The title of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s book Love in the Time of Cholera keeps popping into my head. It’s been years since I’ve read the book and it likely bears little resemblance to what is currently sweeping the globe, but nevertheless when a title embeds itself into my psyche like a song on repeat I know that it comes bearing wisdom. And when I stop for a moment, the wisdom is clear: Our relationship dynamics are being highlighted during this unprecedented situation that is requiring couples to spend more time together than ever.
I’m seeing three dynamics unfold (and of course many variations in between):
1. Relationship Anxiety is Amplified.
For those of you who struggle with relationship anxiety, you may be noticing an uptick in your intrusive thoughts, irritation and projections right now. First off, know that you’re not alone; I’ve been hearing from readers, clients, course members, and followers frequently over the last two weeks talking about their increase in relationship anxiety.
Remember that anxiety is a messenger alerting us to inner worlds that need attention, so every time your projections arise it’s an indicator that there’s an uncomfortable feeling or need you’re trying to avoid. The following are inner states that you may be protecting from right now:
• The Fear of Loss: If you’re a highly sensitive person, you’re likely quite familiar with the fear of loss that lives at the core of relationship anxiety, but it will no doubt be heightened during this time. If you can spiral down out of the head space of intrusive thoughts and bring the focus of your attention back to you – replacing the magnifying glass with the mirror – you will likely touch down into the heart of your vulnerability. From this space you can say, “The problem isn’t my partner. The problem is how much I love my partner and I’m so afraid of losing them.”
The fear of loss can also manifest during this pandemic as an increase in other coping mechanisms other than relationship anxiety, like compulsions around cleanliness. If you and your partner aren’t on the same page regarding the lengths to which you’re needing to sanitize, this could also create discord and morph into relationship anxiety intrusive thoughts.
Again, if you can soften into the core feeling that the thought is protecting against, you will be more likely to communicate your needs-based feelings to your partner from a place of vulnerability rather than attack. It’s not easy to do, but it’s a worthy practice to try to move toward.
The attack version sounds like, “Why aren’t you taking this seriously? How can you be so casual during this alarming time?” (Sub-message: You’re an idiot.)
The vulnerable version might sound like, “This virus is triggering my fear of loss and death, and when you don’t wash your hands well enough or you go out into the world unnecessarily I feel so scared that I’m going to lose you.”
• The Fear of the Unknown: Again, for those on the anxious-sensitive-creative spectrum, we’re no strangers to dealing with the fear of the unknown and uncertainty. Still, if we’re not directly naming this fear, it can easily spew onto the convenient and now readily-accessible projection screen of your partner and hook into your default spike (“You’re not smart enough. You’re not attractive enough. We’re a bad match.” – to name a few)
The work is to notice the projections, name them as messengers, and come back to stillness so that you can follow the arrows of the projections into the labyrinth of your inner world where the fear of the unknown is waiting for you like a scared child waits for the loving parent to pick them up and say, “I’m here. I’ve got you. You’re not alone.”
• Disappointment, Grief, Loneliness, and Boredom: Even in the best of times, we’re well-trained to avoid uncomfortable feelings, so when challenging times arise it’s likely that we’re going to protect our vulnerable hearts with increased intrusive thoughts and projections. With every emotion carrying the lead role on the stage of this global crisis/opportunity where they usually get lost in the crowd and bustle of our daily lives, we’re being asked-dragged-invited to become more acquainted and friendly with them.
Disappointment says, “Here I am! Make room for me.” I don’t know anyone who hasn’t experienced massive disappointment during this time when everything is cancelled. Relationship anxiety around disappointment might sound sound like, “My partner doesn’t meet my needs. They’re a colossal disappointment.”
Grief says, “My heart is hurting, not only for my own pain but for the pain of the world.” Relationship anxiety will morph this into, “You’re wrong in some way.”
Loneliness says, “I’m in a relationship but I still feel lonely.” Relationships aren’t the cure for existential human loneliness. This an easy place for relationship anxiety to hang its hat as you find yourself falling down the compare-and-despair trap that says that other couples must be blissfully happy to be holed up together for weeks on end.
Boredom: If you’re used to filling your time with appointments, commuting, driving, and deadlines, you might become more acquainted with boredom during this time. It’s easy for this core human experience to project onto one’s partner in the form of the thought, “If my partner was more interesting, I wouldn’t feel so bored right now.” Here it’s critical to remind yourself that it’s not your partner’s job to fill your well and be the source of your aliveness. That’s your job and yours alone.
Again, when we follow the projections to their root, we find these painfully human emotions sitting like little creatures in a hole at the center of the labyrinth. They’re waiting for us to pick them up and hold them tenderly, and when we do so, we see the anxiety about our relationships abating. Feelings are manageable. Anxiety is not.
You might also see other dynamics during this time, like the following:
2. Increase in Ease and Connection.
I’m hearing from couples and families who, because they’re spending more time together and the stress of the daily grind has reduced, are experiencing an increase in connection and joy. This time of shelter-in-place highlights how frantically busy we are and how polarized couples can become, especially regarding caring for the house and kids. With both partners at home, there’s more equality not only in terms of the practical tasks around the house but also in terms of carrying the emotional weight of overseeing family life. Of course, if you’re not feeling aligned and on the same team regarding taking care of the family, this time at home may increase arguments.
Overall, however, I’m hearing many positive reports, especially from men who typically spend countless hours outside the home. I’m hearing about fathers who are loving spending time with their kids and relishing the hours that have opened up on either side of the day that are normally filled by commuting.
It’s too early in our shelter-in-place to know how long this ease will last, and I imagine that there will be many ebbs and flows as there always are in relationships, but this initial honeymoon stage inspired by an increase in quality time offers essential information that may lead to important changes once we return to life outside the home.
3. Seeking Shelter in Each Other.
Challenging times often whittle down non-essentials and illuminate what deeply matters. And here we all see that what matters is each other. What matters is our relationships. What matters is love. That’s all that matters. When relationship anxiety falls away we see the gift of the partner who stands before us, and we allow the influx of gratitude to shrink fear and grow love, again and again and again.
My guess is that many of you have experienced a combination of the three dynamics listed above. Feel free to share more in the comments below.
Note: If you’re struggling with relationship anxiety and you haven’t taken my course Break Free From Relationship Anxiety, now would be an excellent time to take it. And if you’ve already taken it, now would be an excellent time to review it.
Also, since my April retreat in California was cancelled, many of you have been asking if I’ll be offering a virtual workshop. I’ve decided to offer a Zoom workshop called “The Wisdom of Anxiety During a Global Transition” this Sunday, April 5 from 1-4pm ET. Space is limited and you can sign up here.
Oh Sheryl, I was so hoping you would write a post on this topic this week ❤️ I fall into the first category – we have had one of the worst week in our 12 year relationship. The disagreement about the precautions we should take had been the point of contention. I am 37 weeks pregnant and unfortunately we have construction in our house that needs to be finished now (according to my husband before the economy collapses and before the bank comes to evaluate our house). They’ll be done on Tuesday but having workers in my home (although we are never in the same room and wash surfaces thoroughly) has been driving me crazy. I am like a mama bear who needs to feel protected in her cave.
I didn’t feel heard by my husband (whose love language is to provide us with financial security) and have literally lashed out at him daily. And yes the subtext was def. “you’re an idiot”, which has resulted in horrible exchanges (And him stonewalling) and triggered huge relationship anxiety (“our values are not aligned and we’re going to divorce”). ?
I found some calm and ressources about the pursuer/distancer dynamic last night (I’m criticizing, he’s withdrawing, I don’t feel heard, i scream louder, he’s withdrawing even more).
But I realized today and after your post that it’s a message that I need to take care of myself. I’m with my 4 yo son all the time, which Is lovely in many ways, but that means that I’m ‘throwing up” all my anxiety I him.
Also, sadly my husband doesn’t spend more time with my son, even though he is more home, which adds to my bitterness, but I’ll try to turn inward and see the good in him… I have also been complaining a lot about this and my husband never feels “good enough”… I need to stop and do the work ❤️ He works very hard for our family.
Just to clarify – my anxiety goes on my husband, not my son ? and the underlying vulnerable feeling is: “I’m afraid to get sick and to not be in good physical shape for the birth. I’m afraid to die. And I’m afraid you’ll get sick and won’t be with me for the birth, that I’ll be on my own and you won’t be there for your son’s birth”
Emma, I love that you responded to your own comment with your loving inner parent. There she is, never far away.
Thank you so much. I really suspected the pandemic was closely related to the increase in the common intrusive thoughts I experience, but my little fear-based ego was telling me it wasn’t, since I was not having any thoughts that touched on health anxiety, or directly around the pandemic itself.
This article is very helpful, knowing that your fear of loss can be triggered by different situations, even if that’s not where anxiety specifically hangs its hat.
Thanks again Sheryl 🙂
I’m so glad the article helped put a piece into place, Olivia.
I’m reviewing a past relationship. The fear of loss has always been a big one in probably all of my relationships. I’ve practiced “I feel…when you…” statements like your example for this fear. My partner most of the time didn’t change his behavior even when I told him in the most vulnerable way I could. I felt hurt and betrayed. The most mind-boggling response I’ve heard from telling him I fear losing him and I feel abandoned is “I can’t keep giving you emotional validation please don’t come to me for it I’m tired”. A little insight from you about what’s going on, and what I can do on my part to be better, would be much appreciated. Thank you for your work and your heart!
It’s hard to say without knowing more about your relationship, but my guess is that either there was a deeper underlying dynamic between the two of you that was triggered when you asked for reassurance and/or he was a avoidant and felt overwhelmed by your anxious attachment.
Can you elaborate on this statement? I’m not sure I understand it: “Feelings are manageable. Anxiety is not.”
Ha, and I’ve read that post a handful of times. Thanks!
Thank you so much and this came at the best time. I am extremely grateful for you and your work.
I also tend to become VERY insecure during these times. With intrusive thoughts about my partner not being right, i also fixate on how i am not good enough and it is almost equally hard to deal with sometimes?? It’s like when I realize it ISN’T my partner, then I just focus on how it’s ME. I am in your course so I know that ultimately a lot of it is about self worth, but I’m in a position now where I’m kinda like “I know that i have low self esteem, but what now?” I wonder if you’ve written about this before.
The “now what” is the inner work: journaling, being in therapy, learning to repair the faulty and shame-based beliefs that led you to form the mindset that you’re not enough.
Thank you Sheryl. The last couple of months have been really hard going. Relationship anxiety has been kicking my butt. I’m working on it (bought the new book, loved it!) But it’s been tough, especially as there is little escape (physically, were all stuffed into a small house). This has been a very welcome read, and definitely food for thought. Ego says I’m using it all as an excuse to avoid the reality that our 17 year relationship has been one long ruse. Trying to lean in, but ego shouts loud.
Ego will always give us a run for our money, and all dynamics and anxieties will be amplified during this time of global transition and instability.
I came across your website a few months ago as I struggle with GAD and it affects many areas of my life, including my relationship with my boyfriend.
We have been together for 10 months. Because of our faith, we are not living together before we are married.
He travels for work and is continuing to do so. So, because of that, we are not seeing each other out of risk of him being exposed, and I am still living with my parents who are in their late 50s and 60s, and the last thing I want to do is expose them to the virus.
As it looks, this virus is going to last and affect things for quite a while. Do you have advice on how to keep our relationship strong when we aren’t able to see each other, for I don’t know how long. I love him a lot and I hope to spend the rest of my life with him (which is saying a lot for me as someone who struggles a lot with relationship anxiety) but right now it’s really difficult and my anxiety is very heightened due to the fact that we won’t be seeing each other.
Thank you for the work you do. Your blog posts have helped me more than you know!
Laura: I encourage you to do everything you can to stay in connection, which includes FaceTime, texting, and of course a good old-fashioned phone call ;). The key is connection, which can be more difficult when we’re not in each other’s physical presence but certainly isn’t impossible.
Many couples remain connected even when separated by geography. Think of our grandparents who remained connected even when the men went off to war. This is our version of war. We have to remain creative and trust that the love will sustain, and can even grow stronger through this challenging time.
Thank you so much for this insightful post! However a part of my experience is looking back before all this happened (my partner and I have had to do long distance for a bit since this all started) as I was really struggling. During that time I couldn’t see anything good in my partner and was frequently breaking down and almost broke up with him three times in a very panicky state. I’m very glad I didn’t however I worry that the numbness I felt and the urges I had were too strong to be anxiety…can it really feel this genuine and so real to have relationship anxiety?
I have had the same title in my consciousness these last weeks! ❤️
After I wrote the post I saw a news story with the same title and thought, “Of course, it’s in the collective consciousness now.” 🙂
*oh and as a follow up after dealing with these struggles for so long sometimes I worry that I actually want to leave my partner and am forcing myself to stay even though we have an amazing relationship! I really can’t comprehend if anxiety can be this powerful or not….
Anxiety can absolutely be that powerful. Fear is one of the most powerful internal forces, and it can be completely convincing.
Thank you so much for your help and I can’t tell you how much I appreciate and admire your work! It’s crazy how anxiety could make me feel that way but accepting that it is a convincing liar is a good place to start! Thanks again!
I have noticed that loneliness and boredom have bubbled to the surface more than anything for me during this time. I feel as though my life has no purpose because there is no action going on.
To work on this I’m going to tune into the details of nature, my spirituality, and gratitude for all I have in my life.
I am driven by achieving (getting to the next level) and in this time where a lot of things have been forced to be put on the back burner, I feel my anxiety rise and feelings of worthlessness creeping in.
I will take this as an opportunity to learn more about myself and try to offer more love and compassion to myself. Achieving is good but achievement does not equal worth.
Anxiety around loss have also been stirring more violently within my chest, throat, and shoulders. They threaten to choke me. I have had 2 very important friendships fade away in the 2 years I have been married and this time has stirred the loss I feel back up into my body and mind. I fear that I am not worthy of friendship and love anymore, that I’m boring, irrelevant (because I’m married), and not valuable. I will work on this by addressing the pain I have inside and by offering love to myself even though it’s hard to believe I deserve it. I know that God does love me and I can also tune into that.
My mom was supposed to come home and visit on Saturday for 4 days but her flight was cancelled due to the virus. I cried and longed for her to be close, to hug her and be with her.
I am grateful for the opportunity to learn more about myself, and how I can address my pain with love and allow myself to grieve, rather than let it morph into self loathing, anxiety, and despair.
I am not going to be perfect, but as long as I try, I believe grace will carry me where I need to be.
Love to all of you who are also struggling/learning right now <3
This is beautiful, L. I hear so much commitment to your healing, and many wise responses to your faulty beliefs. Keep going, and may this be a fruitful time when you discover more deeply that you are worthy and lovable just because you exist.
Thanks for this post. I am overall doing okay with my partner during this time. My struggle lies in that I am experiencing all of those dynamics above, but they evolve at such a rapid rate that it is creating confusion for us both. One minute I’m feeling loving and connected more than ever, the next I’m highly irritated and deep in projection.
I need to slow the pace of these feelings. I am going to try and check myself this week; hit pause and look into the root. But it seems extreme feelings are coming in waves during this time, one after another and I am highly reactive/expressive.
Any further advice appreciated!
What you’re describing is common, Marg. We’re dealing with a lot right now, and the key is to make time every day, preferably several times a day, when you can slow down and touch base with yourself.
This is very uncertain time for me (and many other brides!) because my wedding is in June, and I’m not sure if I’ll still be able to have it then. It’s a real practice in taking things day by day – which is helpful for stress but difficult to do when planning something on such a large scale.
I’ve found that my fiance and I are more connected and at ease than usual. We’re spending more time together, and there’s less rushing around and coordinating to do. I’m really enjoying the togetherness, and anxiety has been at a minimum. Because graduate school keeps him so busy and occupied, it’s nice to have this reprieve (which will last until our wedding this summer. I consider it a special time for us pre-marriage). ?
That’s beautiful to hear, A. It sounds like this time is offering a much-needed reprieve and reset for the two of you.
Hi everyone, I am one of the many brides (and a break free course member bride) out there whose wedding has been canceled by corona. I have been surprised by the ways in which my anxiety has shown up over the past weeks. Life with my fiancé has been pretty harmonious. He has been a wonderful supporter, but I have found a lot of numbness in my heart due to the emotional overload. And then I have these intrusive thoughts: “Am I going to feel this way for the rest of my life? Am I ever going to feel deep love for my future husband again?” And here’s a good one: “If I loved him enough, I wouldn’t care about my wedding being canceled. It would just be the two of us and a pastor, and that should make me happy.”
I’m thankful that I see these for what they are. They are just intrusive thoughts. But I do feel that there is too much that needs attention right now for me to manage. I’m trying to focus on my Self taking charge.
We are getting married with our immediate family present this upcoming Sunday. I am praying for everyone’s good health.
There is, indeed, so much to attend to right now, and even more so with a wedding on the immediate horizon. Sending blessings. x
Thank you Sheryl for more metaphorical doors to open and reflect. The complexities of our relationships to ourselves and others is abundant and I’m so thankful for your wisdom.Thank you
Thank you, Amy. x
So beautiful and on point as always, Sheryl. I’m in the “all three” category 🙂
How can you tell the difference between relationship anxiety and a relationship just not working anymore/running it’s course?
There isn’t a simple answer without knowing more about your relationship but if you continue to read through my blogs you will probably weave together an answer that feels satisfactory.
Woah, yeah, thx for this post. I’m experiencing surges of anger and frustration and irritation about random things/everything, including my boyfriend who is stuck in the apt with me…contextualizing the big feelings is helpful. I hold/hide as much as i can that’s related to him, cause i don’t want to do damage or get burned in my own fire, and because i can’t handle any less than perfect response from him cause i’m so sensitive at the moment. Crying at the end of the day because i’m so tired of feeling tense. New intrusive thoughts… “he doesn’t do any emotional labor! this relationship is all on me” …yes, there’s probably some gender role inequity, but it’s def not true that he does none! “he can’t stand me, that’s why he’s always distracted by games/technology” …again, yes, he spends a lot of time on tech, and i’d love some deeper attention/presence, but that’s a common struggle in this time, and it’s prob not because he can’t stand me. I can’t even seem to give myself the presence i need. Gosh, the feelings are relentless. I spent a few mornings praying intensely, and a pretty peaceful day ensued, but then my praying and faith just “broke” cause it’s not a cultivated thing, it’s a new practice to me. I can’t get it back, i just feel pissed and distrustful of god, as well as my boyfriend, and my dad, and men in general. This seems to be a thing my anxiety holds on to, which pisses me off further, because there is prob pain in there that i have NO clue what to do with. I just want the general anger and tension to relax, and stay down, so i can connect to SOME part of me that can self-soothe.
Go through the courses again, especially Break Free and Grace Through Uncertainty. They will ground you and guide you through the practices that will help right now.
A big thank you for this article. I went down the rabbit hole of anxiety the moment it was announced that schools were closing and it morphed straight away into relationship anxiety. For about five days…until I realised it was fear of the unknown I was experiencing. Then I started feeling at ease with my partner and also started reflecting about the fact that all that matters is to be greatful to have an amazing partner I can be at ease with in my life. Spotted on article! it shed light to how much I have learnt throughout this journey of RA! Thank you wholeheartedly Sheryl.
I am really struggling with anxiety but also disconnection. I see everything as futile. My insomnia is the worst it’s ever been and I feel like I’m on the verge of going crazy. My mood and I are a different person without sleep. This was going on for a month or 2 before I found out I was pregnant, I’m now 10 weeks. I think I need to do a course but I’m not sure if you would suggest grace through uncertainty or your motherhood course?
I’m so sorry you’re struggling, and I promise you’re not going to lose your mind (although I know it feels like that when you’re struggling with insomnia). I would recommend both courses, starting with Birthing a New Mother, then continuing with Grace Through Uncertainty.
But more than the courses I recommend starting or continuing with a skilled therapist who can guide you through this time. Let me know if you need a referral. Sending lots of love. x
Yes thank you. Yes I am pursuing finding a therapist so thank you xo
I work in a hospital in NYC and going to work feels like a death sentence. I feel like either Im going to die (Im planning on writing my will soon) or Im going to infect my husband who will die. Some days are better than others, sometimes when the fear of my own death subsides, and I think about losing my husband, I feel sad but I don’t feel that devastated and sometimes I feel relieved sadly because I wouldn’t feel relationship anxiety anymore. Which in turn just thinking that makes my relationship anxiety even worse. Is this normal ? Or am I a terrible person?
This is all classic relationship anxiety, even the relief about not having to deal with relationship anxiety anymore.
Your blog is really helpful and this post commes in the right time for me.
My fiance and I are having one of the worsts times in our relationship, he recently got layed off and my company is reducing our salaries, so money has been a big discussion I don’t seem to be able to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
I’m so scared that we won’t make it out of it because we are more sensitive than ever! We seem to get pass the issue but seems like the smallest things set us off and we get stressed at each other again.
Right now I’m really worried about our financial situation, thankfully we both still live with our parents and that provides some financial release but my dad just lost his job too, I’m worried because I want to help him and worried about my future marriage.
Any advice on how to deal with this?
It seems to me like we are not even mad at eachother is like we are mad at the situation but still, we don’t seem to find peace.
I hope you can understand my message, since enlish is not my first language.
Lots of love from México.
How do you deal with relationship boredom during quarantine. We haven’t seen each other ever since my country imposed a lockdown. Thanks.