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Relationship Advice: Can Anxiety Destroy Relationships?

Anxiety can work in curious ways, and it will impact different relationships differently…
By Adam Segal
Dear Adam,
I really don’t want to lose this relationship that means so much to me. We’ve been together about five years and I really feel like I’ve met the love of my life. Two years into our relationship, I found out he’d had a one-nighter with a guy while away on business. I was so crushed at first, but I do have to say that he took full responsibility and reassured me that this was a mistake and that our relationship is the most important thing to him. We had several conversations about it at the time, and I gradually found myself forgiving him. At this point, I don’t feel scared that he doesn’t love me, but I realize how much that whole experience affected my self-esteem. I can’t shake the feeling that this wouldn’t have happened if I were more attractive. I’m checked out when we have sex and push away his compliments when he offers them. Before, I was so afraid that the betrayal would ruin our relationship, and now I’m afraid that my own anxiety will. I can’t seem to relax no matter how much I try to let go – how do I move on? —Flynn
Dear Flynn,
When something really painful happens, it’s tempting for us to obsessively try to figure it out and come up with a clear reason for it. Searching for a concrete cause offers us an illusion of control – which is really attractive after getting painfully blindsided. We think that if we could just pinpoint exactly what went wrong, then we could convince ourselves that by being hyper-vigilant, we could pre-empt anything crappy from happening to us again. The only problem is that this doesn’t work (you aren’t psychic) and supports an unhealthy notion that we can’t handle painful things when they do come up.
Your anxiety is clearly exhausting you and infiltrating your connection with your guy – which is the last thing you want. It would be easy to fight your anxiety or try to arm-wrestle it into submission. But not only does that not seem to be working, it might be adding to your frustration. Instead, what if you could see your anxiety as a benevolent force that is trying to protect you from any further pain or feelings of inadequacy? Sure, this force isn’t actually serving you so well, but if you could see it as having good intentions but poor execution, you might just feel less controlled by it.
The insecurities and body-image woes that have been stirred up are perfectly normal in this situation. However, the notion that being better-looking would somehow vaccinate you against betrayal is all part of the same scheme to gain control over what is essentially the messiness of human life. Rather than focusing endlessly on how more hurt could be on the horizon, see if you can fully acknowledge the ways you have been able to get through this and other anguished life moments. Doing this will remind you that bracing for imagined future hurts is pointless because you already have the skills to cope when tough things actually happen.

ADAM SEGAL, writer and therapist, works in private practice in downtown Toronto. Ask him your relationship or mental-health questions at @relationship@inmagazine.

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