Are you in an intense, passionate love affair with someone that’s bad for you but you can’t let go? Have you distanced yourself from a friend or family member because their roller-coaster relationship is exhausting and hard to watch? Why does a person insist they can’t live without someone who is clearly making them miserable?
Relationships Trigger Our Deepest Emotions
Love makes us vulnerable because we can’t easily hide who we are in a relationship. Our strengths, fears, and weaknesses are laid bare for the other to see. A nurturing, supportive relationship brings out the best in us and affirms our love-ability. Being vulnerable deepens our connection to the other person and creates trust, safety and security.
If our vulnerabilities are exploited and we aren’t respected or nurtured, we may simply choose to end the relationship.
For some of us, the lack of nurturing in the relationship triggers anxiety and feelings of unworthiness and unloveability. We double down on trying to make the relationship what we want so we can end the anxious feelings.
We believe our intense emotions are proof of our love and devotion. Although we may love the other person, the intense obsession is not love, it is anxiety.
What is Anxiety?
Anxiety is a thought disorder characterized by; self-doubt, excessive worry, irrational fears, self-consciousness, panic, compulsiveness, obsession, and a need for perfection in ourselves or others.
There are different types of anxiety: generalized anxiety, social anxiety, phobias, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), panic attacks, and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). If you are in an anxiety-producing relationship, you might have more than one type of anxiety.
Sometimes we have anxiety when we start a relationship and sometimes the instability in the relationship brings on anxiety if we are predisposed to it.
If you have anxiety going into the relationship, the other person may try to reassure you. However, constantly soothing someone else is exhausting, especially when it doesn’t have a lasting effect. You know your insecurity is taxing and this knowledge only increases your anxiety.
If your partner is supportive and attentive, they will try to reassure you as often as necessary. The goal however, is for you to learn to calm your own anxious thoughts and not depend on someone else to do it for you.
Unstable Relationships Can Trigger an Anxiety Disorder
Sometimes it is the relationship itself which is triggering the anxiety. Your partner may be intermittently affectionate, then cold and withholding. He or she may express ambivalence about the relationship, break-up with you then want you back, or cheat. He or she may be affectionate one minute then critical and demanding the next. He or she may constantly promise something (to leave spouse, make a commitment, quit drinking) then fail to deliver.
Unpredictability and inconsistency in any relationship can provoke anxious thoughts. While the other person’s behaviour may create instability in the relationship, our reaction is uniquely our own. While one person may have anxious thoughts, another person may develop a full-blown anxiety disorder. Our ability or inability to regulate our emotions and balance them with logic, determines our level of anxiety and how we choose to deal with it.
It’s normal for people to occasionally feel insecure or jealous in a relationship. If our feelings aren’t justified, we can usually talk ourselves through them with little difficulty. If the feelings are justified, we either fix the relationship or, if it’s not fixable, end it.
However, if we are extremely anxious, we get overwhelmed with our emotions and aren’t able to make a decision to leave the relationship, even if we know the relationship isn’t fixable or good for us.
What Does Relationship Anxiety Look Like?
If you have relationship anxiety you worry constantly that your partner will find someone else, cheat, or lose interest in you. You constantly worry about your behaviour, fearing anything less than perfect will cause your partner to leave you. You irrationally think that you couldn’t live without him or her, and could never love someone else. While you may outwardly accept much of the blame for what is wrong with the relationship you secretly blame the other person.
Your anxiety triggers obsessive, compulsive behaviour. You text or phone constantly then obsess about how long it takes your partner to get back to you. You spy or snoop, both looking for and dreading signs of cheating. You pay attention to how often your partner says “I love you,” and how often they kiss or hug you without you initiating it. You read meaning into everything, constantly analyzing what they do and say.
Your whole world revolves around trying to figure out how to change them or yourself so that you can get the love you believe you need.
If it’s Not Love, Why is it so Powerful?
The anxiety is so painful and the desire for love so powerful, that when you are given hope, you feel euphoric. You feel like you are walking on a cloud, believing that perhaps your pain will now end and all will be well.
The constant highs and lows makes it feel like you are in the most passionate, romantic relationship that ever existed. You crave reassurance from the other person like an addict craves heroin. Just like the addict, you are willing to do almost anything for it.
The feeling of euphoria may last an hour, a day, maybe even a week or two, but eventually you get disappointed or hurt again, and the obsessive thoughts return. You work frantically to get the euphoria back, often by trying to coerce your partner to act, feel, or think a certain way.
You simultaneously need and resent the other person; believing they are responsible for all your emotional pain. You don’t realize you cause the turmoil by your own irrational thoughts and anxiety, and the way you choose to deal with it.
While the other person may be disengaged or inconsistent, it’s your anxiety that keeps you obsessed with someone who can’t or won’t meet your emotional needs.
DBT Skill: Wise Mind
Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) helps people learn to understand and regulate their emotions by building Four Key Skills: Basic Mindfulness, Distress Tolerance, Emotion Regulation, and Interpersonal Relationship Skills.
If we are highly sensitive and have a history of constant and persistent invalidation, we often become phobic about emotional pain. We do everything we can to avoid it. The irony is, our inability to handle pain is what keeps us trapped in painful relationships; we don’t want to experience the pain of leaving.
Often it’s unresolved grief that keeps us in fear of pain. We have been hurt or rejected in the past and we crave a love so powerful it will heal our wounds. The other person dangles love like a carrot on a stick, never actually delivering the love which they promise.
It’s the inability to turn to yourself for comfort and support that keeps you seeking it from others. However, others are themselves imperfect and have needs and wants that may conflict with your own. They can never be there for you a hundred percent the way you want.
The only person who can ever be there for you completely, at all times, and in a compassionate, understanding way, is you. The more you depend on yourself for comfort and reassurance, the less dependent you will be on others and the less you will crave the perfect love.
In DBT, learning to regulate and soothe your own emotions so you can make good choices is called “finding your wise mind.” In wise mind your emotions guide you towards self-understanding and self-compassion. Your logic and gut instinct guides you towards rational thinking. When in balance, your emotions, logic, and gut instinct create your inner wisdom. When we are in wise mind, we make wise choices.
“When the world threatens to flood my barricades, I run to my centre, my calm, my bliss.” ~ Alison Stormwolf
To learn more about DBT and emotion regulation, or if you are interested in counselling services, please visit Validity Counselling's homepage,
Author: Jenny DeReis
Jenny is CEO and therapist at Validity Counselling in Prince George, BC. She has a Master's Degree in Counselling Psychology from the University of Calgary.
Jenny has intensive and advanced training in Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) from Dr. Charlie Swansen, author of several books on DBT . She has also received DBT training from the Behavior Tech Institute, and from DBT expert Sherri Van Dijk.