Under ordinary circumstances, navigating the world of love and relationships can be as treacherous as driving without GPS at night. Add an anxiety disorder to the mix, and relationships can get even more complicated and confused.

Roughly 40 million American adults suffer from anxiety, which equates to about 18 percent of the general population. Even more of us, about 20 percent of American adults, experience relationship anxiety.

What is Relationship Anxiety?

According to Karla Ivankovich, PhD, a clinical counselor and couples therapist in Chicago, it’s “when one or both people in the relationship spend more time in anxious thought about the relationship than tending to the relationship itself.” They may experience: “A fear of abandonment, feeling as if they care more, incessant worry about infidelity, or an overall fear about the relationship’s viability result in a lack of trust,” she told Health.

Anxiety can affect relationships in different ways. In some, it might cause a partner to be overly dependent. Some people with generalized anxiety disorder have an intense desire for closeness from their partners — leaning on them for a steady stream of support and reassurance. They may find themselves prone to overthinking and rumination; jumping ahead to the worst-case scenario, fearful of rejection, and in need of continuous communication.

If they send a text and do not hear back immediately from a friend or loved one, this may trigger additional overthinking, catastrophic assumptions, and greater fear of rejection. Intense anxiety can lead to inappropriate suspiciousness or paranoia regarding a partner’s behavior. This, in turn, can lead to anger, which can cause someone with anxiety to act out in ways that are destructive to the relationship.

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How to Understand Anxiety in a Relationship

See how the anxieties can trigger a cascade of reactions and responses that may not be reality-based? This behavior, however, can have real life consequences, pushing a partner away and weakening their ability to trust. It’s normal to want reassurance in a relationship, but a constant request for reassurance can feel like neediness to your partner.

“Neediness is the enemy of desire and over time can smother the spark,” writes psychologist Karen Young at Hey, Sigmund. “Make sure your partner has the opportunity to love you spontaneously, without prompting – it’s lovely for them and even better for you.”

If Your Partner Already has an Anxiety Disorder

Others who experience anxiety, however, might have the polar opposite response. Anxiety can cause people to be avoidant in relationships, to hold back, and protect themselves from becoming vulnerable — reducing the possibility of heartbreak.

Someone with anxiety who is avoidant in relationships may become overly independent and detached from their emotions. They may work so hard to avoid negative emotions — such as rejection or disappointment — and refuse to reveal their feelings or open up. A person who is avoidant of close relationships may be described as cold, emotionally unavailable, or distant. In avoidant expressions of anxiety, there is a fundamental level of discomfort with intimacy and a mistrust or unwillingness to believe in a partner’s good intentions.

“Vulnerability – being open to another – is beautiful and it’s the essence of successful, healthy relationships,” Young continues. “The problem with protecting yourself too much is that it can invite the very rejection you’re trying to protect against. Part of intimacy is letting someone in closer than you let the rest of the world. It’s trusting that person with the fragile, messy, untamed parts of you – the parts that are often beautiful, sometimes baffling, and always okay with the person who loves you. It’s understandable to worry about what might happen if someone has open access to these parts of you, but see those worries for what they are – worries, not realities – and trust that whatever happens when you open yourself up to loving and being loved, you’ll be okay. Because you will be.”
Here’s the good news. Anxiety in relationships doesn’t have to be a bad thing, suggests Alicia H. Clark, PsyD: “The most important thing to know about anxiety is that it isn’t dangerous, and nothing is wrong with you if you feel it. Anxiety can actually be a powerful help to you. It is a sensitive amazing tool we all have to pick up on potential threats to the things we care about most. What we do with anxiety can make the difference between it being helpful, or harmful. Anxiety wants to be recognized, and understood.”