People find me because they’re in the throes of anxiety, and quite often the anxiety centers around their intimate relationship. They’re taken down by a series of questions that cause them to fear whether or not they’re in the “right” relationship or if they’re making a “mistake.” I’ve said it many times on this site but it’s worth repeating: most people who find me are in loving, solid relationships and the fear that plagues them is purely based in anxiety. There is a small percentage of people – maybe 5% – who realize that their fear is coming from a truthful place and is an indicator that there are serious red-flag issues in the relationship that need to be addressed, but these issues are obvious from my first conversation with them and aren’t associated with the gut-wrenching feelings that accompany relationship anxiety.
For the vast majority, the anxiety hits like a force from the underworld and literally pulls them from their high functioning, day-to-day life with a rush of terror into a hell-realm. Where they were once happily walking forward toward a stable married life, they’re now fraught with so much anxiety that it inhibits their ability to eat, sleep, and properly function, let alone plan a wedding. They fervently wish that the anxiety would vanish, mistakenly assuming that it’s a sign that they’re in the wrong relationship and that the only solution is to leave. That’s when they google “engagement anxiety” or “marriage fear” and find their way here.
The first, and most essential step, in working through the anxiety is reversing the longing for it to disappear and recognizing that there is great wisdom encased inside the shell of misery. This is obviously a challenging mental shift to make; no one wants to live with the demon of anxiety and it’s understandable that you would want it to vanish. But without the willingness to explore its roots and depths, there can be no true healing. For most people, this requires removing a strong mental block of fear that says, “If I explore the anxiety, I’ll discover that I don’t really want to be in this relationship and I’ll have to leave this person that I love.” So the first step is finding the courage to learn whatever it is that is meant to be learned.
It’s a strange and counter-intuitive statement, but what all of my clients eventually learn is that there is great wisdom living inside the fear-based thoughts and obsessional questions. In order to access this wisdom, it can be helpful to view yourself as a hero or heroine embarking on what Joseph Campbell called, “The Hero’s Journey.” Then you will find the willingness to descend into the darker regions of your psyche and hold a flashlight of truth on what you find there. And here’s a nugget of reassurance to counteract the fear of looking inside: what you find will have nothing to do with your partner and everything to do with you. You’ll find a storehouse of unshed grief, a soft place of vulnerability like the underbelly of a shy sea-creature, a river of fear, a warehouse of false beliefs about love, marriage, romance, and intimacy. And, as you learn to attend to your difficult feelings and replace the false beliefs with the truth, you’ll find a level of serenity, empowerment and healing that you never knew possible. The anxiety that you’re experiencing about your relationship isn’t new and isn’t the first time you’ve felt anxious in your life. If you’re like most people who find me, you’ve battled with anxiety periodically or consistently your entire life. Now is your chance to heal it.
The magic of this deep level of soul work is uncovering what it is that your soul is attempting to communicate. The soul longs for wholeness, aliveness, and serenity, but it doesnt always know how to attain these yearnings. Instead of asking directly for more aliveness, for example, we tend to project the desire onto our partner in the form of the thought: “He’s not interesting enough.” If we become stuck on this thought and believe it’s the truth, we miss the rich opportunity to mine for the diamond inside the anxiety.
I’ve often said that the over-focus on our partners’ negative qualities is a distraction or protection against the difficult feelings that are triggered by transitions: the grief of letting go of being single and the fantasy of the perfect partner, the fear of leaping into the unknown, the vulnerability that accompanies the risk of loving. But I’ve recently realized that, while the thoughts can be a protection against the difficult feelings, they’re also doorways into widening our consciousness and deepening our emotional and spiritual growth.
In order to crack through the anxious barrier and arrive at the diamond hidden inside, it’s helpful to understand which questions are pointing to which diamonds. To facilitate this process, I’ve grouped the most common questions according to their positive function.
The Longing for More Aliveness and Creativity arrives in the form of:
- I’m bored.
- He’s not intellectual enough.
- She’s not funny enough.
- He’s not social enough.
- All we do is sit around and watch TV; won’t that lead to a boring marriage?
The Need for a Spiritual Connection that Helps you Accept Uncertainty arrives in the form of:
- What if I’m making a mistake?
- What if our marriage ends?
- What if this anxiety is a sign that I’m making a mistake and if we get divorced I’ll regret not listening to myself?
- What if there’s someone better out there?
The Longing for a More Integrated Relationship with your Own Inner Loving Adult arrives in the form of:
- I’m lonely.
- He/she should make me feel whole.
- I’m not happy (and therefore it’s his/her fault).
- What if I’m not ready to get married?
- What if I jumped into this relationship too quickly after my last one ended?
- What if I’m only with him because I’m scared to be single?
The Soul’s Need to Develop More Compassion, Tolerance, and Self-Love arrives in the form of:
- I’m not attracted to him.
- I can’t stand the way he chews.
- I can’t stand the way she laughs.
- He’s not social enough.
- He’s shorter than I am.
- He’s not fit enough.
The Need to Develop of a Truthful Understanding of Love and Marriage arrives in the form of:
- What if I don’t love him enough?
- What if something changes, we grow apart, and our marriage ends?
- I don’t feel butterflies every time he walks in the door; that must mean there’s something wrong.
- We only have sex __ times a week/month.
- I don’t miss him like crazy when he’s away.
- I enjoy spending time on my own; shouldn’t I want to spend every second with her?
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but I hope you can start to see my point (and feel free to add or question this list in your comments!). When you address the anxiety from this perspective and approach it every day with a curious mind, you will start to break through its shell and arrive at your kernels of wisdom.
The singlemost important factor that determines one’s ability to move through this anxiety is pulling back the projection from your partner and recognizing that the source of the anxiety is in you and the ability to work through it rests in you. No one can save you from your own mind, your false beliefs, and your uncomfortable feelings. The willingness to take full responsibility for your well-being is the foundation for addressing these questions and finding your diamonds that are waiting, shimmering and full of beauty, to be revealed.
Wonderfully written! I’m a big fan of the Hero’s Journey and think that it really fits into your work. 🙂
Sheryl, another great post! Replaying dreadful, feared scenarios is a great way to keep anxiety going. A counter to that is meditation and breathing. You have shared Pema Chodron’s work, and she is wonderful. Thich Nhat Hahn in the book True Love really gets to the heart of love, and tools on how to deal with whatever emotion is getting in the way of truly being present. It is one of the best books I have read of loving oneself, one’s partner as an antidote to fear.
Thank you, Krista.
Jennifer: I’m a huge fan of Thich Nhat Hahn’s work but I haven’t read True Love yet. Thank you for the recommendation; I’ll definitely check it out.
Wonderfully written and so very true! I wish I could go back in time and shake my anxious self that was so scared to do the work for fear of what it might unveil. Now that I did I can truly say I’m grateful for the gut-wrenching, earth shattering anxiety that brought me to where I am now-happily married and stronger and more at peace than I’ve ever been. I pray your work reaches so many more anxiously engaged brides in 2012!
Thank you and I’m so glad to hear that you’re doing well!
BRILLIANT article Sheryl.
What amazes me is that when I went through it, I thought what I was feeling was so unique to me. And that I was a worst case scenario, and different from all others! Thank God for this website and the e-course!
Anxiety is truly mind altering, and my heart goes out to all the people who are suffering through it now. I know how awful it is.
I am now at a stage where I am starting to feel glad that I went through this experience. I hope all others who can identify with this article come and join us all on the ecourse and start learning how to combat this debilitating illness with friendship and support from the team 🙂
This article is so great! I just replaced the word “relationship” with the word “studies / job” and it feels SO revealing to see that I don’t need to put any energy in some changes in the outside, but that everything can be solved when I do my inner work.
the second time I replaced the word “relationship” with the work ” home/ house ” and wow- it also works 🙂
Thanks you so much for your thoughts!
This might be my favorite post ever! So true.
Oh, and I forgot to say, i LOVE the line where you write “longing for a more integratet relationship with you and your LA” : “I am lonely” —> isn’t that so often the case that we think that loneliness gets away the more we are together with another person, a partner? Isn’t it exactly the opposite? I love the moments where I can do something good to myself, I feel much less lonely than when I am in the middle of thousands of poeple….I like this! (and “he should make me feel better”…uah!
Thank you, Maya! I’ve been writing this post for a while and I’m so happy to finally publish it.
Bettina: Yes! Anxiety is anxiety no matter how you slice it of what the specific focus is.
ScottishBride: Thank you for your amazing support here and especially on the e-course forum. You’re a voice of inspiration and wisdom for many, many women and men there.
I was so blessed by this post, as always. I get such a sense of peace from reading your stuff, Sheryl. One big question I always have, that anxiety always screams at me, is that I am part of that five percent. I have been married for eight years now, and have been grappling with some serious anxiety in connection to my husband for the past two. There is nothing for me to really put my finger on, and I believe I suffer from ROCD, but I often focus on my husband’s bad points to a huge extent, and it robs me of my joy and our closeness. I struggle with thoughts that I settled for someone that was subpar, and that I’m paying for it now. I get embroiled in negativity and anxiety when he does something that sets me off, or when I read something that speaks to this fear: ie, the girl is with a guy who seems to be perfect, but in reality she doesn’t really love him, so nothing is right. You know thatone
I was so blessed by this post, as always. I get such a sense of peace from reading your stuff, Sheryl. One big question I always have, that anxiety always screams at me, is that I am part of that five percent. I have been married for eight years now, and have been grappling with some serious anxiety in connection to my husband for the past two. There is nothing for me to really put my finger on, and I believe I suffer from ROCD, but I often focus on my husband’s bad points to a huge extent, and it robs me of my joy and our closeness. I struggle with thoughts that I settled for someone that was subpar, and that I’m paying for it now. I get embroiled in negativity and anxiety when he does something that sets me off, or when I read something that speaks to this fear: ie, the girl is with a guy who seems to be perfect, but in reality she doesn’t really love him, so nothing is right. You know that one? It seems to be a common, and very disturbing, theme in chick lit. So my question is, how do you know if your relationship is part of that doomed five percent? Thanks! Sorry this is so long.
Thank you so much Sheryl. Please never stop writing for us.
SB: Thank you for being such a gracious audience to write for! : )
Yellow: I would need to know more about your marriage to assess whether or not it’s in the 5%. You say that your anxiety has been focused on your husband for the past two years but you’ve been married for eight; was there something that precipitated the anxiety? Are there any obvious red-flag issues like addiction, abuse, cheating, lying, misalignment of core values?
No, none of these red-flag issues. The fear is focused on little personal traits that I am not crazy about and that I cannot seem to let go. I think I know the answers to my own questions, but I continue to seek answers from knowledgable people. Obviously, this post is for me. Thanks for the reply, and please, like the other lady said, keep writing. It’s all very inspiring.
You sound exactly like me. Please can you tell me how you are getting on if you receive this! Thank you x
My fiancé is wonderful. One of the truly good people in this world. But I need to know that I love him and don’t just admire him. I think I may need this site.
Loving and admiring usually aren’t very far away from each other. The key is in learning about what real love is instead of the dysfunctional messages about love we receive in this culture. You can learn more about it here: http://conscious-transitions.com/real-love-versus-infatuation/ as well as through several other posts on this site. Welcome!
Thanks for writing this Sheryl! I really like how this article points people away from self protection/projection, and asserts that the anxiety is from something inside our own selves….that’s so helpful. Honestly I think the biggest turning point in my engagement anxiety was the moment I realized I had followed every fear, asked every question (many times), and realized they didn’t hold water. And I think the biggest thing that helped was a conscious shift from asking “am I making a mistake? What if something happens to our love?” to “how can I manage my anxiety today? What are these questions protecting me from feeling, and how can I address them?” And it was still hard…but it’s been so rewarding to realize that I have the capabilities to look deeper and understand myself better, and that really does result in connection with my husband. Anxiety really is a hidden gem. Thanks for the reminder!
Sheryl, I looked the article on common questions your clients ask, and about fifty percent of them apply to me. How can I develop my love so that it is real and like his?
*at the article. I.e. this article.
Bre: You might consider taking a look at my Conscious Weddings E-Course: From Anxiety to Serenity, as I created it to address exactly this point. You can learn more about it here: http://conscious-transitions.com/conscious-weddings-e-course/. In addition to the seven lessons, when you sign up for the course you gain access to a password-protected forum, where you will find a community of exceptionally kind and compassionate women (and some men) who will help guide you along this path. The support is a key component for learning about real love and how to shift your dysfunctional ideas about relationships.
I came across your website over the Christmas period and never before have I read a selection of articles that seem to speak to me on such a profound level.
My anxiety started in late November, several weeks after my partner’s father passed away unexpectedly. Understandably, this was a very very sad time and turned our once perfect world up-side-down. As soon as the anxiety set in I was devastated at the thought of having to walk away from a man that I truly love…..walking away seemed the only answer to rid myself of the pain, and yet something deep inside of me told me not to run. After reading your article ‘Take care of your anxiety like a scared child’, I realised that I needed try and understand where the anxiety was coming from and what it was based on. The content of your articles have given me the courage to look inside myself and I am fully embracing the idea of not projecting my feelings onto my partner. I know that I have a lot to work through, and initially it seemed daunting, but I am now inspired by your words and have the love and support of a wonderfully grounded man…..and whilst there are still some days that I wish I could hide under my duvet and block the world out, I know that in years to come I will look back and think ‘thank goodness I was brave enough to hang in there!’.
Thank you, thank you, thank you
This article spoke to me like nothing has,ever before. I was set really deep in these questions last week, only a few days ago, when I discovered conscious transitions,did it start easing off. I have been thinking about how to channel all my questions within myself and it’s interesting how it works:I noticed that while I silently suffer, I do feel comfort when my fiance is around.The only problem is, I don’t feel as lovey-dovey as I used to before the anxiety set in last week. I am still struggling to say ‘NO’ to the over-shadowing ‘maybe I will never be attracted to him again’,’maybe I will never have butterflies when he comes in again’ and ‘maybe I will just love him but not feel like hugging and kissing him all the time like before’.It feels like an illness but I keep telling myself I will sail to the other side successfully purely because while I don’t feel to affectionate and connected, I don’t feel very sociable with others or too bothered about my own family either. I feel like I’ve temporarily lost my ability to express emotion and enthusiasm about everything.This is,I think,the main sign that there is nothing wrong with the relationship,but it lies within myself. Anyone felt like that?
Adelina, my anxiety started two days before Christmas. I 100% can relate to how you were/are feeling. I was so blah towards my fiance, family, friends, even work. I just wanted to hide everyday until all of this would go away. Now I know this is not about anyone else it is about me and my own stuff that I need to work through. It’s hard at times but at the end of the day we will come out of this happier, content and stronger then before 🙂
Stephanie,it’s so good to hear your words. This ‘blah’ atittude is so not me,and like you say,it’s about us,not our partners.Have you managed to cross over this rough patch and get back in your old normal ways?:)
Adelina, you seem to describe exactly my feelings right now. Last weeks I am balancing between moments when I feel that everything is going to pass and we will be normal again and moments when I believe that everything is lost, that if it cannot work with this perfect person that I used to love so much it cannot work. I discovered with him that my real purpose in life is to spend it with one person and grow old together. I want to live this with him, but i am afraid that if I have doubts and feel him as someone that I dont know, this will come again and again in the next years until we will finally realizewe made a big mistake.
I dont know how to behave to him right now. He seems to expect from me to understand what is going on inside me, but I cannot find peace. I read the posts here and I understand that I might have this anxiety problems, and I feel inspired by those that passed it, but how can they too be sure that it wont come again and again until it destroys everything.
Am particularly afraid because I cannot recognize him anymore. We used to have such a great connection and I cannot feel it anymore. I just have the memory of how it was and much guilt that it is not happening any more.
I have started battling with relationship anxiety only a few months after dating this wonderful guy last year. I found your site around Feb this year and have since been reading your entries which have helped greatly in tempering the fear. This article spoke to me so much, but my wounded self keeps on saying that it doesn’t apply to me. You see, i come from a very affectionate family while my guy doesn’t. My main love language where i feel love and comfort is through physical touch (actual presence, hugging, kissing), but my guy is uncomfortable with this. He has been improving in this department though throughout the months, but it is still something that truly saddens me and triggers my anxiety when i think about it.
Would you say that this definitely falls under the last category (more compassion, tolerance, self love)? Or is it a different case?
Thanks so much for this article and for your reply in advance!
Yes, it falls under the last category, and it’s important to recognize that every relationship will have areas that need improvement but as long as both people are open and willing to grow, there’s no reason to walk away.
Thanks so much for your reply, Sheryl! More power to everything you do 🙂 You’re a blessing to a lot of people 🙂
I have gone through this article but i am still not able to understand it especially the list of questions. Anyone please help me undrstand these questions and how to apply them.
Amazing article! Sheryl does the reason for our anxious habits an fears have to come from something that happened in our past? Or is the list above a reason for anxious an fear tendencies? I’m new to this site an have been trying to work through my doubts an your articles have been a blessing:).
Anxiety doesn’t always come from the past, but it often does. This article explains the anxiety that is part of our human condition regardless of earlier experiences:
Welcome to my site!
This is definitely so true,I went back to work today for the first time leaving my 8mth old and I feel myself needing to analyze my relationship but really it is the anxiety of leaving our son and the unknown and not knowing how to fully embrace these normal anxieties so looking for a way to project them away from myself, it actually makes a lot of sense really.
You describe what I’ve been trying to explain to my fiancé. I tried to explain how foreign he seems to me and I’ve completely list my connection with him. I’m doing everything I can to get better, but can’t seem to break through this. We are one month away from the wedding and I’m terrified. I can’t kiss him and when I do it feels weird. I’m hurting so much. He is so wonderful, supportive, and amazing. I’m desperate to go back to how it was. I need help!
Hi there Sheryl, I have just started reading some of your articles and they are really interesting!! I really hope to keep learning more. My question is – what exactly do you mean by “The need for a spiritual connection?”
I believe that we all have a basic and essential need to connect to a source greater than – but intrinsic to – ourselves. Some people call it God, others call it Nature, Spirit, Goddess, Self. When that cord is thin or cut altogether, it creates anxiety, as if we’re floating around the universe without awareness of our tether to the greater whole.
Thank God for this site. I have been with my boyfriend for two years now and have been having the same doubts for about a year and six months. There are ZERO red flag behaviors in my relationship with him. It is my first relationship too, and I can see that my anxiety is exacerbated by the fact that I don’t know what to do in a long term relationship or how things are supposed to feel. I have been feeling increased anxiety the past 6 months because we moved in together. Started seeing a counselor to help — she also encouraged me to explore my deepest fears that i may need to break up with him. I wasn’t sure if she was right or not, but one night the anxiety got so bad, I thought she was right and i tried it. I am glad i did it because i have never been more miserable and I know now that i do not want to break up with him ever. I have started z***** to help but i want to combat this mentally too so i don’t have to deal with it. I focus on all of his annoying behaviors and blow them out of proportion and tell myself i’m not attracted or we aren’t compatible. I get anxious about this mostly. I am also paranoid that the slightest change in our routines will throw off the relationship — such as if he gets sick, he’ll act different and I’ll be annoyed or just anxious until he his better and acting like himself again. How do i stop having these obsessive anxious ruminating thoughts when I know they’re based on nothing!?? I have absolutely zero real problems with him. We never fight, we agree on most things, he’s wonderful to me. It feels awful being anxious all the time and i want it to stop.
Sheryl.. it is for the first time I find such a beautifully addressed problem on the internet. And it is exactly my problem. I am very grateful! I would only like a piece of advice if you are so kind to read. I fell in love for the first time in my life 6 months ago with a man from a different country. He is deeply in love with me too. He has many qualities.. he is gentle, sensitive, unselfish and kind. Despite knowing clearly right from the first time that he was not Mr. Perfect, I felt that he was worth my love. We began a long distance relationship and we have been communicating on the internet exclusively by texting. He wants us to marry and I also want it if I reach the conclusion that he is right for me. Until then I need to decide myself because I know that the longer it takes the more painful it gets for him if I leave. I am conscious that this type of communication doesn‘t help much but for the moment it is the only possibility. My doubts and fears appeared due to his style of writing. He seems to me not creative enough..somewhat boring and lacking interest in my passions. I love literature.. I am quite an educated young woman and I fear that I shall not be able to have a thourough communication with him because I am more reflexive, subtle and he is more direct.I get easily bored and annoyed by his lack of interesting subjects to talk about.. especially because we cannot see each other. I know this issue falls under the first category.. the need for more creativity. But I don‘t believe that my life truly lacks creativity.. I feel that it hurts because he doesn‘t share my creativity. My question is: where am I wrong? I don‘t believe that I can talk about deep love as you say because we have only seen each other three weeks and since then we have been texting every day. So I don‘t know if I will be able to love him as a husband. I would so much appreciate an answer.. because I am not prepared yet for taking the course. Thank you so much, Sheryl!!