First things first (before we get to the goods), what is relationship anxiety? Well, it’s a tendency to struggle with commitment in the face of what would be deemed a fairly stable and solid relationship. That’s the simple way of seeing it. It can also be more extreme in that a person can either focus on their partner (i.e. partner-focused) or their relationship (i.e. relationship-focused). Partner-focused relationship anxiety might show up as questioning whether one’s partner is good enough, smart enough, handsome/beautiful/hot/sexy enough, funny enough, or any other ‘thing’ that, if true, would mean one was settling (in a bad way). This can be specific to one trait or it can be more global. On the other hand, relationship-focused relationship anxiety might show up as a person questioning whether this is the “right” relationship, if this is “the one/my soulmate,” if “this is love,” and a whole lot more. At the extreme end of the continuum, relationship anxiety can present as relationship obsessive-compulsive disorder (ROCD – google it, it’s fascinating). At its tamest, it can present as mild anxiety specific to one’s relationship. Now, seeing as how we’re on the same page, I’ll keep going.
This is not something I hear a lot about, nor is it something I read a lot about (outside of one specific lady who does a host of writing and work in this area), but I would deem it as pretty important piece of the work that I do, although (of course) not the be all end all. And with that said, it has been growing in the past few years, so that’s a good sign.
Here’s the caveat, though. Not every person who comes in solo and has issues with their relationship is struggling with relationship anxiety. Some people have issues that need to be dealt with directly by going to the other person and some people would be better off extracting themselves from a toxic relationship. However, we (and I’m sure you can relate to this) also find that there are people who come in who can’t figure out if what they’re going through is ‘normal’ (normal is overrated), if it’s a product of their relationship, or if it’s a personal thing that needs to be worked through. And my answer for these people? Well, it’s messy.
Hear me out before you cast stones in my direction, please!
It’s messy because it’s all tangled up. Who’s to say that anxiety isn’t related to a person’s relationship, although maybe it was present and current issues are just exacerbating the symptoms? Who’s to say that the relationship isn’t in a developmentally normal downswing and that anxiety your client is dealing with is reflective of said downswing? Who’s to say that the anxiety isn’t a proverbial canary in the coalmine, indicating that something is off, but not pinpointing exactly what the issues are?
I stand by my statement – it’s messy. It’s messy because we have to not get wrapped up in a person’s anxiety, try to filter through their filters and help them piece together their puzzle, while at the same time remembering that relationships go through ups and downs and both are normal. It’s hard to be in our positions with relationship anxiety because, and this is just speculation, but our tendency is to want to alleviate the tension around what’s going on in a person’s life, not have them deconstruct the thing that seems to be causing them strife. Again, if a person is in a toxic relationship (i.e. abusive), then this blog isn’t even relevant – get that person to a safe place asap!
I think I’m writing this because I want us, as clinicians, to start to think about people coming in solo and talking about their relationship issues in a different way. My hope is that we’re able to start conceptualizing people through a lens of ‘relationship anxiety’ when relevant and, in doing so, help people address that rather than potentially end a good thing with a solid partner.
Tara Vossenkemper is an Assistant Professor and counselor educator with Central Methodist University, along with the founder and a practicing counselor with The Counseling Hub, LLC (located in Columbia, Mo). Tara specializes in working with relationships (using Gottman Method Couples Therapy), anxiety, existential issues, and spirituality. You can read more about Tara and The Counseling Hub at www.thecounselinghub.com.