Don't Worry, Mom

Coping with anxiety in families

Anxiety and Relationships Part 1: Kissing a Few Frogs

How dating turns us into worry warts.

One of the things that causes human beings the most anxiety is interpersonal relationships. It is one of the most common worry topics and the topic of hundreds of television shows and movies. 

When we are not in a romantic relationship, we worry about why we aren't in a relationship and whether we ever will be. When we start a relationship, we worry about whether the other person will like us and where it is going. When we are in the middle of a relationship, we worry that it will end. If it ends, we spend hours wondering why and trying to change ourselves to become someone new.  We get new haircuts or a new outfit, all with the idea of a fresh start. But as a part of that fresh start, we are hoping not only to change our appearance but also whatever core aspect of us led to the demise of the relationship. If the relationship doesn't end, we worry about when it will take the next step, and the step after that. Our anxiety causes us hours of unnecessary stress and often contributes to the very thing that we were worried about in the first place--problems within the relationship.

See All Stories In

Crazy Love

Some relationships just make you crazy.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

So why do relationships cause us such worry?  And if they cause so much stress, why do we want them so badly?

Relationships act as a mirror--reflecting our insecurities, mistakes, and unpleasant habits.  There is nothing more anxiety provoking than looking into a mirror and seeing yourself--not the you that is primped and pressed, but the naked you.  The you that you conceal each day when you go to work, order in a restaurant, and buy toothpaste at the store.  That person never passes gas or gets food stuck between her teeth.  That person would never sit by the phone waiting for someone to call.  That person never says anything inappropriate and never has dragon breath upon waking up. 

The problem is that relationships almost never go smoothly.  If you take two imperfect people who are trying desperately to appear perfect, there is almost no way that things can be anxiety-free.  Something is going to go wrong and lead to hours of stress for both parties. But it is that agony and stress that draws you in--for in that stress is the possibility for you to look in the mirror and see that your reflection is no longer a collection of oddities and insecurities, but just you.  A you that you accept as being okay just the way that you are as you realize that someone else has accepted you, and even embraced you.  But getting there takes a huge leap of faith--or about a hundred little leaps of faith as you slowly get to know and like yourself and  then allow someone else to get to know and hopefully like you.

Relationships are how we judge ourselves as having value as individuals.  It is what determines the "have's" and the "have-nots," and the reason for the war between the "singletons" and the "smug married people".  Relationships reflect our values, desires, and priorities in life--whether we are just looking for a good time or a lifetime.  Relationships provide us with eyes to see ourselves and often when we do that, we are not pleased with what we see.  Yet being seen is what we all desire--for someone to see past the facade and know the real you and have that be enough.

The process requires you to see the real you as well and have that be enough.  You must know yourself inside and out--your weaknesses and strengths and accept yourself unconditionally.  You must be open to recognizing your flaws without trying to change or hide them.  You must rip off the facade and be emotionally naked and then offer that to someone else.  And you must feel comfortable knowing that you are who you are--independent of whether the relationship moves forward or stalls out--what will not change is you.  It takes anxiety and hurt, self-reflection, and often many failed relationships to get there.  

But if you can do that--if you can work through your insecurities and self-hatred and genuinely accept who you are, the relationship feels so comfortable that it is like slipping on an old pair of slippers.  What is reflected back in the relationship mirror isn't the shiny you that you pretend to be or a collection of flaws that are only partially concealed.  Instead, you look at yourself and you are okay with the person looking back--flaws and all. The relationship anxiety has disappeared because your anxiety about yourself is gone.  Getting there is worth every second of agonizing over whether he will call, every devastating moment of disappointment and sadness when a relationship fails, and even kissing a few frogs along the way.

NEXT POST: PART TWO OF ANXIETY & RELATIONSHIPS.

Amy Przeworski, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of psychology at Case Western Reserve University and specializes in anxiety disorders in children, adolescents, and adults.

more...

Subscribe to Don't Worry, Mom

Current Issue

Just Say It

When and how should we open up to loved ones?