The beginning of a relationship is full of butterflies—beautiful, excitable creatures whose colorful wings bat frantically against the walls of your stomach. Though, as romantic as that all sounds, sometimes the fluttering isn't a giddy reaction at all; instead, it's an uneasiness that stems from something called early relationship anxiety.
Whenever you make a connection with someone—be it a potential significant other or friend—you tend to put your best foot forward and present the best version of yourself. But no one is perfect, and the closer you get to another person, the more you start to peel back the layers and reveal the many dimensions of your personality. The same rings true for your partner, and according to licensed psychotherapist Dr. Siobhan D. Flowers, the early relationship anxiety phenomenon is rooted in the anticipation of the unknown.
"Relationship anxiety refers to the feelings one often associates with getting to know someone for the first time on a romantic level," Flowers tells mbg. It's "an innate desire to be 'liked' and 'accepted,'" she says, adding that it's a "very common" anxiety. Common, but not exactly healthy.
What does early relationship anxiety look like?
Oftentimes, Flowers says, individuals experiencing early relationship anxiety will measure their sense of self-worth based on whether someone reciprocates romantic interest in them—often expected in the form of constant communication throughout the day, usually via text or social media.
Indeed, the signs that someone is experiencing early relationship anxiety are a little more apparent thanks to social media and smartphones connecting us to whomever, whenever. According to Dr. Sanam Hafeez, an NYC-based neuropsychologist and faculty member at Columbia University, neediness in the form of sending multiple texts, holding your breath until you get a response, and then overanalyzing what they said is a telltale sign that you're deep in the trenches of early relationship anxiety. "Checking their social media constantly to see who they recently friended on Facebook and what comments were made," Dr. Hafeez says, is also a manifestation of this anxiety—one that never existed prior to 24/7 connectivity.
Other ways this anxiety shows up in your actions? Asking about love, about moving in together, constantly bringing up a vacation or event months in advance to test their commitment—basically any subject matter having to do with the future can be a sign of early relationship anxiety. It's a way of putting out feelers to verify how the other person feels about the relationship.
Hafeez says things like resenting your partner for having a night out with their friends or for giving up a routine or something important to you like doing a spin class after work together is another way early relationship anxiety can show itself.
Where does early relationship anxiety come from?
There are a few different reasons anxieties might flare up at the start of a relationship, but it all boils down to a combination of circumstances and how you react to those circumstances. For example, let's say you meet your S.O. at a bar or on a dating app; you don't know what to expect because every single thing is new. In that instance, Jane Reardon, a relationship expert and founder of the RxBreakup app tells mbg it's "quite normal to have some anxiety" because you don't have a history with this person, and you don't know if it will work out or if they feel the same way toward you. "Since there's no track record, you can also feel unsure that the person is who they say they are," she says.
That being said, however, Reardon says how you respond to the unknown of what's to come of your relationship is generally a reflection of one of three things:
1. You've experienced relationship trauma in the past.
When entering a new relationship, it's normal for that little voice in the back of your mind to dredge up relationship baggage from the past out of fear that history will repeat itself.
2. This relationship in particular makes you feel insecure for some reason.
If it's not past relationship issues wearing you down, it might be that there's something about this relationship in particular that's putting you on edge. Maybe you feel insecure around your S.O.'s friends or family, or maybe something about your partner's behavior rubs you the wrong way or makes you feel unappreciated.
3. You and your new partner's attachment styles don't add up.
Attachment theory is rooted in the idea that your experiences with love from a young age (i.e., how your parents showed you affection, how you were shown love in past relationships, etc.) will ultimately determine how you love now. There are three different types of attachment styles: secure attachment (in which a person is confident in their relationship and stays bonded), anxious attachment (where someone needs constant reassurance from their partner that everything is all good), and avoidant attachment (where you avoid intimacy at all costs).
"Ironically, people with anxious attachment styles usually partner up with people with avoidant attachment styles," Reardon tells mbg, which, as you can imagine, might be a recipe for disaster. "As much as these styles match, they actually bring out the worst in each other," Reardon says. "The anxious partner gets more anxious, the avoidant more avoidant, so in that sense, they are totally reacting to each other, and although they're definitely bonding, it's not in a healthy way."
So how do you work through early relationship anxiety?
1. Ask yourself why you feel the way you do, instead of judging and criticizing your emotions.
Latoya Nelson, a licensed professional counselor specializing in anxiety, tells mbg that the first step in overcoming these deep-rooted emotions and how they are affecting your behavior is to put them into perspective. To do this, try writing your feelings in a journal or talk to a therapist to help you "identify the source and process feelings regarding it."
Does your anxiousness stem from negative experiences in past relationships? Or are they tied to something particular about this relationship and this person? If the former, acknowledging your fear of being hurt again can help you at least understand and accept your feelings of anxiety. If the latter, it's worth considering whether the relationship you're in is really giving you enough joy to outweigh the negativity.
2. Be open with your partner about how you're feeling.
If you're experiencing early relationship anxiety, your feelings are valid and are often trying to relay valuable information, Juicebox coach and sex educator Stella Harris tells mbg. "It can be helpful to tell your partner how you're feeling," she says. "For one, it's helpful to set a precedent of honesty and transparency. Also, getting in the habit of asking for reassurances when you need them can be really helpful."
If your partner responds poorly to your need for reassurance—or if you don't feel comfortable asking for it from this person for whatever reason—then that's another reason to think through whether the relationship you're in is really the right one for you. After all, Clarissa Silva, behavioral scientist, relationship coach, and the creator of Your Happiness Hypothesis Method, tells mbg you want to find someone who compliments you and who brings out the best in you.
However, before talking to your partner, Harris tells mbg it's important to think about how much attention and affection you expect from the people in your life and be realistic with yourself about those expectations. "It's really important to get your needs for connection met in a variety of places, such as from your friends and social network," Harris says. "It's not possible or healthy for one person to be your everything."
3. Focus on the present moment and not the "what ifs" of the future.
Sometimes when you enter into a new relationship, you might try protecting yourself from reliving past hurt by doubting yourself and doubting the intentions of your partner. Instead of trying to prevent history from repeating itself, Silva suggests empowering yourself by "experiencing the relationship from a strengths perspective."
In other words, home into how this new bond enhances your life in the present moment. When you're focused on everything you're not getting from your new partner, it can be easy to get consumed by anxiety, longing, and frustration. But maintaining a practice of focusing on all the good stuff the new relationship is adding to your life can help dispel that negative energy and allow you to enjoy the ride—unknowns and all included.
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