response of anxiously rushing in to fix a problem. Taking the idea further, we may
actively do something that is opposite of what we typically do, such as apologize for our part in the relational conflict. This is possible even when we are quite sure the other person is also to blame…and may not be offering an apology in return! We may also practice listening to the other’s complaint about us until they have expressed the complaint in
its entirety, without interrupting or defending ourselves in the process. There are, of course, countless examples (and therefore countless opportunities) to practice “offering the other cheek”, to use that phrase as a metaphor. The point is that any action which brings one in contact with the fear underlying the problem is helpful. The fear underlying the problem is simply that which you were trying to avoid by exercising the response you usually use. But this response, clearly, has not given the “cure” it promised. It is time to try something different.
Obviously, this takes courage. But when we finally get tired of “doing the same thing again and again, each time expecting different results” (and each time being disappointed), we can find that courage. And when we do, we inevitably discover the extraordinary freedom that comes with taking back control over our automatic response to anxiety, relational or otherwise. This kind of “doing the opposite” gives us the chance to resolve our relationship anxiety and make a truly free choice, no longer driven by fear. And with this freedom, we will choose a response that supports our higher ideals, one that fosters healing, compassion and forgiveness in our relationships.
*See my book “Deconstructing Anxiety: The Journey from Fear to Fulfillment” (Rowman and LIttlefield, 2019).