I believe this anxiety reflects the nature of something called “choice overload,” a research-backed theory that in certain situations when people are presented with too many options, it can be harder to make or stick with a choice—and are less satisfied with that choice. Barry Schwartz, PhD, American psychologist and author of The Paradox of Choice, told The Guardian that this occurs because wit is easier to imagine that there is something (or someone) better when there are so many viable alternatives. In terms of dating, if there are lots of other potential partners just a few swipes away, it’s easy to wonder if the person you’re with truly is right for you.
To be clear, it’s totally normal to feel relationship anxiety every now and again. Committing to a person can bring up doubt and insecurity even if you’ve never opened a dating app. But while these feelings are worth investigating, they are not necessarily indicative of a problem in the relationship. The issue isn’t with asking any of these questions, it’s with attaching them to the belief that relational doubt means relational doom. Sometimes doubt is simply a reaction to the hard work required to maintain meaningful connection.
So, how can we tell if the relationship anxiety we are experiencing hints at issues in your current relationship, or are simply a natural response to living in a world with many options? Here are some questions to ask yourself to help you suss out whether what you're feeling is a legitimate doubt, or just the product of relationship anxiety.
5 questions to ask to help you deal with your relationship anxiety
1. Am I emotionally safe with this person?
To be emotionally safe, you must experience the feeling of being accepted for who you are and what you need. Your partner might not like all aspects of your identities or be able to meet every one of your needs, but to feel safe within a relationship requires that these parts are acknowledged, known, and received. (Important disclaimer: Emotional safety does not apply to abusive behaviors. If you are experiencing abuse, that is always grounds to end the relationship and seek personal safety.)
Don’t confuse feeling safe with feeling good all the time. But emotional safety does mean that you have the space to explore what doesn’t feel good and come up with a shared strategy for feeling more accepted (and therefore connected) in the relationship.
2. What is the frequency, duration, and intensity of my anxiety?
Start to track when the anxiety arises and how it shows up. Anxiety often appears when we perceive we are under threat, such as the threat of being hurt, left, used, taken advantage of, judged, or criticized. If you notice your anxiety leads you to making meaning out of an emotion—like “he isn’t paying attention to me, therefore I can find someone better out there”—it might be your attempt to seek relief in stressful moments, not a sign that your relationship should end.
Instead, become aware of the feeling you experience first (like sadness, anger, fear) that leads you to make a conclusion (for example, “this is the wrong person for me”). Now try to get to know that feeling: How long has it been here? When did it first appear? What is your earliest memory of experiencing this emotion? Then consider if the conclusion you’ve made is a response to the present relationship, or mirrors how you’ve reacted to big emotions in the past in order to stay safe in your formative prior relationships.
We don’t want to make decisions in a moment of fight, flight, or freeze, as these survival modes are indicators that we are seeking safety, not states when we can connect to our inner wisdom and what is ultimately right for ourselves. Instead ask yourself how you feel about the relationship when you're not in an anxious state? My clients often describe their intuitions as non-reactive, but rather subtle, calm and quiet; while anxiety prompts us to focus on avoiding a threat or insecurity.
3. Are your doubts or insecurities actually about you?
Sometimes we project our own worries or negative emotions onto others, because we don’t want to own them ourselves. Projecting can take the form of avoiding a feeling, belief, or judgment we have about ourselves by relocating it to someone else. It allows other people to be the “owners'' of our personal flaws, therefore distancing ourselves from having to acknowledge the things we do not like or things that don't feel good within us.
Consider if you have negative beliefs about your own enoughness that might be getting in the way of you accepting your partner and yourself. Can you be honest about these personal insecurities with your partner? Notice if taking responsibility for your own struggles shifts the dynamic, and therefore your feelings about your partnership. The more self-acceptance we are able to garner, the more accepting we are of the shortcomings of others.
4. What are my beliefs about conflict and struggle in relationships?
There is a misconception that we “should be happy” all the time in relationships, and that it’s your partner’s job to make us happy. If you hold fast to the belief that you wouldn't be struggling if you were with another person, you may be trying to relieve yourself of taking responsibility for your own role in the relationship’s challenges.
One person is not capable of meeting each of our needs. In fact, in all relationships there are always three sets of needs that may not be fulfilled at the same time: your needs, your partner's needs, and the relationship's needs. The most successful couples aren't necessarily the ones with the most in common or see things in the same way, but the ones who broker their differences with respect.
It can be helpful to ask yourself: “Can my wants and needs be seen and recognized by my partner, while being met outside of the partnership?” This question allows you to contemplate strengthening and leaning on other preexisting relationships in your life (including the one with yourself!), rather than looking for them to be met by a new romantic partner.
5. Have I sufficiently explored my worries and fears?
Oftentimes when we feel worried about being with the wrong person, we will jump to making meaning of our fears, versus getting to know them. It may sound counterintuitive, but the more we know about what scares us, the less of a chokehold it has on our lives.
Consider writing everything you know about your relationship anxiety: what it sounds like, what it’s afraid will happen, what it doesn’t like about your partner, what it hopes to find in another person, etc. Go toward the fear instead of planning an escape from it.
Sometimes relationship anxiety is rooted in fear of the unknown, fear of being hurt, or fear of losing ourselves. Get to know your particular shade of fear and stare it in the face. Ask it what it wants you to know, sit with it, and then once it’s sufficiently explored, decide what you want to do about it (if anything). We want fear to stay present because it protects us, but we do not want it to sit in the driver’s seat of our lives.
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