Managing Anxiety in a New Relationship

Angie Dion, MFT, LMFT, Therapist

Posted by: Angie Dion
MFT, LMFT, Therapist

When you're an anxious person, dating can feel really, really tough. Especially, in a new relationship (within the first few months) there are lots of things that may cause your anxiety to spike. How will you handle your first fight? What if you need something from your partner but you’re not sure how to express it to them? What if your partner’s way of coping with hard things is to withdraw and take time to themselves? How do you handle your own insecurities and worries amongst getting to know someone new?

From my experience, people with anxiety tend to be more in tune with and sensitive to how others are feeling and acting in relationships. You may even be able to sense that something isn't right with your dating partner before they are even conscious of it. There are a lot of labels put onto anxious people that can feel heavy: pursuer, overfunctioner, people pleaser, codependent and, clingy. None of these labels feel good, but there is some truth to them. People who are anxious tend to put a lot of thought, time and energy into their relationships; in fact, we can be downright hypervigilant about our partners and their needs. The downside of this is that we put other people’s needs before our own. This attunement to others can cause us to feel neglected when we don’t get the same attention and care. What I'd like you to know is that the hypersensitivity that you have in relationships with others can be used to your advantage. People who are anxious tend to be more aware of other people’s needs, both emotionally and physically. You tend to have a good read on the “temperature” of people and are good at taking care of others. You are probably a really good support for your partner as well as your friends. You pay close attention to the details in the lives of those you care about. You may be the person who can say something like, “is everything okay? did something happen?” and get a bewildered look from your partner as they wonder how you knew something wasn’t right before they said anything. 

Let’s think about when something goes wrong in your relationship. Maybe you’ve had your first fight or maybe you’ve had a hard day and need some support and soothing from your partner. In general, anxious people tend to be drawn to people who are less anxious than them. The thing that drew you to your partner may have been their laid back and carefree attitude. You may be soothed by the presence of someone who is calmer and less emotionally reactive, however, those people may not be able to attend to your emotional needs as well as you’d like them to. You will have to get good at asking for what you need and teaching someone how to best  take care of you. This can feel scary in a new relationship. Being vulnerable takes courage and practicing it with someone that you’re still getting to know takes even more courage.

What if your partner is dealing with their own hardships and needs to take some time to themselves to figure things out? This idea in itself isn’t wrong or a bad idea, however, something that can spike your anxiety is when someone begins to pull away without an explanation. My guess is that when you feel someone withdrawing, your first instinct is to go after them and find out what's wrong, right? You want to learn what's going on so that you can "fix" it. However, this action of charging forward could backfire on you. This desire to “fix” it is more about you than your partner. You want to help them so that they aren’t withdrawing anymore. Something I want you to consider is that this attempt to help may be an attempt to soothe your own anxiety. This “I can help, let me try!” attitude may end up pushing your partner further away as they may see it as you not respecting their space.

When you feel that sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach, take a deep breath to help to slow yourself down. Then you’ll be better equipped to identify other ways to respond to this situation in a new relationship. Some people might back off to refocus their energies. Others might say nothing and decide it is their partner’s responsibility to advocate for themselves. Again, if your initial instinct leaves you with a pit in your stomach I don't want you to ignore the feeling as it is there for a reason. Your body and your brain are trying to alert you to something. The question you need to ask yourself is: what are all the different ways I could respond to this feeling that I am identifying?  If you tend to function as an anxious person in relationships, you may have learned from past relationships that you're too much to handle or that you can't rely on other people to stick around when things get tough. I know how hard it can be in a new relationship to not compare the behaviors of your new partner to past partners. You are not being fair to yourself or your new relationship if you are doing this though. 

If you notice your partner withdrawing, the next question to ask yourself is: what does their withdrawal mean?  Does the withdrawal mean that your partner has suddenly lost interest, is dating someone else, or doesn't find you attractive anymore?   Could there be other explanations that might have caused your warning alarm to go off?  Could your partner be overwhelmed at work? Could they be distracted by family of origin issues, or friendships?  Could they simply like more distance in a relationship than you typically like? Take some time and brainstorm about what has been happening in your relationship. What has your partner been distant about? What does that feel like to you?  Get out a pad of paper and a pen and start writing. Put all of the negative thoughts that are swirling around in your brain down. Then I want you to read over what you've written and see if there is any truth to what you've put on paper. How many of the negative thoughts and statements are related to what is happening right now and how many of those thoughts are related to what has happened to you in the past? After identifying what applies to your current situation, you can begin to formulate what you'd like to say to your partner about what this worry feels like to you. 

What I want you to take away from this is not to rush after your new partner. If you are feeling some distance and you're starting to panic, take some deep breaths and try out the writing exercise above. If you've always rushed after partners in the past and it hasn't gotten you anywhere, I want you to try something new. I am going to encourage you to sit with the discomfort. Let your partner take the space that they need. While they are recharging, you are going to learn about how to soothe yourself. Go for a walk, call a friend, do something that you feel excited about.  Start with small increments of time- try to coach yourself through an hour. If you're able to successfully make it through an hour, can you make it to two hours without reaching out to your partner? What we're trying to establish here, is for you to figure out how to soothe yourself without relying on someone else to comfort you.

When your partner does come back. Greet them happily and take some time to reconnect. After you are feeling grounded and soothed, then is the time to bring up what has felt off to you. State your concerns calmly. Ask them for what you need. This can sound something like, "you know, after we spent the day together, I felt some distance between us. I realize that sometimes you might need some down time and I want to be understanding of that. It would be helpful to me moving forward if you let me know when you need some time to yourself. Do you think this is something we can work on?" This calm and collaborative approach can open up a new dialogue between the two of you.

One of the best things about being in a new relationship is the excitement of getting to know someone new. Everything about them feels so interesting and dynamic. On the other hand, new relationships can feel really scary. Learning about someone else's communication style, their likes and dislikes and how they handle strong emotions can all be overwhelming. Wanting to be vulnerable with someone is both scary and exciting. It's no wonder that after deciding that we can trust someone that it can feel really hurtful if they start to pull away. Often we, as anxious people, feel a sense of panic or distress when we can feel our partners pulling away from us. But sometimes, people need to take some space for themselves. Sometimes people need to process things on their own. When you've entered into a new relationship, there are lots of things to process. Vulnerability and intimacy while exhilarating can also be overwhelming. Some people need time to sort through things and feel like their feet are planted firmly on the ground before moving forward. This behavior of pulling away doesn't necessarily have anything to do with you. Remember that people move at different speeds in new relationships and need different things at different times. You can use your increased awareness to your advantage. You can learn to practice patience and managing your feelings of panic and use them to strengthen your relationship.