Note: I first published this post in 2011 and it remains one of my most popular blog posts. I’m updating it now to include more relevant language and also concepts that have evolved in the last twelve years about relationship anxiety.
One of the most common questions I’m asked by people in committed relationships who are struggling with anxiety is:
What if I’m just convincing myself to stay? What if they’re a great partner but I just don’t really love them?
It’s a valid question, and here’s my answer:
Yes, it’s possible to convince yourself to stay with someone because they’re a great person. The question to ask is: How do you feel about them when your heart is open and you’re not in an anxious state? That’s the baseline barometer; anything else is what happens when fear is in the driver’s seat.
Fear is VERY convincing. It can tell you that you don’t really love them. It can tell you that you’re just convincing yourself. It feeds you culturally sanctioned lines like you should just know and that if you have to work this hard, it’s not really love.
Instead of asking if you really love them, some better questions to ask are: Do you like them (at least most of the time)? Is there a foundation of friendship. Love is such a loaded word in our culture. It connotes such terms as “feeling head over heels”, having butterflies, and “knowing that they’re The One.” Love, quite simply, implies a feeling, but real love and real attraction extend far beyond a fleeting feeling.
Here’s another way to ask the question: when your heart is open (fear isn’t in the driver’s seat), do you feel connected? Certainly you won’t connect to every person on the planet even when your heart is wide open. There are certain people that you will feel connected to, that you work well with, where there’s a certain ease and compatibility, and others where the chemistry just isn’t there.
Did the word “chemistry” just spike your anxiety? It’s another buzzword in our culture, and one that triggers many of my anxious clients and course participants. But I use is a bit differently than the mainstream usage. When I talk about chemistry, I ask my client or course participant this question: When you’re not anxious, are you drawn to your partner? Again, do you feel connected to them and do you enjoy spending time together? There are several wonderful threads on the Break Free From Relationship Anxiety E-Course forum on this exact word.
Even the word “connection” can mean different things to different people. ChristmasBride2006 wrote eloquently on this question in response to TrustandLove on the forum:
“Perhaps a good place to start is asking yourself “what is connection?” What is it? It’s an elusive term, like chemistry or even love. It means different things to different people. Is feeling connected an emotional state for you? When I think of being connected with my husband, the feeling usually happens when we’re “jiving” together, i.e. working together towards the same goal, being on the same wavelength about an issue, and so on. This is not a permanent emotional state; relationships are typically full of ups and downs. I do remember the first profound feeling I had after being engaged was not feeling “connected” to my fiancé. I remember telling Sheryl about this! It was like my ability to be emotionally on the same page as my husband had suddenly disappeared and I couldn’t find it, no matter how hard I tried. Kind of felt like there was this palpable wall of fear between us. It was a strange feeling and I sympathize with how you’re feeling now. It hurt, and it made me so sad.
“When I was engaged, I really had no clue if it was the right thing, and that feeling of “things suck but I definitely want to marry him” wasn’t really there. At times the only thing keeping me going forward was that I felt about a million times worse when I thought of calling it off. The thought of not being with him felt worse than any sort of fear or doubt I had during engagement.
“So to start, there are probably a few questions you can ask yourself. The first being, what does connection mean to you, and how might you create times where closeness can occur with your partner? What makes you feel loved, and how do you show love? (The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman is an excellent book on this). What is your expectation of the relationship in terms of being “connected?” Often – at least I found- my expectations of emotions in a relationship were totally off-base to the realities of a relationship; like, I should feel in love all the time or want to rip his clothes off every time I see him.
“Reality is, long-term relationships just don’t operate that way. Long-term relationships go through times of feeling close, and feeling distant. One day you might want to kiss him all over, the next day you want to rip his head off. This was HUGE for me to learn. I didn’t have to be feeling a certain way 100% of the time to know that our relationship was a great one.
“Sometimes when we try to force certain feelings, the more distant they become and the lack of the feeling is that much more exaggerated. I suppose you could say that your feeling of connection was my feeling of love while I was engaged. I was forever trying to figure out if I really loved my husband or not because I could not “feel” it. The simple (and not so simple) answer is to just stop searching for it. The deepest feelings of love, and deepest feelings of connection happen in the times we least expect it, when we’re not on the hunt for it and trying to force it to be there.”
Finally, the cut-through question when it comes to relationship anxiety is: “Is this someone with whom I can learn about love?” Relationships are an ever-evolving experience of learning about what love is and how exactly to give and receive love with this person who stands beside you, and fundamentally what you need is someone who will take the journey with you. The feelings will come and go. Attraction ebbs and flows. Looking for “certainty” is chasing a moving and elusive target. But when you step beyond the misguided precepts of the culture and look toward what those are steeped in the world of real love – as opposed to media love – know, you will see that as long as you have a steady, available, loving, honest partner, the roots of the anxiety live inside of you. And that’s where to place your attention.
Postscript to this post. I checked in with ChristmasBride2006 (yes, we’re still in touch!) and asked if she would be willing to share a brief update as I know how helpful it can be to hear from others who were struggling with relationship anxiety and made it through to the other side. Here’s her response: