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Coping with anxiety in families

Anxiety and Relationships Part 2: A Lover's Work Is Never Done

Why relationships are a full-time job.

After spending so many years looking for the right person most people expect the angst to be over once they are spending their life with "the one." Movies end with the groom kissing the bride and fairytales always end with the couple living happily ever after. But reality is far from a happy ending, leaving many people in commited relationships wondering if they missed their knight in shining armor and worrying about the ever after.

The thing about relationships is that the work of them is never done. A relationship is like a living and breathing organism--it requires nourishment to sustain. And like an organism, as it grows, what it needs to survive changes so you are constantly having to adjust what you do to keep it flourishing. These adjustments cause stress, anxiety, and often conflicts. And if you don't realize that these adjustments are perfectly normal, they may cause unnecessary worry as you wonder what's wrong with your relationship that you aren't living happily ever after.

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Adjustment problems, anxiety, and conflict are especially common after a change in the relationship--even a happy change, such as a wedding or the arrival of a baby. At these times the entire nature of your relationship changes — even if this was a much anticipated and happy change. And yes, even if you lived together prior to the marriage and thought that you were as good as married. 

The first year of a marriage is when you and your partner negotiate housework, responsibilities, finances, careers, and priorities. You may think that you already negotiated all of this but somehow, once it is "until death do us part" it all takes on a new meaning. Will I be the one doing the dishes for the rest of my life? Will my job ever take the priority? When did my money become my spouse's and will we stay afloat? What if this marriage fails?

At that point in a relationship, you are solidifying the creation of "the us." "The us" is a third party that is created when you and your partner merge. Part of creating "the us" involves giving up aspects of yourself--your own needs, desires, values, and plans for the good of the relationship. In doing so, you negotiate who sacrifices what and to what degree each partner sacrifices for "the us." You also take on additional responsibility. You are now partially responsible for the health of "the us." 

For so many of us who have lived our lives in the pursuit of our own goals and needs — who have been in charge of our own destiny and decisions, suddenly you must learn to think not of yourself, but of the unit. You must give up your expectations of what a committed relationship should look like and accept what it does look like. You must deconstruct the independent you so you can put yourself back together as part of an us. And you must do it all while maintaining the appearances of happy newliweds. Try doing that without stress!

At times, it feels as though it is all wrong and that the two of you will never climb out of the pit.  Something as inconsequential as a sink full of dirty dishes becomes a symbol of all that is wrong in the relationship and that old anxiety comes back. Will I end up alone? Was all of this a waste? Did I make the wrong choice? Am I unloveable? But if you can find the new you who is part of "the us" everything falls into place. 

What we are all looking for is to be a part of something bigger than ourselves--an integral part of a couple, family, or community. We all want to feel that we are not alone in the world but we spend so many years of our life becoming autonomous, that we often forget how to be part of something bigger than ourselves. Change and sacrifice are anxiety-provoking. Both require you to take a risk, and in doing so, you know that the pay-off can be huge and life-fulfilling or absolutely devastating. Few people enjoy taking such a risk and tolerating the uncertainty that follows it. 

When we live our lives as individuals, we feel that we have more control over our lives and therefore less anxiety. But in doing so, we forget how to grow and change as a unit. We forget how to be part of "the us" and we lose touch with the idea of a greater good because of our pursuit of our own needs. What if we all tried to think of the needs of "the us" once each day? Would we be happier in our relationships? Would divorce rates go down? Would we experience some initial anxiety but learn to tolerate taking risks and being vulnerable. Or have we lost the ability to be "an us" and we are destined to be alone? 

As a romantic, I still believe in fairytales — not the ones where everyone goes perfectly and we all live happily ever after, but the ones where if we truly love one another and want to be together forever, we make our relationship part of our daily work. And in doing so, we live mostly happily ever after. 

NEXT POST: ANXIETY AND RELATIONSHIPS PART 3: Rediscovering why part of the work should be play.

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.

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