Let’s face it — relationships are tough. I think anyone who has been in a relationship will admit that. But you know what’s even tougher? Relationships that involve mental illness or emotional instability, either in one partner or both. Everything is just a little harder and takes more work. How many relationships have these issues — can’t be many, can there? That’s what I used to think.
Want to be in on a little secret? Everyone is mentally ill to some degree. It’s important that we consider how emotional instability and mental illness can ruin a relationship because the research shows that a large percentage of us do not have enduring mental health and will experience mental health problems at some point or another in our lives.
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- 1 Mental health problems are more common than you think
- 2 How anxiety affects relationships
- 3 How anxiety ruins relationships
- 4 What can we do about it?
Mental health problems are more common than you think
You may think this is exaggerated and are protesting right now saying, “but Amna, I am totally healthy and normal! That can’t be right?”. Trust me on this one. It is more than likely you have experienced (or are experiencing) some form of mental illness or mental health problem (mild to severe) at some point in your life. Maybe you haven’t been diagnosed yet or you think “everyone feels this way”, but evidence shows that you probably have.
From anecdotal experience, I have to admit I don’t know one person in my life that hasn’t had problems with their mental health (sorry to any of my friends and family reading this, I have to be honest!). From my point of view, anxiety and low self-esteem are the most common problem in the people I know. Some people are mentally healthier and more resilient than others, but invariably they have faced difficulties with their mental health at one point or another or have ongoing issues.
This study published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology found that in a sample of just under 1,000 people studied from birth until they reached 38 years old, only 17% claimed not to suffer from depression, anxiety or other diagnosable mental health illness.
Most of us know at least one person who has struggled with a bout of debilitating mental illness. Despite their familiarity, however, these kinds of episodes are typically considered unusual and even shameful.
New research, from our laboratory and from others around the world, however, suggests mental illnesses are so common that almost everyone will develop at least one diagnosable mental disorder at some point in their life. Most of these people will never receive treatment, and their relationships, job performance and life satisfaction will likely suffer. Meanwhile the few individuals who never seem to develop a disorder may offer psychology a new avenue of study, allowing researchers to ask what it takes to be abnormally, enduringly mentally well.Scientific american
It is becoming clear that most of us will suffer “at least one diagnosable mental disorder” in our lives. Once you start reading more and understanding what makes someone healthy, unhealthy, well-adjusted or toxic then you start realising how rare it is for people to have enduring mental health. We all suffer some form of “trauma” at an early age, it’s just a fact of life. The sooner we accept this and reduce the stigma that exists against mental health disorders the better we can become as a society.
How anxiety affects relationships
I’m writing about anxiety specifically, because it is one of the disorders I suffer from and which has greatly impacted a lot of my own relationships. As I set out in my previous post about managing anxiety during the pandemic, it is also the most common form of mental disorder.
I also decided to write this post because I wanted to shed more light on how anxiety affects relationships and how anxiety ruins relationships (or how it can ruin them). It wasn’t until I started dealing with my mental health problems that I saw my life and personal relationships improve. I didn’t realise how close I was to sabotaging a lot of my relationships because of my own anxiety and insecurity. If I had known how anxiety can ruin a relationship, I would have started working on it sooner.
What is your attachment style?
I’ve been reading the book Attached by Dr Amir Levine which was recommended to me by one of my friends. I haven’t finished it yet, but the book has really opened my eyes to attachment styles and how they affect our relationships. If you haven’t read it yet, I really recommend you do. I hope to do a book review soon, so watch this space!
To be clear, I think that most of this can be applied to any personal relationship whether it be friends or family, but in this post I am primarily focusing on romantic relationships.
Are you Secure, Anxious or Avoidant?
Attachment theory posits that there are 3 main attachment styles we develop from childhood: anxious, avoidant and secure. Most people are probably a combination of both.
If your attachment style is anxious (like me), you are “pre-occupied” with the relationship. You are insecure about your relationship and tend to obsess over it and everything your partner does (“I sent a message an hour ago and she hasn’t replied yet, she hates me”). You are high on the anxiety scale and you always crave intimacy: you want to be closer to your partner. Sometimes you can push others away because of this constant need for intimacy.
People who are avoidant are often aloof. You know who I am talking about — they seem not to be “invested” in the relationships, they want to see how things go, they don’t want to be “tied down”. These people often have commitment issues. If you have an avoidant attachment style then you cherish independence and don’t like to rely on others, you will rarely ask people for help. You keep most people at arm’s length and are not great at clear communication.
This is the kind of attachment style that we should all look for or try to adopt. People who have a secure attachment style are comfortable with getting close to people and are not worried about being abandoned. If you have a secure attachment style, you are trusting in your relationship and are not insecure about it. You do not avoid conflict and are comfortable expressing your needs.
For the purposes of this post, I’m going to focus on the anxious attachment style (because this is the category I fall into) and how it can affect relationships.
How anxiety ruins relationships
It is exhausting
Being pre-occupied is draining on both the anxious person and their partner. You spend so much of your time worrying about your relationship and your other half, the good times actually are short-lived or they pass you by. Every time I had a fight with my husband it was the end of the world for me. Any spat between us would leave me depressed for days.
It was exhausting for my husband too. Because of my extreme reactions, he felt he always had to walk around eggshells with me. He felt like he couldn’t disagree with me or voice his concerns because I would flip out. He was right, I would. Any negative comment I took deeply to heart and wondered if it meant he didn’t want to be with me. Constant emotional outbursts are tiring and exhausting for people.
There is too much pressure
When you are pre-occupied on a relationship, it can put too much pressure on it. You are hyper-aware of your partner’s feelings and every time their mood or body language changes. You can even defect shifts in tone on text messages! I don’t like to use the word “needy”, but the need for that person to be loving all the time and have their complete attention can put a lot of pressure on someone and can eventually push them away.
Do you find your partner is often withdrawn and “cold” towards you? Sometimes this is a result of being pressured, especially if that person’s attachment style is avoidant. If there’s too much pressure on a couple, the relationship may eventually fizzle out. People need their space and can feel uncomfortable if they are constantly being questioned by their partner.
The relationship feels unpredictable
One of the main benefits of being in a long-term relationship is stability. Being in a relationship with someone with anxiety can make you feel like the relationship is unstable. I know I am more happy and content when I feel like my life is fairly predictable and I can depend on others. However, my anxious tendencies made me feel unbalanced and made my husband’s life harder. He didn’t know what to expect when I came back from work. What kind of mood would I be in today?
Some people with anxiety or an anxious attachment style will try to “stir the pot” and get a rise out of the other person, making the relationship unpredictable. Often it comes from a place of loneliness: the anxious person wants more attention which they are not receiving. If they can’t get positive attention, they will try to push some buttons to get negative attention. This means that some people are volatile and outbursts can seemingly come out of nowhere. A happy relationship needs predictability and calm.
What can we do about it?
I’ve summarised above some ways that anxiety can ruin a relationship (which I have personally experienced to varying degrees). There are many other ways in which it can have a detrimental relationship on yourself, your partner and the relationship in general. So, what can we do about it?
can we fix it?
The good news is that you can fix this! Overcoming relationship anxiety involves a lot of work and needs the efforts of both parties, but it is doable. As I usually do, I would recommend getting therapy first and foremost to overcome these hurdles in your relationship. The best scenario is couples therapy, but I know a lot of people (especially in my culture) are usually against this and it is hard to get a partner to cooperate.
My therapist told me it is possible for one person to work on relationship issues in therapy. You can work with your therapist to resolve your anxious tendencies in a relationship and learn how to understand your partner. If you work on your own anxiety and get the help you need, then your relationship will improve (of course, your partner will need to work with you too).
I must make it clear that relationship problems are not the fault of one person. An avoidant person could keep triggering the anxious person to resort to “protest behaviour“. Even if an anxious attachment style person works on their behaviour and anxiety, if their partner doesn’t engage or make an effort to meet in the middle the relationship is unlikely to succeed.
Here are some things you can also do to manage your anxiety in a relationship:
- Improve your communication: if your partner is not giving you enough attention, talk to them about it. Ask them for a compliment. It may not always work, but it’s a good place to start. If you are upset about something, communicate calmly and politely. Don’t play games and stonewall your partner. The “silent treatment” doesn’t work very often. Accept your needs and be honest about them, if your partner is right for you they will listen and work with you.
- Stay silent: doing this has helped me a lot. If my husband does something that upsets me or I don’t like, I’ve learned to hold my tongue. Instead of snapping at him, I just don’t say anything and leave the room if I need to. If I let the moment pass, I usually realise it wasn’t anything I needed to be angry about anyway! I also like to follow the 48-hour rule. If you’re angry don’t talk about the issue straightaway: wait for 48 hours. If you’re still angry after 48 hours, then you can strike up the conversation. You will be much calmer and will be able to communicate your needs more effectively — you will also avoid saying things you may regret!
- Increase your self-esteem: anxious attachment styles usually arise out of low self-esteem experienced in childhood. The more you work on your self-worth and self-esteem the less you will be affected by external triggers. If things don’t go my way in my relationship, I don’t blame myself immediately and I don’t feel bad. I recognise this is part of life and it’s not my fault. Because I have improved my self-esteem, I don’t feel the need to keep pushing arguments or “stirring the pot”, the issue at hand doesn’t bother me so much. It doesn’t make me feel so bad anymore, because I know I am much more than my relationship.
Patience is key
Loving someone with anxiety is a challenge, but if two partners work together they can reach a stable and content place in their relationship. It requires a lot of patience and work, but it can be done if both partners are committed to each other and committed to improving their relationship.
As I mentioned in my post about toxic relationships, relationships should make us happy and improve our lives. If we are constantly feeling relationship anxiety and are finding ourselves unhappy most of the time, we need to make a change. Sometimes the other person is not right for us and this is something we need to accept but if they are supportive and willing then there is potential to nurture a happy and fulfilling relationship. Self-awareness and patience are key to a successful relationship.
What attachment style do you think you have? Have you experienced issues with anxiety and dating or marriage? Let me know in the comments!