Written by Hafsa Saleemi,
Medically reviewed by:
Steven Lucero, PHD, MBA
Assoc. Director of Therapy
If you spend a lot of time worrying about your relationship, or constantly questioning aspects of it, you may be experiencing relationship anxiety.
Technically, “relationship anxiety” is not a recognized mental health condition listed within the DSM-5. It may, however, be a sign of another anxiety disorder, such as generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety, or another condition (we’ll come back to this later).
It’s still okay to use the phrase “relationship anxiety” though, as what you are feeling is very real and worth examining. And if it’s causing you distress, which we’ll examine below, it’s something worth talking to a mental health professional about.
What is relationship anxiety?
Relationship anxiety (RA) is a feeling of spiraling worry, which leads an individual to seek constant comfort and reassurance from their partner. At first, this can feel reinforcing and validating, but it can quickly become problematic as it begins to dominate all interactions in the relationship.
Eventually, any expression of vulnerability will become a topic fraught with trust issues, which causes both partners to question the amount of mutual trust in the relationship. This causes the reassurance-seeking behavior to feel like a lack of trust to a partner, which leads to more reassurance-seeking and therefore confirmation that the partner lacks trust. It’s a vicious cycle.
Signs and symptoms of relationship anxiety
If you’re concerned you may have a tendency towards relationship anxiety, look for the following signs:
- Fear of intimacy
- Clinging behavior
- Frequent worry about the relationship
It’s not uncommon for relationship anxiety to cause one partner to project their worries onto the other partner’s behaviors.
Some amount of relationship anxiety is normal, even in a healthy relationship. But if the anxiety is disrupting your relationship, it may be time for couples therapy or other assistance.
Causes of relationship anxiety
Dealing with relationship anxiety often entails seeking and addressing the underlying cause. The anxiety may be influenced by any number of life circumstances, including:
- Previous relationship experiences
- Attachment issues
- Poor communication
- Money problems
- Frequent arguments
Sometimes therapy for relationship anxiety uncovers low self-esteem, confidence problems, past trauma, or family problems—all of which can cause someone to experience heightened anxiety. Other times it’s simply negative thoughts that create feelings of jealousy or anger.
Tips for overcoming relationship anxiety
It can be helpful to establish boundaries to clarify what level of reassurance-seeking is okay. For example, you and your partner should talk about how you both feel about knowing a partner’s plans when they go out with friends, and how many and what types of questions are ok to ask afterward. You should also discuss at what point the questioning begins to feel invasive or critical.
Keep in mind that there’s no “right” amount of question-asking and reassurance-seeking in a relationship. It’s vital that the couple finds the balance that works most effectively for them.
Getting over relationship anxiety also requires the partner that seeks out excessive amounts of reassurance to develop distress tolerance skills. This way, they can be aware of triggering thoughts, emotions, or situations that lead to them seeking out reassurance in the first place.
Then, they’ll need to identify methods that allow them to fulfill that need in more effective ways that don’t drive their partner away. This sometimes means they’ll have to experience periods of discomfort, as they adjust to not knowing as many details about what their significant other is doing.
There are times, however, when relationship anxiety is a sign of another form of anxiety. In this case, professional help is strongly recommended.
Other forms of anxiety
Some amount of anxiety is normal and actually helpful. If we didn’t feel any anxiety, after all, we wouldn’t feel motivated to perform at our best.
The anxiety performance curve indicates that there’s an optimum amount of anxiety to experience. With too little anxiety, we don’t adequately prepare and invest in the things that really matter to us. While too much can impair our functioning, so we don’t do as well as we would have otherwise.
Most types of anxiety share some similar characteristics:
- Thoughts: ruminating worry about how things could go wrong
- Feelings: specifically of being overwhelmed and fearful
- Physical sensations: increase in heart rate, knotting in your stomach, or the urge to simply “run” from the current situation
With that in mind, you should be on the lookout for signs of an anxiety disorder, because if these signs appear, it’s best to see a mental health professional as soon as you are able. Signs of an anxiety disorder include:
- Excessive worry for more days than not, for 6 months or more
- Inability to control the worry
- Easily fatigued
- Difficulty concentrating
- Muscle tension
- Sleep difficulties
- Clinically-significant impairment across multiple areas of life
Anxiety disorders can not be due to another disorder, medical condition, or substance abuse—as those are separate issues with resulting side effects.
You’ll need to talk to a mental health professional to get a diagnosis, but there are many types of anxiety disorders, including:
- Generalized anxiety disorder
- Social anxiety disorder
- Separation anxiety disorder
- Selective mutism
- Specific phobia
- Panic disorder
- Agoraphobia (can apply to any of these)
Can anxiety disorders be treated?
Of course. The great news about anxiety disorders, including relationship anxiety, is that they can often be successfully treated. So if you are feeling anxious, and especially if you are experiencing any of the symptoms that fall on the lists above, reach out to talk to someone.