A Major Relationship Pitfall that People Don’t Discuss

by | Mar 31, 2024 | Break Free From Relationship Anxiety | 40 comments

We carry so many faulty beliefs and expectations about romantic love.

Thanks to Hollywood and Disney, we carry an expectation that love should be easy.

We think we should meet, fall in love, and live happily ever after.

We think that arguing is a red flag and evidence of incompatibility.

We think that sex should be effortless.

But the truth is that true love is a slow-growing evolution.

It takes several years, if not decades, to unravel the inner knots that create ruptures and learn each other’s maps back to love.

Where does relationship anxiety fit into these faulty beliefs?

When things get hard, the anxious mind is quick to think, “I must be with the wrong partner. If I was with the right person, we wouldn’t be arguing right now.”

This is anxiety’s attempt to keep you safe and protect you from hurt. If you bite the carrot and fall down the rabbit hole of the thought that you’re with the wrong person, you will get stuck in your head, which protects you from the pain in your heart. Busy mind protects the vulnerable heart. 

The truth is that it’s impossible to be in a romantic relationship (or any relationship) without hurting each other. You will bump up against each other’s raw spots, and sometimes this bump will be a trauma collision.

The only way to keep the heart protected from hurt is to avoid relationships altogether,

Relationship anxiety says, “I wouldn’t be feeling this way with someone else,”

Correct. You might not be feeling this exact form of hurt, but you would be feeling a different hurt.

Why?

Because there is no way to be in intimate relationship with someone and stay connected every second of every day. And as soon as our defenses show up – as soon as we lash out in blame/anger or withdraw – we disconnect and both people are hurting.

Even if you haven’t encountered these painful moments yet, you know they’re waiting in the wings. We know that love hurts because we’ve either been in other love relationships that caused hurt or we witnessed it in the relationships we grew up in. This is why relationship anxiety can show up on the first date. The heart knows that hurt is inevitable.

And that’s when the mind enters to protect the heart. Intrusive thoughts are nothing more than convincing attempts to stay safe.

This is why my cut-through question for relationship anxiety is, “What is this thought protecting me from feeling?”

It can take years to iron out these rough spots in a relationship. Sometimes it takes decades. This is what people don’t talk about. Because we think that love should be easy and we take distance or arguing as evidence of mismatch, it’s frightfully tempting to fall down the hole of anxiety as soon as the hard stuff shows up.

But, it’s exactly that hard stuff that provides the grist for the mill that widens the capacity of our hearts to love and be loved. If only our culture taught this truth about relationships, we would have a much easier time when fear and loneliness arrive.

For those of you in long-term relationships, how long did it take to find more ease and stride with each other? Not 100% perfect ease; that’s not possible! But a more easeful place between the two of you and within each of you as individuals. In my own marriage, it took about ten years for the first level of ease, and twenty years for deeper ease and longer periods of sustained intimacy. Can’t wait to see what thirty years looks like!

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40 Comments

  1. I’m ten years into my relationship, six years into my marriage. I would say it took around three years for the intrusive thought ‘do I love her?’ to seep away. I was hugely anxious prior to marrying my partner, but I would say that taking the leap into marriage was the best thing I could have done for my RA – denying myself an exit route was, in my case, hugely helpful. Indeed, it was a necessary step on my path to wellness.

    However, I don’t really think this is a path that has an ending. For me at least, RA isn’t something that has truly disappeared, I’ve just found more healthy ways to live with it. It really is a life’s work. And I know for a fact that the focus of my anxiety leaps around. Recognising this helps me realise that the problem is *not*, and never has been, with my partner – my anxiety will find anywhere it chooses to hand its hat.

    On a positive note, I feel more ‘in love’ with my partner now, after ten years, than I was at any point in the early days of our relationship. The less you stop expecting to feel a certain way, and the more you concentrate on loving actions and behaviour, the more the feelings will rise up of their own accord. That has been my experience anyway. I hope this helps.

    Reply
    • Beautiful and wise, as always, Joshua. You a highly valued member of this community. I hope you know that.

      And yes: the “goal” (if we can phrase it that way) with any form of anxiety isn’t to “get rid of it.” That would be nice, but it’s not actually possible, as anxiety is part of being human. The goal, as you say, is to learn healthier ways of meeting the anxiety and working with it so that it doesn’t occupy the driver’s seat in our life.

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    • Such a beautiful comment.. Thank you for this. I have been an avid follower of Sheryl and Conscious Transitions for 9 years now. I did the conscious weddings course and I truly will tell anyone who ask that is one of the reasons I was able to move through into my marriage now… I was so anxious to commit to marriage, my husband is so calm, our relationship is so peaceful that sometimes I question if this is- “enough” or “right”. After conscious weddings course I have spent the last 5 years in a beautiful harmony of not questioning our relationship until recently when lifes stressors have made me begin to pick at our relationship. Not because of my spouse but because in this season I don’t ” feel love”. So I so resonate with the idea that this will be a work for the rest of my life off and on to realize that love isn’t always a feeling. That sometimes having a grounded, calm relationship may actually feel boring but that doesn’t mean that I need to run…. But my anxiety patterns tell me that despite the fact I know better. Thank you for all you do Sheryl and for this community.

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      • Thank you for chiming in, Katie. There’s so much wisdom in your comment. ❤️❤️❤️

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  2. I am almost going through this period of intrusive thoughts where i feel ‘do i really love him’? After two years of relationship this self doubt occurred and i am daily fighting with my mind about how i really want to be with him because i want a future with him..
    He is really calm abt this situstion but i really want this phase to pass soon, i used to think that i am the only person who is so unsure because i have seen people doubting their partner but in my case i am doubting myself which is directly making me doubt him too…i am glad i saw the perfect article in my feed and at 4:30 am in the morning this did make me feel better.

    Reply
    • I’m glad the post alleviated some anxiety, and I assure you that your current intrusive thought is textbook relationship anxiety.

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  3. Currently trying to find my stride. I’ve been with my partner for 2 years, 5 months married. I find a lot of solace in your work but one thing that keeps me from being confident that I can work through my RA is when you talk about connection. I’ve had pockets of feeling like my partner was “home” or that I’m naturally just drawn to him but more often than not I don’t. I’m not sure if my RA and glass half empty mentally about him over the 2 years has contributed, but the way you describe that feeling of natural likeness and closeness I’m not sure I have that. My partner is great and everything you describe as a great partner and I love him but I still seem to question my decision

    Reply
    • “Connection” is a tricky one for people with relationship anxiety for several reasons, which I can list here. But it’s going to be more productive if I pose the hook back to you instead of giving you reassurance ;). How might you respond to your own comment from your Wise Self?

      Reply
      • I would say that when I’m not anxious and stuck in a projection it’s easier for me to feel close and connected even “drawn” to my husband. I would say I do have a connection, I just can’t feel it under those circumstances. The moments I was free of all those painful feelings I could see it. They come and go rather quickly. That’s what scares me. I’ve also learned that my anxiety manifests into irritation towards my partner. Who can feel connection when you’re constantly irritated/anxious?

        I appreciate you making me dig deep and seek validation from myself, but my confirmation bias makes it so hard to believe myself sometimes.

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        • Thank you for responding, Jasmine. There’s your Wise Self, just a question away.

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      • Thank you for this post. I imagine that those who’ve reached a level of deeper ease may not be reading these posts of late? That said, if anyone IS reading and in a Place of deeper ease, I’d love to hear their story.

        I’ve been with my partner for 2.5 years. We have argued a good deal lately, and it’s hard to fight the negative spiraling that seems to occur lately. We both have very much wanted to work on it, but hurtful things can be said – often without apologies afterwards- and there’s a good deal of not feeling terribly emotionally safe in between quieter periods of calm. I worry about this. Lately many parts about me irritate her deeply, and I often feel that they aren’t things that I can change. We are very different in our emotional needs, and in our cultural background and communication styles. Lately she gets moody or angry with me often, and it can feel quite hurtful, triggering my anxieties further.

        Is there such thing as too tumultuous, or a particular moment when one – should- call it quits, even if committed? I know that shoulds aren’t ideal.

        If there are red flags, I’m unsure, but I sometimes wonder if there are some around:
        — need to make decisions solo, instead of collaboratively
        — blaming the other for, instead of taking ownership of, intense feelings
        — need for much alone time as a single person (or, just a high high amount of introvert time)
        — feeling mutually intermittently emotionally scared to say the wrong thing for fear of the other’s irritation or anxiety

        Reply
        • Is it possible to find flow and calm in a relationship, if caught in frustrating spirals that both partners want to change but struggle to change?

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          • That’s where couples therapy comes in. I highly recommend EFT, and starting by reading Sue Johnson’s book “Hold Me Tight” (if you haven’t already).

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            • Thank you, Sheryl. Yes, we are starting EFT this week, have worked on Why Talking is Not Enough, and I am currently reading Hold Me Tight.

              I have a deep desire right now to be affirmed and am trying to affirm myself: “you’re doing your best. You’re doing everything you can, even if imperfectly. You mean 100% well, even when you fall short.”

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  4. I know this is probably my autistic brain worrying this doesn’t count, but I’m potentially about the enter a roommate situation with a friend- a really close friend- and I can honestly say the possibility of conflict really does scare me. I mean I’ve been in DBT and other therapy for awhile learning how to have healthy conflict, but I did not see positive examples of conflict growing up. It was always a HUGE deal! It makes me fear that any conflict is going to be the end of a friendship.

    Reply
    • That’s an understandable fear, Riley. Most people who find their way to my work are conflict-averse. It might be helpful to remember that 50% of relationships are repair, which means that we’re often going through rupture-repair cycles. This is often much less in friendship, but of course when you’re living together conflict can arise more often. I’m proud of you for getting your own place!

      Reply
  5. Thank you for this, Sheryl. I’m 1.5 years in with my beautiful partner, and we definitely struggle — sex has been so so hard for us (despite us both feeling attracted to each other and deeply wanting it!). We also just have different styles of intimacy and amounts we want and need — I’m a “let’s look deeply into each other’s eyes for hours” girl, and he prefers watching movies together and keeping things more lighthearted, which triggers all my painful childhood emotional neglect stuff.

    I guess my point is: we spend so much time and energy in conflict — not exactly fighting, just feeling disconnected and collapsed in trauma collisions, despite loving each other very VERY much. Of course my RA pipes up and worries we’re just “not compatible” and I’m “never going to get my needs met” and all those things, because it feels scarily like childhood.

    But the difference is we really are both willing to work on it and we communicate and are in the trenches together. Hearing you say these things — that it can take years or decades to iron out these spots and learn each other’s “maps back to love” and find ease together — is such a balm on my heart. Thank you, truly 💙💙💙💙💙

    Reply
    • I’m so glad the post is a balm, Sophia. It really can take years and years to find ease together for most couples. ❤️❤️❤️

      Reply
  6. Hey Sheryl. I am in a relationship with a man with high Functioning autism. He struggles to even comprehend communication and emotions on the same level as me and this is really causing me to feel disconnected and alone. He accepts me for who I am and doesn’t want me to change, he’s a good man. But I’m lost at this disconnect and not feeling understood. I’m just lost

    Reply
    • I encourage you to see a couples therapist who specializes in working with an autistic partner. Your loneliness makes sense, and working with someone who specializes in this might allow both of you to feel more connected.

      Reply
  7. Hi everyone,
    It took me 11-12 years to get to the “easier” stage of my relationship with my husband. This included four years of couples therapy and miles and miles of Sheryl’s incredibly wise posts read at silly hours in the night 🙂
    Looking back, I’ve had it all – I doubted myself (“do I REALLY love him? Am I really attracted to him?”), I doubted him (“is he funny and adventurous enough?”), I doubted us (“we are from very different cultures and are totally different people emotionally”, “do we have a connection?”). I would wake up in the night with the feeling of some black mass over my chest and I couldn’t breathe. The night he proposed I cried alone when he fell asleep..
    Now after more than 12 years of relationship and 6 years of marriage I can confidently say that I’m with the most amazing partner, I love him VERY much and I couldn’t be happier about my decision to stick around.
    What really helped me was: Sheryl’s posts (seriously, I can’t thank you enough – it’s as if you were reading my mind!!) and couple’s therapy where I really learned to appreciate that he is also human with his own needs and fears, and we can both work on soothing our own and each other’s underlying triggers through loving actions. And then you realise that most of the time it’s the fear talking rather than your “inner truth”.
    As Sheryl says, “what does this thought protect you from?”.
    It’s still not perfect (and it will never be!). I’m still struggling with our sex life (keep looking for that “fire”), but I now also understand that I first need to find it within myself and not put this responsibility on my husband. So it’s still a bit of a struggle, but I’m much calmer knowing how much progress I’ve already made, and I’m confident it will get only better from here!
    So yes, I’m so happy I have my partner, I do love him dearly and I am looking forward to even more closeness in the future. So if you are struggling, hang in there, it will get better!!

    Reply
    • I love this comment so so so much, and wish you nothing but the best! So proud to see you grow (without knowing you), I have deep respect for your journey ♥️

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    • Thank you for sharing this, Kateryna! I’m glad to hear that your work and time together has brought you to a deeper level of calm and joy.

      Out of curiosity, was there anything that you and/or your partner did that helped diminish the anxiety and increase the sense of safety / calm / flow?

      Reply
    • Thank you for your very beautiful comment, Kateryna! I can hear your growth and wisdom emanating through your words, and, as you can see, they’re a lifeline for others. Thank you!

      Reply
  8. for me I had anxiety in the beginning but not too much, but after many years rocd kicked in after a fight and comes back from time to time. In between I am happy and do not doubt. But since I got pregnant it es back with a vengeance…after 13 years with him! too sad about it, but after working and therapy at least I can function again and am not plagued with anxiety and panic all the time 24/7. which kinda scares me because I am still kinda easily annoyed and feel disconnected… which makes it feel like it is doomed and I can never get back. but I can also see that the last months were not easy in pregnancy with a whole lot of horrible and strong symptoms and my partner got also sick during this time and is homebound due to this, so because I am working from home or normal days changed and stuff which also effects me after many weeks. still I think I should not be annoyed, disconnected or doubt, but should just be happy that we will finally welcome our baby this summer..

    Reply
  9. I love this question! I’ve been with my husband for ten years, married for two and a half now 🙂 I have to say, hitting the ten year mark recently has felt quite incredible because we were able to look back and see just how many fires we have walked through together, with our transitions both as a couple and in our personal transitions where we have held space for each other to do our individual work.

    I really do think that some of the ease we are currently experiencing is simply because we have walked across so many thresholds with all of the feelings, losses and rebirths we have shared. Whether it was in the realm of the wedding transition, career transitions, big house and city moves and now as we walk towards parenthood together, it’s almost like ease and increased trust have become inevitable byproducts of those things.

    I had crippling RA about four years in after we got engaged and it was truly the biggest initiation of my life. It led to five or six years of really powerful inner work, that is ongoing today. I found that anxiety just kept me so frozen, so afraid to move forward because I was so scared of the vulnerability of being in relationship. And yet, taking those steps, those actions to just keep moving forward in my relationship and my life in spite of all of the fear has helped me to arrive at this place now.

    I remember Sheryl writing years ago that it takes couples ten years to really get to know each other and I was both terrified and relieved by that fact: it seems like a desperately long time, but then so much can happen in that time to bring you closer along with all of the fear warrior work that we’ve both had to do. Now, for me, it feels like ten years is only the start!

    I know that there is a hell of a lot more to come and I am so aware that there will be more work to do as and when it is needed. Relationships and life are never straightforward! But, yes, right now, I can look back and feel so grateful for staying, for committing to doing my work and, ultimately, for committing wholeheartedly to our relationship and kind of making sure that whatever we do, all roads lead back to us (if that makes sense!)

    Sending much love to this amazing community x

    Reply
    • This is all so beautiful Elizabeth, especially this:

      ” can look back and feel so grateful for staying, for committing to doing my work and, ultimately, for committing wholeheartedly to our relationship and kind of making sure that whatever we do, all roads lead back to us (if that makes sense!)”

      YES that makes perfect sense! It’s putting each other first while also tending to our own inner work. Commitment is KEY.

      Reply
  10. I have spent a lot of time learning about mbti and have used that knowledge to better understand my boyfriend and his needs. There is the infamous online test that people take, but mbti is actually way more nuanced. It is a theory (not science) about the different ways of thinking and feeling. I found that it helped me a lot to value our differences and talk to eachother in a way the other one actually understands. There are still many bumps on the road, but now I have an easier time understanding them and figuring out ways to make our life easier – adjusted to both our needs.

    Reply
    • Just wanted to say that MBTI has been so helpful for my husband and I too! It really took me out of this very ego-driven way of expecting my husband to be just like me. It’s really helped me to honour him. And I totally agree, MBTI is so much more than the famous quiz online!

      Reply
  11. “What is this thought protecting me from feeling?”

    I know it’s protecting me from feeling like I have no control over life. Now what do I DO with that knowledge?

    Reply
    • How might you respond to your question from your own Wise Self?

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      • I literally do not know so am asking you for guidance.

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        • Consider healthy ways to respond to the reality that there is very little that we can control, and the groundlessness that that makes us feel. How do you find healthy ground? Some common ways are: in nature, music, dance, prayer, in community, poetry.

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          • This helps-thank you.

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    • Hi Sheryl and community, this article was so helpful for me last night as I was in the midst of a lot of pain and fear. I felt less alone.

      I have been married for 5 years and still struggle with anxiety. I have done lots of inner work and I am aware of my wounds around abandonment and enmeshment. I am aware of how I have behaved in ways that have resulted in me being enmeshed with my husband, lost of self, which has only created more anxiety and depression.

      I am at a point where I KNOW what needs to change but feel so stuck in taking those steps because I am scared of it, I am scared of feeling alive, of going out in the world and meeting new people. I notice this lack fo self trust that I will just be alured by the next shiny person and will leave my husband because of the way things feel between us, trauma collisions that I think we can explore in EFT based on what I have read.

      I want to get to the other side with him and I want to find peace in my own inner gold, but I am struggling to shift this mindset/belief/intense fear and stay in the same behaviors because I want to protect my marriage.

      What could help me shift this?

      Reply
  12. It’s a work in progress for me. I’ve had some form of relationship anxiety from the beginning of my marriage but that was mostly due to bringing a porn/sex addiction into the marriage and struggling to find my wife sexually attractive. I continued the addiction for the first 8 years but then finally started to address it with therapy and focusing on improving the intimacy with my wife a few years ago. It’s been 2 steps forward one step back with the progress. This year I started working through the relationship anxiety course and have learned a lot. I have also learned a lot from your weekly emails. I still struggle with the anxiety. I have to rid myself of the belief that I would be happier with a “more attractive” woman and accept responsibility for my issues. My wife is amazing – she continues to love and support me unconditionally. My mantra has been to chose love over fear. And that marriage, like life, is a marathon, not a sprint.

    Reply
    • I’m so glad you’re here, Jonathan. It sounds like you’ve done an enormous amount of growth over the past several years – and yes, it’s always two steps forwards and one back. Growth is never linear. And marriage is, indeed, a sprint!

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  13. Thank you, Sheryl for this beautiful reminder! I struggled with RA for most of my husband’s and my years dating and since being married almost 5 years now, things have been better, but I recently had a resurgence of anxiety. It’s taken a few different forms, including some of the usual RA intrusive thoughts, but recently it’s also taken a form of comparing my relationship to other couple’s relationships and thinking we don’t look like we’re as in love or as “good” as other couples are. Just reading through some of these comments from other people with similar struggles has been so affirming and reassuring! Thank you for sharing your struggles so I know that I’m not alone!!

    Reply
    • You definitely are NOT alone, Rebecca, and I’m so glad that reading through the comments has helped you to know that! ❤️🙏🏽

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  14. Hi Sheryl and community, this article was so helpful for me last night as I was in the midst of a lot of pain and fear. I felt less alone.

    I have been married for 5 years and still struggle with anxiety. I have done lots of inner work and I am aware of my wounds around abandonment and enmeshment. I am aware of how I have behaved in ways that have resulted in me being enmeshed with my husband, lost of self, which has only created more anxiety and depression.

    I am at a point where I KNOW what needs to change but feel so stuck in taking those steps because I am scared of it, I am scared of feeling alive, of going out in the world and meeting new people. I notice this lack fo self trust that I will just be alured by the next shiny person and will leave my husband because of the way things feel between us, trauma collisions that I think we can explore in EFT based on what I have read.

    I want to get to the other side with him and I want to find peace in my own inner gold, but I am struggling to shift this mindset/belief/intense fear and stay in the same behaviors because I want to protect my marriage.

    What could help me shift this? (Already doing your self trust course, an relationship anxiety course with a coach)

    Reply

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