It was something I didn’t expect. I knew love wasn’t like in the movies, but part of me still believed I would have butterflies, ecstasy, and that a relationship would catapult me into the best time of my life.
Boy was I wrong.
In my first relationship, I did feel all those things: butterflies, walking on air, intense longing, a brightness in my soul. The whole world seemed alive. It wasn’t until later I learned this was because he was never really committed. I wasn’t feeling ecstasy: I was feeling adrenaline. I didn’t know if he was in or out. I wasn’t myself. I felt nervous and insecure. Like jumping from an airplane, adrenaline swept my body, creating a high.
That relationship didn’t last long. I was in, and he was out. I was devastated, unsure, and ready to block myself off from further hurt. I erected more walls than ever before, but that didn’t stop me from hoping for love.
I found it. It was night and day from the previous relationship. I felt no butterflies, and my feet were very firmly on the ground. There was no ecstasy and no thrill of the chase. Instead, there was a feeling deep in my gut telling me to leave. My heart agreed, my emotions backed them up. Only my head told me to stay. For two and a half years, those feelings and gut urges would continue. I’d stumbled into relationship anxiety.
What is it?
Fortunately, I was very aware of myself and what I needed to work on in my life, so it didn’t take long for me to find a blog and then courses on relationship anxiety and do the work. As I did, I discovered the reason for the lack of butterflies, as well as the urge to flee.
Butterflies are caused by nerves, and ecstasy by adrenaline. With my current boyfriend, I had zero reason for nerves. From date #1, it felt as if we knew each other. I’d never been so immediately comfortable around a guy I liked. I was ultimately and wholly myself.
And he was into me. 100% committed almost immediately, just as I was. We both knew what we wanted, and we knew we’d found what we were looking for.
And finding what you are looking for and realizing the other person is looking for you, too, is TERRIFYING. Why? Because now it’s locked in. Now there’s no wiggle room, no back door you can exit just in case. No dreaming about whether or not he likes you or what moves you’ll use next. You don’t need any moves or daydreaming. There’s no gray area.
And suddenly you have to face who you are, who he is, and what it takes to build a relationship. Now you’ve gone from seeing if he’s interested to commitment. And that, my friends, can trigger a load of anxiety. Especially if your past relationships have been crap (and not just romantic ones! If you’ve been hurt or hate feeling vulnerable, facing a deep relationship can be hard!). For myself, I’d had bad relationships with both parents, and after my experience with my ex, the walls I’d erected were pretty strong.
And here was someone asking me to lower them and willing to do the same.
And it suddenly hit me that I wasn’t sure if I was ready. Did I want him in my life? Did I want to be a couple? Would I lose my individuality? Would I lose my dreams? Should I test him to see if I could trust him?
Those thoughts occupied me just as much as the butterflies I’d previously had. Every time I was around my boyfriend, I had major panic attacks. I wanted to leave. Everything in my body physically and emotionally screamed at me to run every single time we were together.
Only my head said “Stay.”
I can’t express how awful the anxiety felt. My stomach hurt, every muscle was tense, and it just felt absolutely wrong in the deepest sense. Like walking into a job you don’t like or an environment you feel absolutely uncomfortable in, where everything just screams at you to get out. Whenever we were apart, I wanted to be with him, and whenever we were together, I felt so awful, I wanted to leave.
It was confusing. Which part of me did I trust?
I decided to ignore my heart and my gut and listen to my head.
My head told me this was the man I’d always dreamed of. It told me he was perfect for me and that my anxiety was because of work I needed to do on myself. It told me if I left, I would have the same issue with the next committed relationship.
I trusted that voice, even though my panic attacks grew worse and worse, and arguments piled up each time we were together as the stress became more than we could handle.
But I plugged on. I took relationship anxiety courses and read as much material as I could. I wanted this man. I wanted my dream. And I had to figure this out, so whichever decision I made could come from a clear place inside me.
The only clarity I found was when we were apart. In those moments, when my emotions settled, I knew this relationship was perfect for us. But I struggled to hold onto that when my gut started screaming at me to leave. It was then my head would remind me of what I’d determined while I was in a space where I could think clearly.
Relationship anxiety occurs when intrusive thoughts assail your mind, making it difficult to concentrate on your partner and creating emotions telling you to leave. Intrusive thoughts are thoughts you don’t want, which come unbidden, and which are difficult to rid yourself of. They look like this:
“I don’t love him.”
“She doesn’t love me.”
“He’s not handsome enough.”
“She’s not intellectual enough.”
“Maybe with someone else this would feel different.”
“She would be better off if I left.”
“I don’t feel attracted.”
“He’s really not funny.”
“I need to stop leading her on.”
The thoughts are very convincing, and you begin to obsess over them, trying to both prove them wrong and prove them right at the same time. You bring out the jury and judge each thought, looking for evidence for and against them.
But you could amass evidence forever, and as much as you try to find the right choice or uncover the hidden meaning, it eludes you.
Because, as long as there are no obvious warning signs (abuse, addiction, misalignment of major goals such as having kids), the only right choice is the one you make. And you can choose whichever. You can choose to walk away, seeing the evidence as proof you should leave, or you can choose to stay, viewing the evidence as proof you should work on yourself and the relationship.
Neither choice is right or wrong. Just keep in mind that the anxiety is likely going to rise again in your next committed relationship, so you want to make your choice from a clear place instead of in response to the emotions.
Which is really hard.
So that’s what relationship anxiety boils down to. It’s made up of intrusive thoughts your brain throws out to try to protect itself from making a “wrong” decision, which results in powerful emotions, such as discomfort, the urge to flee, and irritation. Along with that come other symptoms such as panic attacks, a sick feeling in your stomach, and tension in your muscles.
The opposite of butterflies.
And yet, relationship anxiety doesn’t mean you have to walk away. It doesn’t mean deep love isn’t right in front of you. It doesn’t mean you have to experience panic attacks every time you are around your partner, and it isn’t a sign you’re making the wrong decision.