Anxiety in Relationships: Does This Scenario Sound Familiar?
This post was written by Michael Villarreal, LCPC, an associate therapist at Couples Counseling Associates.
Often the spark that ignites tension in a relationship can be over something trivial. You might feel you’re fighting over such a minor issue: how can a conversation about something positive, trivial or minor result in 48 hours of disconnection? Anxiety in relationships—and how we processes these anxieties or communicate them to our partners—may surprise you.
If you notice recurring patterns of tension and disagreements that make you walk away, lash out, yell, shake, or sweat and result in hours, days, or weeks of emotional disconnection, read on.
This article might provide insight into common communication issues between you and your partner, the dynamics fueling the negative interaction patterns, as well as suggestions to support you and your practice of new responses to misunderstandings.
Take a moment to recall a recent misunderstanding between you and your partner. As you replay this recent fight, how did you respond during this argument? How did your partner respond? Did we get stuck in a vicious negative interaction pattern?
Relationships and Anxiety
Nervousness, distress, discomfort, worry, fear – yes, anxiety!
I tend to think it is our mind and body’s way of letting us know we are overwhelmed by the feelings and thoughts associated with our current interaction. The body is roaring, “Hello! A little help here!”
All individuals experience positive and negative anxiety.
Positive anxiety can motivate us to work toward a goal, prepare for an important exam or event, and serve as a great motivation for us to get into gear.
However, the negative impact of anxiety can be overwhelming and cause significant distress in our lives, the excessive worrying of achieving a particular goal, restlessness, difficulty concentrating, fear, irritability, avoidance, physiological responses, and for some – panic attacks.
What happens as your anxiety is activated? A part of you begins to feel threatened, worried, anxious, while another part of you wants to be protective and begins to lash out, and perhaps another part of you may want to run and hide. All the while, your emotions, and thoughts make you flooded as you attempt to explore ways to reduce the distress, often resulting in unhealthy response patterns, fueling your panic brain.
Our panicked brain leads to big blowouts, screaming matches, and that feedback loop leaves partners feeling frustrated, invalidated, devalued and disrespected.
A Real Example: Beth and Mark
For example, Beth and Mark (not their real names) are having dinner. Beth shares details from an almost perfect presentation this afternoon in front of her colleagues, and as she’s approaching her description of the highlights and praises she received, Mark begins scrolling through his phone.
Beth, unaware of Mark’s intention or the fact that Mark is under an urgent deadline, begins to feel deflated, ignored and unimportant. She begins to express her disappointment. However, Mark feels pressured; a tension between his work and to be present for his wife. He also feels attacked and a part of him begins to lash out toward Beth. After all, Beth should know he strives to be successful in his career; his success will benefit them and their children and he would have returned to the conversation after reviewing the email. Beth now shifts to expressing anger and frustration. Beth interprets his silence as withdrawal. This ignites a negative feedback loop!
Mark no longer feels pressure or anger. He feels shame, as well as regret that he did not tell Beth why he was looking at his phone. He retreats into further silence, perhaps attempts to walk away. His response now has escalated Beth’s hurt, leaving her feeling foolish for wanting to share her day with him, “He doesn’t care- about me.”
Mark remains silent in an attempt to avoid upsetting Beth further. While Beth tries to reduce her pain and hurt, Mark looks for a way out of his distress and wishes he were invisible.
Mark and Beth’s common response
Mark and Beth’s response to the tension between them is common. The presence of anxiety within relationships is inevitable. We want our relationships to be successful. The stakes are high! We want to express our needs, have them met, and, most importantly, we want to be understood and loved by our partner and those close to us. As misunderstandings occur, we rapidly begin to experience heightened symptoms of worry, anxiety, irritability, which can develop into a more heated discussion, tension, disagreement and all night blow out.
Perhaps Mark and Beth’s story resonates with the interactions you’ve experienced or witnessed.
Feeling interrupted might seem insignificant or unintentionally minimizing your partner might seem repairable. However, does it seem like these missteps trigger the same fight over and over again?
Let’s say that Beth has never felt deflated or unimportant around Mark. However, on this particular day, as she felt deflated, unimportant—as Mark checked his phone—Beth was unconsciously reminded of how she might have felt as a child. In a family of five, Beth often felt ignored, overlooked and minimized. She struggled to be heard and Mark’s response resurfaced all these feelings.
As the tensions escalated between her and Mark, Beth’s strong desire to reduce the anxiety, discomfort, and distress in the quickest way possible resulted in expressing anger, frustration and hurt.
If we continue to peel back the layers, we might also discover Mark’s shame is reminiscent of childhood experiences. Mark’s response to Beth parallels how he responded when he was “in trouble” as a child. For example, when he felt he let his parents down. He experienced significant discomfort during his adolescence as his mother reprimanded Mark’s rebelliousness.
Sure, Mark felt remorse, regret and responsibility. But discussions with his mother often resulted in profound shame and guilt. Mark felt he needed to strive for perfection in every way. Similar to his response to Beth, as a child, Mark would sink into his thoughts, internalize those feelings of shame, leading him to emotionally and sometimes physically retreat from conflict.
How can Mark and Beth break this feedback loop?
Raising awareness of your response patterns to anxiety can help you remain grounded as you navigate future relationship stressors.
As tension or arguments escalate, and partners experience anxiety, discomfort, a feeling of rejection, the responses tend to fall into two categories:
- One partner may attempt to alleviate this distress by seeking reassurance, increased support, a speedy resolution, maintaining constant communication, and at times responding in ways which are destructive to the relationship.
- While the other partner may attempt to alleviate the distress through detachment and avoidance, physically and emotionally removing themselves from the present situation. To reduce experiencing the negative emotions, this partner reduces communication, creates distance, and detaches in a manner which is also destructive to the relationship.
How to Explore Your Own Anxiety and Response(s)
By becoming more aware of your responses to anxiety within relationships and conflict, you and your partner can learn to resolve conflict more effectively. Below are some questions to help explore your awareness of your own anxiety, review a recent argument, and assess how you responded.
- How effective was I in remaining fully aware and present of what was happening?
- When did I pause to reflect on my emotions?
- As I responded, how did I maintain my emotional response directly related to that situation?
- At what point was I able to slow down and fully understand my partner’s message?
- How effective was I able to maintain respect, minimize my defensiveness, criticism, and contempt?
- At what point did I share my role or responsibility in our argument?
- When did I express gratitude to my partner for discussing this topic?
If you struggled to answer more than one of these questions, consider the further exploration of how you might respond as anxiety surfaces within your relationship.
Tips for the Future
- Practice a daily mindfulness exercise (Mind and Body awareness, breathing, guided meditation, guided imagery);
- Increase awareness of your emotions, how you express and regulate them;
- Observe how effectively and respectfully you express emotions to others;
- Learn about externalizing your anxiety;
- Express appreciation, admiration, and gratitude for your partner and the relationship you are cultivating;
- Request time out, even if you aren’t the one needing it;
- Verbalize your responsibility and role within conflicts as you become aware;
- Make an active effort to repair arguments and periods of disconnection;
- Give yourself grace, relationships are difficult, and all relationships experience differences, disagreements. You and your partner are exploring how to navigate relationship challenges effectively.
Mark and Beth were able to begin making small adjustments in their responses as conflict occurred, which resulted in seismic shifts in their ability to reduce the disconnections that once existed.
Within couples counseling, I work with partners to explore their anxieties, insecurities, and attachment injuries, influencing how they relate to one another. Each session equips partners to practice new skills, rediscovering their partner as a safe space to resolve differences in needs, wishes, desires, and values.
Individual counseling can also be effective in learning more about the origin of your anxiety and your response patterns as worry, tension, and discomfort arises.
Click on the link below to get started today.