• Once the honeymoon period is over, relationship anxiety can creep in and convince us that our relationship isn't worth working on

  • Our romance-addicted culture, says author Sheryl Paul, blinds us from seeing that long-term love is effortful 

  • If your relationship is struggling, find a therapist here

What is relationship anxiety?

I define “relationship anxiety” as pervasive doubts about a healthy, loving relationship. It usually begins with a thought like, “Do I love my partner enough?” or “What if I’m not in love or attracted enough?” and spirals from there into a level of anxiety that interferes with your ability to be present in your relationship, and often in your life.

Relationship anxiety generally manifests in two ways, either of which can occur at any point in the relationship, from early on or years into marriage. The first type of relationship anxiety occurs in a defining moment when the thought, “Do I love my partner enough or at all” enters the mind. Prior to this thought, the person describes their relationship as: “Wonderful, loving. Everything I’ve ever wanted. We have an amazing love between us, and it’s pretty much perfect.” The couple often had a long honeymoon period and a very healthy relationship. The early stages of this type of relationship anxiety are characterised by the desperate need to “get back the feelings,” as the loss of in-loveness feels like their hearts have been cut out of their chests.

The second type of relationship anxiety occurs more gradually and may have even been present in the very early stages of the relationship. This type of anxiety is characterised by a pervasive feeling of doubt, lack of attraction, the sense that you’re really “just friends,” and you’re only staying in the relationship because you’re too scared to be alone. Statements like, “We don’t have enough chemistry” and “I’m settling” tend to dominate this type of relationship anxiety.

This can be particularly disconcerting because, in a culture that exalts the in-love feelings as the sole indicator that you’re with the “right” partner, the lack of those feelings in the beginning stages can easily spell doubt and doom.

What is healthy love?

In order to leave where we are, we need to know where we’re going, and since our culture leaves us bereft of the principles, definitions, and actions that define healthy love, we must start here. Anxiety is fuelled by unrealistic expectations and faulty beliefs, and nowhere does that show up more than in the area of romantic love. It’s time to update our cultural operating system and download new principles of healthy love so that we can attend to the realm of thoughts by replacing faulty beliefs with the truth.

The best place to start our updating process is with Jungian analyst Robert Johnson, who says, quite simply, that good love is like a bowl of oatmeal. A bowl of oatmeal? How unromantic, you may say. How prosaic, you think. Love should be a decadent Italian dessert. Oatmeal? How depressing. In our romance-addicted culture, this concept rubs many people the wrong way and often elicits questions like: “Where’s the passion, the drama, the excitement? Isn’t love supposed to make me feel alive? Isn’t it supposed to fulfil my every need, even needs I didn’t know I had?”

What Johnson means is that love is not the cure-all that we set people up to believe it is. When love is true and real, it feels warm and sweet in your soul, the way oatmeal feels warm and nourishing in your belly. It feels good. It’s not over-the-top, heart-stopping romance. It just works. It’s nice. It’s comforting. And it might not work all the time, but for the most part, the two of you connect and click in a special way. And, because this doesn’t happen every day, this is something to appreciate and celebrate.

Many people encounter problems in their relationships because the reality falls terribly short of their expectations. Many people expect love to look and feel a certain way and are painfully plagued by a mental list of shoulds: 

  • I should feel in love all the time
  • I should want sex all the time
  • I should look as happy as all my friends look on Facebook
  • I should always want to see my partner
  • I should always feel attracted
  • I should never feel irritated

But ask any couple married over twenty years, and they’ll tell you that these factors are not what you base a long-term relationship on. These couples know what love is, and they know what it isn’t.

They know that love is not . . .

  • infatuation. A relationship may begin as a feeling in a burst of excitement and passion, butterflies and fireworks, but this isn’t real love—and it may not start this way, which doesn’t render the relationship any less worthy or viable.

  • an answer to your problems or the missing piece of your puzzle. The only person who can rescue you from your challenges is you. The only person who can create your sense of aliveness and wholeness is you.

  • fitting into an image from romantic comedy or People magazine.

  • unwavering certainty that you’ve met “the one.”

  • scintillating conversation every time you see each other.

  • feeling attracted to your partner every moment of every day.

  • effortless.

  • liking each other all the time. Your partner will irritate you to no end. That’s normal.

Now let’s explore what love is...

  • Love is action. When you truly love someone, you learn what their love language is and make efforts as often as possible to express your love in the language that your partner can receive. For example, if your partner’s love language is physical touch, you can say “I love you” all day long, but nothing will communicate your love as effectively as giving your partner a hug, a shoulder massage, or a kiss.

  • Love is a choice. We choose to take the risk of loving. We choose to break down the fear-barriers that try to convince us to run. We choose to commit and, through the commitment, allow ourselves to unfold into a lifetime of learning about love.

  • Love is effort. Real love will ask you to extend yourself for your partner in ways that stretch you beyond your comfort zone.

  • Love is an opportunity to grow and learn about yourself. Love invites you to open your heart even when your habitual response is to shut down or withdraw in fear. Love pushes you to your edge, and on the projection screen of your partner’s face, where every fear, insecurity, and old wound will be reflected, you will be asked to take full responsibility for your pain. Through the willingness to feel this pain, your heart will open to the joy of loving.

  • Love is a risk. When you choose to say yes to love, you render your heart vulnerable to the risk of being hurt. Most of us construct elaborate defences as a way to avoid taking this risk, even going so far as convincing ourselves that we must walk away from a loving, wonderful, honest relationship when the truth is that we’re too scared to take the risk of loving.

  • Love is more complicated than our culture dares to acknowledge, as evidenced by the fact that we only have one word for love.

There are so many ways to experience love. Yet when it comes to our intimate partners, we expect to feel one kind of love in one measurement: namely, “madly in love” without a hint of doubt or uncertainty clouding the pure, ecstatic experience.

We exert immense and unrealistic levels of pressure on ourselves—especially during the early stages—to feel an exact amount and sentiment of love for our intimate partners. We believe that we can measure love, that there’s a right way to love or an adequate quantity of love that signals that you’ve met the “right” partner and now you’re legitimised to marry.

In order to widen our perspective on romantic love, it’s helpful to break down the phrase “I love you” so that we start to see its variance and the multiplicity of ways to love your partner. There’s the appreciation you feel when he does something thoughtful and kind. There’s the comfort you feel when you come home at the end of a hard day at work, and she’s there, waiting for you with a plate of hot food. There’s the gratitude you feel when they attend the twelfth family gathering of the year. There’s the trust you feel when you walk through a difficult conflict together and emerge stronger than ever on the other side. There’s the awe you feel when you remember how rare it is to find someone who “gets” you and whom you “get.” There’s the softness you feel when you focus on one physical quality in your partner that melts your heart and brings a smile to your face. There’s the joy you feel when you listen to your favourite song together or have a blast on the dance floor. There’s the feeling of stability that grows when you nurture the garden of your relationship year after year, enduring challenges and celebrating joys, and always knowing that you support your own and each other’s growth and happiness.

When we attune our awareness and widen our consciousness to include these variations in our narrow cultural definition, we know that romantic love is multi-coloured and multi-dimensional. It’s infinitely richer than the images presented on the big screen, infinitely more nuanced and alive than the one-dimensional feeling of butterflies that sometimes initiates a relationship. It’s real and honest, and when we commit to loving one person with whom we can learn, it becomes one of the most fulfilling and meaningful paths we can embark upon.

Sheryl Paul is the author of The Wisdom of Anxiety:

The Wisdom of Anxiety Sheryl Paul

Further reading

Therapy helped me find the right relationship

Being lost together might save your relationship

Relationship therapy saved our marriage

My depression is harming my relationship – what can I do?

Should we get counselling before our wedding?