relationship anxiety in a good marriage (2)

Working with couples to lower their relationship anxiety in what would be an otherwise good marriage presents couples therapists with a paradox.

On one hand, the quality of the therapeutic bond is essential.

Clients need to feel safe and believe that their couples therapist has their well-being foremost in mind.

But on the other hand, if safety and comfort are our only clinical values, progress will most likely crawl at a snail's pace.

Curbing relationship anxiety in a good marriage requires confronting difficult and painful feelings.

If the couples therapist can provide a supportive holding environment, the process can be successful, as the couple is encouraged and guided into learning new skills and deepening their understanding of one another.

What is relationship anxiety?

Relationship anxiety is an ongoing fear that your relationship has hidden deficits that require immediate attention. Symptoms of relationship anxiety include picking fights, turning away, and constantly testing boundaries.

Where does relationship anxiety come from?

Working models for our intimate adult relationships emerged from the dynamics of our attachment to our parents and other caregivers. Our early emotional experiences fundamentally shape our future adult relationships.

Our attachment style shapes how we behave in relationships. A secure attachment style bestows confidence and self-assuredness. However, if you have an anxious attachment style, you may be troubled with ongoing anxiety and uncertainty.

Understanding your attachment style can help you to notice the quality of your thoughts, and the repetitive messages in your self-talk.

Attachment theory and relationship anxiety

In the 1950s, a British psychologist, John Bowlby, and his colleague Mary Ainsworth developed Attachment Theory. The importance of Attachment Theory is in its ability to predict relationship anxiety.

As a result of experiences in our family of origin, we go on to develop an attachment style. The 3 main styles of attachment are Secure Attachment, Anxious Attachment, and Avoidant Attachment (Ainsworth, e al., 1978).

Anxious and Avoidant Attachment are both considered insecure styles of attachment.

Many spouses feel relationship anxiety. A relatively recent study, ( Ein-Dor et al., 2010), estimates that Anxious Attachment afflicts somewhere between one-third to one-half of humanity. Relationship anxiety, unfortunately, is quite common, if not pervasive.

Partners who are anxiously attached may become frightened and angry if they fear their partner will leave, (Stanley, Rhoades, & Whitton, 2010).

Resisting relationship anxiety with a present-oriented focus

Helping couples to lower their relationship anxiety requires a focus on managing moments. Anxiety is defined as a nervous disorder characterized by a state of excessive uneasiness and apprehension, typically with compulsive behavior or panic attacks.

In other words, the anxious mind is not focused on the present moment. Helping couples to notice what is happening right now, and expanding their menu of healthy responses requires a keen focus on the brain and nervous system.

The antidote to past and future-oriented anxiety is to be calmly grounded in the present moment.

How does a good marriage manage powerful emotions?

Some couples struggle with managing their emotions.

For some, chronically escalating and venting emotions may promote negativity as a mental habit, and when that happens, change slows to a crawl.

When negative emotions preoccupy the brain, the emotions are typically intensified, and relationship anxiety intensifies.

Describing and venting negative emotions is only the first step in grappling with, and overcoming chronic anxiety.

An important way to curb anxiety is to strengthen the mind with a present-moment focus.

Relationship anxiety and personal growth

It's also important to consider how relationship anxiety may impact self-esteem. A lack of strong, early attachment compromises an adult experience of marital satisfaction.

Relational anxiety can also be inwardly directed.

For example, a spouse with avoidant attachment might shut down emotionally, or flee from the pain of low self-esteem in the face of their anxiously attached partner's complaints. Some folks are so guarded and fearful that they ultimately resolve their relationship anxiety by not being in one, or behaving as if they were single (Tashiro, 2014).

Here are 4 techniques to help lower relationship anxiety in an otherwise good marriage

Focusing. Developed in the '70s by Eugene T. Gendlin, "focusing" is not at all what it sounds like. Focusing is a form of "felt-sensing," in the body that may guide you into a deeper pool of self-knowledge.

With Focusing, we develop a new kind of awareness. Because of the pace of modern life, many of us tend to ignore the subtle, gut-feeling of all that we have endured in our lives. Focusing notices the entirety of what is happening in the present moment...particularly the body sensations that accompany and mirror our thoughts and feelings.

Asking. Next, Gendlin describes an internal process he calls "asking." Questions such as "What are you anxious about?" or "What do you need right now?" are addressed to the body-aware, felt sense of self, as if talking with a trusted friend.

Slow down and notice...

Labeling. Gendlin suggests that if you slow down, ask yourself important questions, and listen to your body, your gentleness and patience may produce valuable insights.

As you notice your body's expression of your thought and feelings, you are asked to find a word, phrase, or image that best describes (and labels) these sensations.

Adjusting. As you work with what comes up for you as you "label" these feelings, go back and forth in your awareness between the physical sensations, and the various descriptions that you come up with.

As you go back and forth between what you are feeling, and how you are labeling or describing the emotions, adjust your narrative description. Gendlin says that the process of resonating with the bodily sensations and adjusting the words and images you are using to describe them often results in significantly deeper awareness and appreciation for the problem itself.

Although Focusing emerged in the early 70s, it anticipated many of the somatic-based therapies that came decades later.

Lower relationship anxiety in a good marriage by using the power of imagination

Situational Reconstruction. While Focusing involves noticing what our body is telling us about what we are feeling, situational reconstruction is a therapeutic intervention best used when clients are struggling with a recent crisis that threatens to hijack their nervous system.

How does Situational Reconstruction work? Through a power that we rarely use when confronted with pressing problems...the power of imagination.

You have a sudden, serious problem that is making you anxious. You'll need a pen a paper to work through a Situational Reconstruction:

  • First, imagine 3 ways that the problem could have been even worse than it was.
  • Once, that is clearly imagined, then consider the opposite; imagine 3 ways that the situation could have been less stressful.
  • Once you have these 6 scenarios ( 3 positive, and 3 negative), ask yourself..."what would have needed to be different (you, other people, etc.) for the 3 positive and the 3 negative scenarios to have played out?"
  • After you've imagined all of that, then consider what you might have done, or what might you still could do, to improve the odds of achieving one of the more positive outcomes.
  • If you struggle with imagining what you could have done to improve your situation, and come up empty...play with your imagination once more. How would someone (think of a specific person) whom you deeply admire act on the situation to produce a more positive result? Write this all down.
  • Take action. Our imagination is a powerful tool for change. Situational Reconstruction helps us to expand our interpretation of what challenges mean, and how to more effectively navigate toward a more desirable outcome.

Compensatory self-improvement

Compensatory self-improvement is the applied practice of changing the things you can, informed by the wisdom of knowing the difference.

Last year I did coaching with a lovely woman (let's call her Mary) who was married to a malignant narcissist.

He had installed his mistress in a house 3 doors down from his family home 24 years earlier, and nothing had changed since. Mary had spent more than two decades in profound relational anxiety.

She fired her last therapist for "being pushy." Mary was a devout Catholic and became tired of her therapist badgering her to get a divorce.

Deciding what is most important

I asked Mary what was most important to her.

She said that while she loved her husband, she was most concerned about how her 13-year-old twin daughters would process living with his narcissistic behavior. Mary assured me that the twins loved their father, and a divorce would be extremely unwelcome from their point of view.

There was another issue that Mary was dealing with...she was terminally ill and only had a few months left.

We talked about how she wanted to be remembered. Mary was most concerned about the messages her girls would receive about her husband's open infidelity, (which they were all too painfully aware of).

But what she feared most was her apparent history of accommodating the arrangement, and the spiritual dilemma that, up to to point, Mary had kept to herself.

Mary wanted to show her daughters forbearance, patience but also a firm sense of self. For the first time, She had frank and open discussions with them about her struggles, and her connection with them deepened more than she ever thought was possible.

Compensatory self-improvement increases a client's agency in chosen areas of life, while conceding that other problem areas might be unredeemable.

Mary chose to focus on her twin girls, and the life lessons she could impart to them and not on her husband's infidelity, or her terminal illness.

Can exaggerating a symptom help you to manage it better?

Paradoxical intention. Symptoms of relational anxiety may fill the mind to such an extent that there is little energy left for what else might be important, appropriate, or interesting.

Paradoxical Intention is a symptom-based intervention, which directs the client to exaggerate the symptom.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but when you're feeling relationship anxiety. something you can try in the meantime to regain balance would be to indulge in your anxious feelings to the extreme.

The power of paradoxical intention is that it encourages the client to take a step back...while doing something which displays their control over the symptom.

4 more techniques to curb relationship anxiety

These 4 techniques will help you to experience life as more benign and this is important for all of us right now.

Here are 4 additional best practices for curbing your relationship anxiety:

  • Stop digging for bad news. As Freud famously once said. "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar." Stop over-analyzing what your partner is saying just to challenge them with negativity. Notice what you imagine about the partner in your head, and be skeptical.
  • Talk to your spouse. Stop hiding your relationship insecurities. Talk about them with curiosity. Don't assume or blame. Share them with your partner as a comment on your worries and fears, not on their hidden deficits.
  • The world is bigger than your relationship anxiety. Notice, and then interrupt your anxious thinking with thoughts about helping others. See a bigger world, and avoid a victim mindset. You may be counting on other people, but other people are counting on you too.
  • Change the channel. Find something fun to do. Reach out to your partner for a hug. Focus on the positive and hopeful. Notice and challenge anxious thoughts. If you need support from your spouse...ask for it.

Final thoughts about relationship anxiety in an otherwise good marriage

Science-based couples therapy will help you take the first steps toward less anxiety and an expanded sense of agency and control.

Couples therapy in 2021 is all about helping clients to manage the unmanageable. COVID stress is the single largest source of marital stress in the world today.

Couples therapy tools such as; focusing, situational reconstruction, compensatory self-improvement, and paradoxical intention will help you to acquire skills in managing your relationship anxiety in an otherwise good marriage.

Relationship anxiety can be understood, in part, by examining how your attachment styles relate to one another and might be undermining your relationship satisfaction.

A good couples therapist will establish a strong therapeutic bond with you while helping you build skill-sets for more resilient coping.  These skills will not only help you better manage your COVID-driven relationship anxiety, they will also better prepare you for unexpected future events as well.

Do you suffer from relationship anxiety in an otherwise good marriage?

References:

Stanley, S.M., Rhoades, G.K., & Whitton, S.W., (2010) Commitment: Functions, formation, and the securing of romantic attachment. Journal of Family Theory & Review, 2(4), 243-257.

Tashiro, T. (2014) The Science of Happily Ever After; What really matters in the quest for enduring love. Don Mills, ON: Harlequin.

Daniel Dashnaw


Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist and the blog editor. He currently works with couples online and in person. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and Developmental Models in his approaches. Daniel specializes in working with neurodiverse couples, couples that are recovering from an affair, and passive aggressive behavior patterns.

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