There is often a predictable arc to relationship anxiety that includes three stages.*

The first stage is characterized by typical symptoms of anxiety and panic:

  • Can’t sleep
  • Can’t eat
  • Tearful
  • Depressed
  • Bolting awake in the middle of the night
  • Difficulty functioning at work
  • Fluttering stomach
  • Racing heart

On a purely physiological level, we can’t maintain this state of high anxiety for very long. Eventually the alarm will simmer down to something that feels like calm. This isn’t the true calm that arrives after working long and hard facing our fears. Rather, it’s the calm that follows the dramatic and intense storm of the first stage. It’s where psyche and soma settle into a manageable state that might be characterized more by numbness or indifference than true calm. You can sleep now. You can eat. You can function. But you’re just not that excited about your relationship. At least when you were anxious, you could use the symptoms as evidence that you really cared.

As a reader commented on last week’s post:

I’m at a really strange stage in my journey. I feel this sort of calm, quiet, dull anxiety about my relationship. Does that count as relationship anxiety? It’s almost as if without the urgent, persistent, constant heartrending fear I’ve given up trying to fight the anxiety. I am very tired of it all and I just want to feel the solid consistency of the love I feel for this beautiful boy when my thoughts are clear.

It’s during this second stage that all of the ego lines flare into center stage:

  • You’re only with him because he makes you feel safe.
  • You don’t really have relationship anxiety; you just don’t want to be with her. 
  • Now that you’re calm, clearly this is evidence that your truth is that you want to leave. 
  • This wouldn’t be happening with someone else. You’re with the wrong partner.
  • You shouldn’t have to work this hard.
  • You’ve had doubt since day one. Just admit that this isn’t right.

What’s happening is that the projection that took root in stage one is now flowering into full bloom, and by projection I mean attaching to the belief that your partner is the source of your anxiety. Where the first stage is characterized by the physical aspects of anxiety, the second stage is informed by the constant mental chatter whose goal it is to prevent you from taking responsibility for your well-being and facing your fear of love. As long as you’re caught behind the wall of these incessant questions/projections, you will keep your partner at arm’s length. At arm’s length, your partner is safe. At arm’s length, your partner is on the other side of the net. At arm’s length, you don’t have step fully, naked and open-hearted, into the true risk of love.

Stage two is the hardest and longest stage of the work of breaking free from relationship anxiety. While fear pipes up with the above list of classic fear-lines, love says, “I don’t want to leave.” Fear will challenge all of love’s devotion with statements like, “You don’t want to leave because you’re scared to be alone,” and then love wavers. This is the battle between love and fear, and it can continue for a long time. It will continue, in fact, until you stop one day and say, with firmness and conviction, “This is mine. This anxiety lives inside of me. It predates this relationship and will show up with any available partner. I can keep blaming and projecting and running, but I will always end up in the same place until I take my scared, sad self in my arms and learn, probably for the first time in my life, what it means to love me.”

Once you shift from projection to responsibility, you enter the third stage, which is when the healing begins. For it’s only when you unhook from the story that your anxiety is a sign that you’re with the wrong partner and if you just left and found someone else you would be happy can you begin to take true responsibility for your inner states of suffering or well-being. In stage three, it’s not that you don’t get caught in a projection; it’s that you see it and name it for what it is and are able to quickly ask the questions that turn the microscope on your partner into a mirror faced toward yourself:

  • What are these thoughts preventing me from feelings?
  • Where am I off-kilter inside?
  • What am I afraid of?
  • What past hurts are causing me to block/judge/criticize my partner? 

It’s at this point that you realize that the anxiety is a gift, an emissary from deep inside carrying messages that will help you heal. When you banish, ignore, or misunderstand the anxiety, you miss this opportunity for growth. When you fall into the cultural mindset that says, “Doubt means don’t” or “True love is effortless” you will naturally assume that the anxiety – and the subsequent state of false calm – means that you have to leave. But when you hang on, do your inner work, and eventually arrive at stage three, you will look back on your journey and realize, with gratitude, what a gift you’ve been given. The gift, as always, is learning how to love deeply and devotedly: yourself, your partner, and beyond.

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* If your anxiety hasn’t followed this trajectory, your ego will want to use it evidence that you’re not really suffering from relationship anxiety but that this is your truth. Don’t let it! The ego loves to find loopholes so that it can avoid doing the hard and courageous work of learning how to dismantle fear walls and inherited patterns so that we can let love in.

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