I was jolted awake by a thought: “You have to break up with your boyfriend. Today.” I moved through my day in a fog, replaying the thought over and over, barely focusing on my graduate school classes. As I rehearsed the inevitable break-up speech, my skin would feel hot and my heart would start pounding. Some days, the anxiety got so bad that it would lead to hot flashes and even panic attacks. And yet, despite all the physical and emotional discomfort, something kept me from breaking up with him. The voice was very small compared to the incessant demands of my anxious mind, but it was constant. “Why?” It simply asked, “Why break up with someone you love?”
Relationship anxiety, as the name implies, is anxiety that fixates on romantic partnerships. Mainstream advice dictates that feeling anxiety in a relationship means something is wrong. I agree with this advice, but with one major caveat: Something is certainly wrong, but it might not be the relationship. You can always leave your partner, but if the anxiety stems from something deeper, it’s going to come back the next time around. Eventually, you’re going to have to face the anxiety.
My Experience with Facing Relationship Anxiety
In my case, the process of facing my anxiety took two full years. Frantic googling led me to the work of Sheryl Paul and I took her online course. Yes, it was cheesy, but it was also incredibly helpful. I learned that fear of the unknown, trauma, and even fear of love itself are major causes of anxiety in relationships. Eventually, I found my own therapist and together we started to peel back the layers of my anxious mind. I even went on medication for a while, which was useful in managing my symptoms while I got myself sorted out.
Most importantly, for me at least, I prayed a lot. I asked God to give me peace and clarity, and eventually, He did. The clarity didn’t come in the form of an answer, but rather in the form of self-trust. I trusted myself to make a good decision about who I wanted to marry and when. I stopped obsessing over “what-ifs” and started embracing possibilities. Eventually, I married that boyfriend. And I’m so glad I did.
How Do You Know If Anxiety Means that There’s Something Wrong in the Relationship?
So, how do you determine if your anxiety is an indicator of something wrong in your relationship or of something deeper?
The first and most important step is to determine any signs of abuse.
Do you walk on eggshells around your partner? Does he make you feel unsafe or belittle you? Can you trust him to be faithful? Or, to borrow a phrase from Sheryl Paul, “Is he more interested in controlling you than loving you?” If the answer to any of these questions is yes, your anxiety is probably telling you to walk away.
Differences in values are the next major deal breaker for most people.
He might genuinely be a wonderful person and you might genuinely be in love, but misaligned values will sound alarm bells in your head. While it’s okay to disagree with your partner, even about important things, you need to be able to respect each other’s perspectives. If your partner looks down on important aspects of your core self, such as your faith, it might be time to walk away. As sad as these situations are, it’s far better to acknowledge incompatibility now than to marry someone who doesn’t share your values.
But what if none of these things is the problem?
In that case, congratulations! It’s time to do a deeper dive into yourself. This is a daunting yet rewarding task that will benefit you in ways well beyond your romantic relationship.
After a lot of work, I discovered that my anxious feelings were rooted in a deep fear of emotional intimacy, risk, and failure. Having a deeper understanding of myself has allowed me to be not only a better wife, but also a better friend and a better artist. I have the immense privilege of loving fearlessly and without restraint, and I never would have gotten there without working through my anxiety.
Here Are Three Pieces of Advice If You’re Facing Relationship Anxiety
If you’re in the crux of ambivalence about a relationship, know that it does get better. In the meantime, here are three pieces of advice from someone who has been there and gotten through it:
1. Try to get to a place of calm before assessing your emotions.
In my case, I often felt like I had "fallen out of love" because my intense anxiety blocked any positive feelings I had. When I was calm, however, I felt so much love. Trust that the feelings you have when calm are the true ones.
2. Get comfortable with the risk of loss and the fear of failure.
No matter how committed you are to marriage, no one can see the future. (If that statement gives you anxiety, it's okay.) Trust that God has a plan for you and your partner, and that He will hold you both in His arms throughout your lives.
3. Remember that real love is not only an emotion.
True love is about choices, shared values, and mutual support.
No one can tell for sure if the relationship you’re in is the right one for you. In fact, there is no one right relationship. Marriage, after all, isn’t about picking the perfect person. It’s a lifelong journey of learning how to love. Let your questions be the first step on that journey.