ESCAPING RELATIONSHIP ANXIETY---ACHIEVING INTIMACY
Rejection hurts. It hurts bad. The acute pain of a fresh rejection lingers. Sleep—when we can get it—is the only escape from the constant flow of miserable thoughts. Because of this deep pain of rejection, as we move forward we fear possible future rejections. Fear of rejection often starts in childhood; but a painful adult relationship can also initiate relationship anxiety. Young minds are more susceptible but pain hurts at all ages. The more severe the pain, the deeper the wound. The emotional scar then triggers behavioral changes. New relationships then trigger painful memories and ignite anxiety that motivate protective behaviors. Lost love creates fodder for folklore, poems, and songs. But not all our responses are creative. Many responses are destructive—to ourselves and to partners. The vulnerabilities essential for intimacy sparks anxiety that starves new relationships of necessary nutrients. Cruelly, healthy relationships—essential for healing—are sabotaged by the past. Covert emotions motivate behaviors that continue to disrupt closeness.
Hurt --->Defensiveness, Aggression, Manipulation--->Destroyed Relationship--->More Hurt
We all have insecurities; but the expression and intensity differ. Shame, anxiety, and the need for acceptance motivate both healthy and unhealthy actions. Emotions properly expressed enhance connection. But healthy behaviors are not always easily differentiated from the unhealthy. Different partners have different needs. A behavior that enhances closeness with one person may actual damage the connection with another. Because of the complexity, we can easily justify unhealthy behaviors. Behaviors—motivated by anxiety—may be manipulative and controlling but justified as circumstantially appropriate. Protective relationship behaviors range from loving behaviors (doing the laundry) to dangerous threats (if you ever leave me, I’ll make sure it is the last thing your ever do) and even violence. The line between healthy and unhealthy is not definitive. No loud alarms sound when we cross the line and drift into dangerous and fear based behaviors.
Relationships are complex. The magnified emotions of unrealistic fears contribute to relationship complexity. Protective instincts intrude on relationship development. Anxiety motivates early departure, emotional outbursts, manipulations, and intense jealousies. Neither gender is immune from relationship anxiety and the associated powerful emotions. Unmodified insecurities destroy relationships. The emotions generated are real. They are intense. Even though the threat triggering the emotion may not be realistic, the reactionary emotion must be accepted and addressed. This is the ultimate conundrum. The emotion that appears so clearly to be justified often is simply a relic from a painful past. Fixing the outside trigger won’t relieve the anxiety. There will always be another bout of fear and ample events to finger as the trigger. When any partner is constantly expected to relieve anxiety by removing all triggering events, they eventually become discouraged; they need relationship security too. The constant insinuation of inadequacy creates division, separation and eventual abandonment.
The unfolding drama is painful to watch. The victim of relationship anxiety desires a trusting relationship but once it begins to develop, the closeness sparks unrelenting anxiety. The past cycle of closeness and rejection has damaged the person’s ability to enjoy the desired closeness. The close relationship—instead of enjoyed—is feared.
Overtime, trust that a partner will act with our best interest in mind is established by the history of a partner acting with our interest in mind. This process requires vulnerability. Healthy couples do this seamlessly. Life is not constantly viewed as a test of commitment but unconsciously experience provides insights into the future. If our fears are overwhelming everything is seen as a sign of upcoming abandonment. The quiet history of interactions ultimately proves or disproves a partner’s commitment. The actions provide significant answers to the unspoken question, “Will my partner be there for me?” In the face of unrelenting anxiety, the partner is never given the space and time to develop the trust. Years of constant commitment can still be viewed through uneasy skepticism of possible abandonment. The anxiety driven partner constantly tries to manipulate a partner in ways to relieve unrealistic fears. As a consequence, trust is never fully formed. The partner’s behavior is never trusted.
Intense emotions demand relief. Emotions are a bodily reaction to change. The emotions motivate plans and actions to re-establish normalcy. Relationship interactions may signal possible change—the loss of security. Emotions spike into full alert that the situation needs addressing. The organism automatically responds to restore biological normalcy—calm the emotions. This is accomplished in many ways. Commonly we address the triggering event—our partner’s behavior that is creating the emotional explosion. Another reaction is distraction; drugs, sex, alcohol, or abandonment. Another possible strategy is redefining the event. Giving the trigger an alternate more easily digested meaning. This may include recognizing our involvement, our past, and our fears.
The employment of defenses rescues us from the internal disruption and reestablishes homeostasis—balance. Defensive responses are not the enemy; they are the evolutionary response to emotional disruption. Misguided and excessive defenses are the problem. Because the emotional intensity associated with close relationships, defenses in reaction to relationships can be the most intense. While we may interact in a healthy manner at work, a relationship may trigger a whole new intensity of emotions. Excessive use of inappropriate defenses severely hinders intimacy. Another painful rejection justifies the fear instead of the security relationships are supposed to engender—the self-fulfilling prophecy.
Are those caught in this black—hole destine for a life time of pain? There is hope. There is always hope. Painful memories will always remain but their destruction can be limited. We can gracefully live with painful pasts. And in most cases, still enjoy healthy relationships.
Compassionately recognizing defensive reaction before and as they occur is part of the solution. This allows for a separation from the thought and correction of the behavior. We are not reacting to reality but to a painful imbalance of the body states—emotions. The past can be included in present evaluation. This re-evaluation of triggering events requires taking personal responsibility for some of the inner discomfort. Recognizing personal sabotaging behaviors isn’t pleasant but is a necessary step for change.
Relationships are essential to well-being. We are social animals. Recognizing flaws in our social desirability is threatening. Not too far into our evolutionary past, being abandoned by our tribe was dangerous. It threatened survival. Few naturally recognize lack of relationship skills. Our ego prefers to project blame for failure on others. We overestimate our likability. Some social skills are natural. We naturally bond as infants. But we live in complex evolving communities. Likability and strong relationships are a part of this. The requirements for healthy relationships in our current environments have evolved much quicker than biological adaptation. Most relationship skills must be acquired beyond natural inclinations. But awareness of shortcomings is essential for change to begin.
A partner awash with relationship anxiety may smother with neediness to relieve the constant flow of disrupted emotions. But the neediness often overwhelms a partner. If a relationship fails instead of accurately identifying the neediness as an issue, the neediness is easily justified—through defensive mechanisms—as just loving too much. Another partner’s fears may cause emotional aloofness. They respond to closeness by pulling away. The aloof lover easily attributes relationship failure to the moodiness of his partner.
We must maintain hope for intimacy. Part of maintaining hope is established through trust in our ability to change. Human minds are powerful. We can instigate change. Small changes can introduce new healthier responses to the emotional challenges of relationships. We might require professional assistance and insightful friends to transcend our current relationship destroying patterns. But even small changes improve relationships. Initially openness to relationship vulnerability may be limited—long embedded fears will continue to be triggered by closeness. But the small improvements will help. Slowly we will better manage relationship triggered emotions opening up a whole new level of intimacy.
New experiences of closeness further contribute to healing. The healing allows for greater intimacy. Eventually the fears begin to be replaced with security; the cycle of growth. While pasts will continue to occasionally interfere, we can rejoice in our gains and continually hold hope for the future.