For anxious people, relationships can feel shaky even when they're actually stable
In the 2002 film Punch-Drunk Love, Adam Sandler plays Barry Egan, a single, 30-something living with severe social anxiety. His love interest, Lena Leonard, a divorcée played by Emily Watson, shows signs of anxiety and possibly depression, but carries herself with far greater self assurance than Barry does. They fall in love over the course of the movie, as couples tend to do.
The film’s climax sees Barry abandon Lena at a hospital, but just so he can settle a score against the band of thugs responsible for her injuries. When Barry tracks Lena down back at her apartment, he explains himself and declares, “I don’t ever want to be anywhere without you.” She forgives him, and before the flick cuts to credits, Lena embraces Barry from behind and whispers in his ear, “So here we go.”
It’s a beautiful ending, where audiences don’t have to consider how the relationship will actually play out. But if these were real people with anxiety disorders, wherever they’re going is sure to bring big challenges, because for people who manage anxiety, even the most secure relationships can feel precarious and dicey. In the mind of the anxious person especially, this idea of “finding the one” and “when you know, you just know,” reeks of bullsh*t.
“Anxiety can be pretty insidious for a lot of people,” says David Klemanski, an associate professor and director of behavioral health training at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center, who’s heavily researched anxiety disorders. “When I work with patients I always talk about anxiety being a bully. It hijacks their brain in some ways, and it’s controlling you rather than you controlling it.”
Among the ways anxiety — in its various forms — can “wreak havoc” on a relationship, Klemanski says there are two that are particularly impactful: Avoidance and over dependency. The anxious person will want to avoid “talk[ing] about how anxiety could be interfering with their own life, or with their partnership.” They’ll also depend on their partner for constant reassurance, “needing the other person to do some of the heavy lifting to make them feel better,” which can be exhausting.
Anxiety doesn’t have to reach disorder levels to impede a relationship’s development or affect its overall health, Klemanski says, and sometimes a couple doesn’t even realize how anxiety is injecting itself into its relationship. And even trying to help sometimes, can be tricky.
“What I often find is that spouses or partners [of an anxious person] tend to accommodate the anxiety,” Klemanski says. “They don’t always want to, but they tend to accommodate it because they don’t know how to help. They might overly reassure, they might do things that foster the anxiety being retained over time.”
Avoidance on the part of the anxious person and the extra effort required from out of their partner’s corner to mitigate their anxiety’s effects can create quite a divide. It could also make what would perhaps be an otherwise stable relationship seem unstable to the anxious person, and maybe even propel it toward a self-fulfilling prophecy of destruction.
Though relational anxiety builds itself up from very real incidents of abandonment, abuse, trauma, or even just harshly negative experiences with former partners, “The person on the other side starts to get worn out and resentful because their [anxious] partner is being really objectively unreasonable a lot of the time,” says Lisa Marie Bobby, founder and clinical director of Growing Self, a marriage-counseling and life-coaching clinic with several locations.
“Relationships are systemic. It’s not two people behaving independently, it’s how people react to each other. What you often see is that when one person is unrelentingly anxious, and the other partner’s attempts to soothe don’t really touch that, what will happen is that that other partner who was trying to be accommodating will not just give up but become resentful.”
There’s also a loss of empathy, Bobby adds, and the generating of a “negative narrative about their partner,” highlighted by thoughts like, “They’re always upset about something, they’re crazy, it doesn’t matter what I do.”
If the anxious person senses such distance, that could trigger concerns about the relationship’s viability — which might have already been in place even when things were going well. Anxiety typically spawns fear of the future in people, which can be detrimental to a relationship, as the anxious partner worries about the relationship’s long-term security. In a culture that puts such massive importance on finding a forever mate, the anxious person feels that much more pressure to make a relationship work in the face of such dread.
“What commonly happens is they can actually become very angry and seek to manage their anxiety through attempts to control their partner,” Bobby says. “If someone feels anxious, the internal emotional logic is: ‘I feel anxious because you are doing something or not doing something, therefore if I can get you to change, I will feel better.’” On the surface, this can ameliorate concerns about their relationship’s future — while, ironically, they’re likely dooming it anyway.
Scrolling through social media feeds doesn’t help the anxious person’s cause much either. On Facebook, Instagram, and the rest, “We get stuck in seeing how other people’s lives are playing out, and that can cause us to worry, ‘Is our relationship on par with our peers?’ ‘Should we be doing x, y, and z to keep up with them?’” Klemanski says. “That can create a level of anxiety and worry that hasn’t been present; we’ve never had to really deal with [that] in the history of our development as human beings.”
For the anxious person, independent of or alongside psychotherapy, and/or couple’s counseling as well, Klemanski prescribes mindfulness practices “to get a better sense of how to pause and pay attention to what you’re feeling, what you’re thinking.”
“Giving that some time to sort out is really going to be helpful in promoting self awareness and better awareness about the coupleship,” he adds.
Staying in the present is something people with anxiety in general could greatly benefit from, so Klemanski also says scheduling check-in times with your partner to talk about the state of your relationship will get you back into the present pretty quickly.
Still, it’s okay to have life goals that might include an exclusive partner and other plans. “There’s a paradox here,” Bobby says. “Anxious people, and really I think all people, need to have a general intention and goals for themselves — to be able to say, ‘I would like to be partnered/married, at some point,’ and have that as a value and a goal — but then really come back to … ‘How do I spend life in the present moment, take life as it comes, and not overthink things?’”
Fortunately for Sandler and Watson’s Punch-Drunk Love tandem, and all the other IRL couples confronting anxiety in their relationships, there’s hope ingrained in their couplehood’s very existence:
“People who are in committed or married relationships, there’s a protective factor that helps mental health,” Klemanski says. Though Klemanski stresses there certainly are exceptions, “single people tend to be a little bit lonelier and tend to have less immediate support.” Family members and friends can offer that support, but with the consistent presence of a romantic partner, mental health issues can be more readily addressed.
So, to all the single, anxious balls of skin, flesh, and tissue, keep swiping right or — God forbid — approach someone for a date in person. Just prepare to put a little extra self-reflective work and communication into your relationship.