Is Anxiety Ruining Your Relationships?

David Olsen, Ph.D, LCSW

Ours has been called the Age of Anxiety. Each week there are new articles about anxiety and ways of coping. And in the midst of anxiety people search for solutions. Not surprising, addictions are on the rise, pharmaceutical companies have an assortment of medications, while others suggest exercise and mindfulness. Everyone is searching for ways of dealing with anxiety that often feels chronic.

Both philosophers and rock stars talk about it. The Rolling Stones sang “she goes running for the shelter of mother’s little helper.” In Sickness Unto Death, Kierkegaard wrote about anxiety being the result of human vulnerability and the inability to live into the self we were created to be, while Paul Tillich talked about anxiety as connected to the realization of finitude. David Grohl of Foo Fighters describes it with these lyrics, “One of these days, the ground will drop out from beneath your feet; one of these days your heart will stop and play its final beat.”

In order for life to go on, anxiety has to be contained, and this drives us to find solutions.  Unfortunately those solutions often become part of the problem. In the Old Testament, the story of the “golden calf” was a primitive attempt to bind existential anxiety, as the Israelites created a golden calf to cope with their felt absence of God and feelings of abandonment of their leader Moses. As a result, they became highly anxious. That story is a wonderful metaphor for the human condition: when we get anxious we have difficulty sitting still, and unconsciously move towards manic solutions which often become problematic.

Relational anxiety is a force to be dealt with, and too often has significant negative implications.  Consider a number of examples:

  1. Anxiety can drive us to attempt to change our partner so that we will feel better.  Never mind that this never works, we avoid looking at ourselves and our anxiety and concentrate on the faults of our partner hoping that if we can change them we will be happier and less anxious.  Since this never works, we end up more anxious.
  2. Anxiety can lead us to be controlling.  Parents have significant anxiety about their children’s well being.  However, at times they can micromanage their kids, becoming controlling helicopter parents, blocking their kids ability to grow and make their own choices.  Parental anxiety can actually harm their children since they do not learn to manage their own anxiety and even manage life.
  3. Anxiety can cause us to “cut off”. The fear of being hurt and vulnerable creates anxiety and can result in a tendency to cut off from people to avoid more hurt, but unfortunately results in a lonely life of defensiveness and distance from most people. This protector defense can result in safety but extreme loneliness.
  4. Anxiety can cause us to attempt to “fuse” which means we have an excessive need for too much time with our significant others, putting too much pressure on them and in the end creating distance. People who do this, are unable to sit with their own anxiety, and expect/demand that people around them fill them up. “We should do everything together” is a primitive attempt to calm anxiety.
  5. Anxiety can create extreme black and white thinking where we need to be only with people who agree with us.  As long as we are with people who think the same thoughts, are part of the same political party, or part of the same religious group, we feel less anxious.  But in the end, this strategy blocks growth, and leaves us more anxious in the end.
  6. Anxiety can cause us to take over and overfunction as we don’t trust those around us to do their part.  For many, this is the legacy of growing up with addiction or mental illness.  Their anxiety does not allow them to trust those around them, and so chronically overfunction, and never relax. Sadly, this anxiety driven response only leaves them more tired and anxious.

Too often we fail to look at what is under anxiety and fail to explore the existential and relational component of it. Anxiety is the driver of most relational problems.  And in the end, the solutions we arrive at become part of the problem. Buddhist teacher Susan Piver adapts the classic teaching on the Four Noble Truths:

  1. Relationships are very uncomfortable.
  2. Usually, our attempts to make relationships comfortable make them more uncomfortable.
  3. There is a way to reduce discomfort.
  4. That way is to pacify our own anxiety.

Similarly, just as building a Golden Calf to worship was not a solution to anxiety, the relational strategies we outlined above will not work!  In the end they will create relationship problems which will leave you even more anxious.

So, what do we do? Murray Bowen, the late family therapist, suggests that we should always move towards anxiety. But what does that mean?  And how do we do it?

First, it means accepting the existential reality of finitude.  There are certain existential realities that are part of life. My five year old granddaughter is already asking about death.  The solutions to that anxiety are not relational.   Nor do our manic solutions of looking for success, accomplishment, or financial security work. In the end, the solutions are spiritual. The Psalmist says “Be Still” which of course is the opposite of what we do when we get anxious.  Find spiritual disciplines like prayer, mindfulness, meditation, liturgy that help us sit with anxiety instead of running from it.

Second, it means being honest with ourselves about our deepest fears.  We need to both explore fears of being hurt, or rejected, or even of being seen, and then understand how our defenses can hurt us relationally.  All of us have wounds, and we form defenses against those wounds in an attempt to stay safe.  However, while that protective shell protects us from more hurt,  in the end keeps us from finding the type of intimacy that can be healing

Finally, healthy relationships can be a wonderful oasis in the midst of the storms of life - if anxiety is not driving us to control, fuse, or change the other person.  When we can practice Martin Buber’s relationship philosophy of moving from “I - It” (where we put those we love in a restrictive box and think we understand them) to “I - Thou” (where we continue to experience the other in new ways and appreciate them as a separate individual with their own journey), we can find peace and even transcendence.