"It's all just too much. I'm certain he's going to leave me... who could live with me like this?"
Andrea sat sobbing in the armchair across from me, clutching a throw pillow. She'd shredded tissues into bits in my therapy office as she relayed the events that had transpired in her marriage over the last two weeks...
Her husband had stayed late at a work function... Andrea worried he was having an affair.
He missed a workout several times last month... Andrea worried he was going to have a heart attack and die.
They had a conversation about how Andrea's worries really sucked the enjoyment out of their marriage... Andrea worried that her husband would leave her for a woman who was "more fun."
I might have put more stock in Andrea's concerns had I not met her husband early on in the course of her therapy for generalized anxiety. During this visit, her husband had expressed sincere affection and genuine support for Andrea. He repeatedly professed his love and commitment to her, yet she struggled to accept it.
Andrea's anxiety as sabotaging her relationship.
Though Andrea is a fictional character, the behaviors above are extremely common among my therapy clients with anxiety. In fact, anxiety in relationships (romantic and otherwise) comes up perhaps more than any other topic when I counsel women. Unfortunately, anxiety biases our thinking and can cause problems that we aren't even aware of.
4 Ways Anxiety is Sabotaging Your Relationships
1. Anxiety changes how you feel and respond in your love life. A few months ago I was interviewed on a podcast about anxiety, and afterwards a listener wrote on the comments wall asking for my advice. She had recently endangered her boyfriend's job after her anxiety caused her to make a big scene at his workplace holiday party. She admitted to me that her anxiety sometimes causes her to fret that her boyfriend values his job more than her, so her worries really ramped up when he began mingling with coworkers at the party. Upset and fearful, she had pulled him aside and started a heated argument about her feelings... which was witnessed by her boyfriend's colleagues, to his embarrassment.
Anxiety can cause us to believe irrational things, which often leads to hasty decisions. This is evident in the example above, but other examples might include abruptly breaking up with a partner, making rash decisions to become physically intimate, or trying to move the relationship along faster than is comfortable.
2. Anxiety causes you to overthink situations and events. When you lie in bed at 2am, staring at the ceiling and mulling over a relatively insignificant issue, anxiety may be to blame. This is one of the most common physical complaints I hear my clients describe, but simply dwelling on a situation more than is helpful or necessary can cause problems, too.
One woman disclosed to me that, after her husband's 10-year high school reunion photos were posted on social media, she had viewed them over and over and over, looking for signs that he was having more fun without her. She had stayed home from the event (out of insecurity about her outfit) despite her husband begging her to come with him and even offering to stay home instead. Once she had convinced him to attend alone, she felt somewhat sad that she'd missed out. Viewing the social media photos, however, had caused her anxiety to go into overdrive. "Do his friends hate me? Are they glad I stayed home? Does he always have more fun when he's away from me? What if I just drag him down by being around?" Ruminating on these negative thoughts is a hallmark sign of anxiety.
3. Anxiety changes the way others perceive you. Remember Monica from the TV show Friends? Her high-pitched, hysterically obsessive rants were hilarious to watch... but in real life this kind of behavior would drive others away. I meet clients with anxiety who are naturally high-strung, which may cause them to talk too fast, interrupt often, fidget, or become breathless in conversation. All of these behaviors put off an energy that can be unattractive to potential romantic interests.
We all know that some people simply put off "bad vibes." Anxious distress can cause a hypervigilence that is off-putting because it may seem desperate, needy or high-pressure. Sometimes this can be helped by simply taking a few deep breaths to lower the heart rate and blood pressure. Others can sense when we are at ease.
4. Anxiety can cause unhealthy relationship patterns to develop. We know that men tend to be "fixers," right? Imagine how a relationship pattern could develop if a man tries to fix his partner's anxiety...
She verbalizes her worry that she'll be fired for arriving 5 minutes late to work. He gives her a litany of reasons why she is being irrational. She becomes more anxious that he isn't listening or that perhaps he thinks she's overreacting. Do you see the pattern?
Anxiety ---> Partner's downplaying of the feelings ---> More anxiety
Relationships are difficult enough as it is.
Anxiety can be a villain to healthy thinking patterns, causing trouble in our love lives and even friendships, coworker relationships, or family dynamics. The next time an issue bubbles up in your relationship, take some time to evaluate whether any of the 4 habits mentioned above might be sabotaging your success in this area.