As I note regularly in the Deconstructing Anxiety model*, anxiety is at the source of any problem. This is a bold claim, I realize, but with the “digging for gold“ process, anyone can prove this to themselves. By starting with a randomly chosen problem, they can go through it’s method of deconstruction, and find a single “core fear“ – – the root anxiety – – at the source. Try it on a different problem and you’ll arrive at the same core fear. Try it on a wide variety of problems until you are satisfied, and you will see for yourself that the core fear is the single and constant source of the difficulty in every case. And the good news is, it will always be so. Whether talking about relationship anxiety, depression, hoarding, eating disorders, issues with motivation, or any other problem we human beings struggle with, the core fear is at the source of them all.**
The reason this is good news is because we never have to be confused or misled about the true problem to be addressed. Most of suffering comes from the fact that this true problem remains hidden, defended against and kept from awareness. This is one of the “deceptions” of fear, as laid out in the Deconstructing Anxiety model. But our “digging for gold” process cuts through that confusion like Alexander’s sword cutting through the Gordian’s knot.
Let’s focus on relationship anxiety to demonstrate this most important point. First, we should ask the question “what is relationship anxiety?”. The simple answer is… anxiety in relationship to other people. Obviously, this is too broad a term to be very useful. And this is a problem with the term itself. To better define relationship anxiety, we can start with some of its manifestations. Signs of relationship anxiety include: jealousy, greed, anger, passivity, dependency, people pleasing, fear of rejection, loneliness…the list goes on. In short, we are talking about any anxiety that arises in our interactions (or lack thereof) with other people.
What causes relationship anxiety? The broadest, most inclusive answer is as we have stated above: it can only ever be the result of one’s core fear. There are five core fears as delineated by our model: loss of love, loss of identity, loss of meaning, loss of purpose, and the fear of death.
It should be no surprise to discover that all five of these have a lot to do with our relationships – – we are social beings after all, and no one can doubt that relationships drive so much of our lives and our feelings. Let’s look at how relationships interact with the five core fears.
1) The fear of losing love is obviously about losing love from other people. Often called fear of abandonment, this core fear can lead to feelings of rejection, disapproval, loneliness, aloneness, etc.
2) Identity is developed in large part by the mirroring we receive from other people ( as well as the mirroring given from our environment). We express ourselves in a certain way, and people respond. It begins in the crib: a child coos and caregivers show delight; they cry for food and their need is met. These are the kinds of scenarios that compile over time to tell us we are an autonomous individual with the ability to affect others. We have agency and can evoke the responses we wish from the environment. We also come to discover that there are times when the environment may ignore our wishes; other people may try to impose their wishes upon us. All of this goes into the development of the “self”, one’s identity.
3) In our model, meaning is defined as the goodness, value or worth of life (including oneself). No one can deny that the lion’s share of what makes for meaning in life is the degree of fulfillment we experience in our relationships. Furthermore, imagine being greatly fulfilled, where everything seems deeply meaningful to you, but the people you love and care about are suffering. Of course, this doesn’t make sense; in order to experience meaning, we need to know that the people in our lives are experiencing it as well.
4) Loss of purpose is defined in our model as the loss of a goal designed to make things better in the future. This is different from the core fear of loss of meaning where we are looking at the given state of things; they are either meaningful or not. Purpose has a goal to change that state and make it better, more fulfilling. This
could mean more fulfilling in terms of love, more fulfilling in terms of expressing our authentic identity, more fulfilling in contacting the deep meaning of things, and, as we will see, more fulfilling in terms of coming to a peaceful acceptance of death that makes it possible to live more fully in the present moment. The loss of purpose, therefore, involves our relationships for the very reasons our other core fears do.
5) And finally, we have the fear of death. It is biologically written into each of us that we need other people for survival. This is the essence of any governmental structure; such structures are built on a cooperative agreement for how we will relate with each other in a “civilized” way; i.e. how to enhance our ability to
survive and thrive.. When such structures break down, we have lawlessness, crime, war, lack of resources, etc. In short, we lose the security those structures were created to provide, and thereby lose our security against death.
All of us have all five of these core fears – – this is what it is to be human. But each of us chooses one as the primary way of interpreting the dangers of life. Again, the “digging for gold exercise” reveals this one most fundamental core fear.
The path to overcome relationship anxiety, then, as given by the Deconstructing Anxiety model, involves certain precise and targeted measures for uprooting one’s core fear, and exposing it as a lie. This is not the place to go into those measures, but we can say that when dealing with relationship anxiety, a deep understanding of our core fear reveals exactly how and why we are struggling in our relationships. This makes it possible to step back from the automatic habit of our usual responses, and “choose once again”.
There is also a spin off of the Deconstructing Anxiety program called Deconstructing Relationships. In it, a certain communication technique builds on this principle of exposing the core fear behind relational conflict. I continually find it remarkable how successful this technique is for helping couples overcome relationship anxiety. The simple discovery that you AND your partner are actually anxious – – rather than angry, rejecting, indifferent, etc. – – is profoundly healing. Every time I have seen it applied, the couple comes out with a most meaningful sense of compassion and empathy for each other, and a renewal of the love which brought them together in the first place. ———————-
*See Pressman, T. (2019). Deconstructing Anxiety: The Journey from Fear to Fulfillment. Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield.
**This does not mean that the core fear creates biologically-based issues, such as ADD. Rather, the core fear is responsible for how we respond to and experience those problems, giving us the opportunity to have a new response/experience once the core fear is brought into the light of day.