Overcoming Relationship Anxiety
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | March 2015
Relationship insecurity haunts new relationships. We cannot control others, forcing them to soothe our pains. Some partners will be toxic or incapable of providing the care we need. The best we can do is identify our own weaknesses and begin the work.
The elderly couple holding hands, young lovers oblivious to the world, a spouse sitting in the hospital supporting her critically ill husband—glimpses of love that softens our hearts. We see the kindness and caring, passionately hoping to experience the same. Many couples succeed, connecting with intimacy, establishing life friendships, and enjoying the fairy tale ending. But we also know marriages, commitments and friendship sometimes fail. We are social creatures. Science theorizes that the complexity of human interaction (reading of emotions, cooperation, etc.…) drove the rapid development of the human brain. Relationships require complex processing of dynamic and quick flowing information, with too much awkwardness and we are shunned, with too much confidence and we are excluded.
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Although human needs have changed—immediate survival no longer depends on tribe inclusion—navigating the complexities of society still requires knowledge, emotions and wisdom. A loving partner eases the challenges of this magnificent journey; two people can combine valuable resources. Working together, we achieve more security—financial, emotionally, and physically; but the commitment also adds to complexity. A partner is not an object—a puppet moving to our commands; but a living dynamic being. Partners have individual desires, dreams and motivations which they must honor. A partner’s strengths and weaknesses add to a couple’s fullness, adding new dynamics to experience.
A close relationship may rescue us from painful trajectories. Their influence may intervene and correct painful cycles—but not always. We must also make changes, modifying expectations, exploring emotions and working through faulty motivations.
Menacingly mixed in with the joys of living, we find disappointments, discouragements and suffering. A loving partner works with us—supporting, encouraging and holding, as we navigate through the difficulties. Even a perfect partner can’t save us from these discomforts. Love in all its power cannot create a pain free paradise. Yet many fantasize of a perfect existence. Perhaps lack of emotional attunement in childhood created an emptiness that relationships are expected to but never can completely fill. We know something is missing. Extreme sensitivity to emotions suggests that something is wrong. Like the newborn, through caregiver attunement, learns to soothe emotional disruptions, we seek comfort from the emotional explosions of life. Hoping to escape from the cruelty of over-sensitivity, we fantasize that our lover will save us; when they don’t, we either attempt to transform the monster we married or run away with the perceived prince (princess) we barely know.
Unrealistically expectations cloud the goodness in the present. Fantasy dulls reality. Partners fail to compete when they rival against the bright glitter of fantasy. The reality of connection loses sparkle next to the colorful rainbows of dreams. The impassable gulf between reality and fantasy invites discouragement, disappointment, anger, and sadness. Real life must be contended with, not dreamed away. Real answers to real problems, seeing the immediate steps to take today, not some saving grace that will swoop down and save us from the realities.
Our connections depend on real solutions. In our weaknesses, we still must contend with over-sensitivity to emotions.
A new partner won’t cure the sensitivities; we must combat the inner-demons. The problems disrupting peace before princess charming arrived usually return once the princess loses her crown. Our insecurities return; our ache for fulfillment remains unresolved. The ecstasy of new romance may momentarily mask the discomforts. The early delights appear to solve the past. New relationships entertain the fantasy of paradise. We foolishly believe, lost in love, that we discovered a short-cut to healing.
"Love in all its power cannot create a pain free paradise."
The glorious feelings of romance—love—are powerful. Embrace the moment. Enjoy the passing distraction of early romance. But true love offers more than a passing distraction; love, carefully nurtured, strengthens into intimacy and aids with healing. If grasped too tightly, demanding too much, the joys quickly fade inviting anger and disgust.
Loving partnerships increase resources to grapple with irritators from the past; the persistent emotions keep disrupting connections. When the emotions are strong, we will need outside assistance to guide us through the bonding process. Once the initial giddiness fades and residue from the past creeps out from shadows the challenges will arise. But sadly, we dampen new partner’s desires to help by blaming them when the bothersome past returns. We must be realistic with our healing. We won’t experience continued paradise. We must face the work required to enjoy intimacy. Without patience we will continually abandon good people for another injection of new love. No partner is good enough to constantly nourish the broken soul in need of healing. The emotional black hole sucks everything into the void and still remains empty. Eventually the past resurfaces. We can either find another distraction (love object) or lovingly accept reality and face the process of healing, appreciating our imperfect partner, leaning on professionals to assist in organizing the new experiences, and patiently enjoying our relationship within our limitations.
We soothe the pain just enough that we can adapt more mature responses to life, ditching juvenile defenses for constructive adaptations.
The path of love that flows from the beginnings of attraction to the security of intimacy may be foreign, unfamiliar to our experience. We can’t travel unfamiliar roads with confidence—it’s impossible when our history is littered with too many painful endings. We must move forward, timidity placing a single foot forward. With awkward progression, unclear which direction to take, we seek help; but with heightened awareness, we begin to examine the hurts. Mindful breathing assists in these first explorations into our souls. By taking the helm, we direct action, and healing begins. Habitually blaming each new partner for failures while denying personal responsibility, we continue destructive behaviors—weakening connections, living a life of loneliness.
By blaming a partner, we demand them to make us happy, passing the responsibility for our happiness to them. We momentarily relieve our anxiety of not knowing how to connect, skirting responsibility and focusing on outside triggers. We all are guilty, engaging faulty responsibility assessments. We point the finger because blaming feels better than the weight and guilt of responsibility. Honest personal inventories uncover troves of riches; undiscovered they ferment and rot. We must be honest; if the only fault discovered is that “we love too much,” we must dig a little deeper. “Loving too much” is often a beatification of an uglier flaw--we demand too much from love.
If our examinations fail to uncover personal fault, our self-assessment screams self-deception in the service of faulty ego protections. Blindness to personal fault is the first obstruction to address. In these cases, the pervasive defense mechanisms must be dismantled through gentle coaching of a close friend or a skilled professional.
Until we take responsibility, we won’t recognize the changes necessary for intimacy. Close relationships will remain beyond our grasp. Many fearfully dodge responsibility with defensive rhetoric, "But then my partner will do whatever they want!" Allowing individual freedom to partners terrifies when those before abused that freedom. Partner freedom is essential to intimacy, creating vulnerability; and the only path to trust and healing. If a partner’s past also was traumatic, tormenting their present serenity and interfering with their openness, our manipulations will not cure these ills. The controlling tools of guilt, name calling, or hurt never forces healthy change—manipulation doesn’t make an unhealthy relationship healthy. Manipulation deepens the divide.
With insecurity, unhealthy behavior invades all interactions, creating an impenetrable wall—fear, anger, disappointment, self-righteousness, discouragement, and depression; a wall that stands between us and the healing power of intimacy.
We need more personal responsibility; not control. By taking responsibility, we direct attention to the frailties in our hearts, increasing understanding and empathy towards ourselves and our partners. By allowing partners to be free agents, free of the nasty manipulations and hidden barbs of guilt, we allow the relationship to strengthen, forging trust through the overgrown jungles of insecurity that repeatedly have strangled hopes for connection.
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