Most people with anxiety are keenly aware that certain relationships can either reduce or drastically increase anxiety, but do you know why? Most people react from their gut, either withdrawing or frantically seeking a relationship; both often spiral into dysfunctional patterns. With some discernment, you can learn to use anxiety as a diagnostic clue to help you navigate relationships, increase healthy connections, and leave dysfunctional ones.
If you have not heard of Attachment Theory, it is the scientific map of how we bond with others to increase our chances of survival! As mammals, we quite literally depend on emotional bonds with others to survive. Scientific studies have continued to underscore that the warmth and quality of our connections is the number one factor predictive of our life quality, longevity, and is even a huge factor in financial stability.
The one principle we need to understand first is that our need for closeness in relationship is innate, natural, and healthy. For some people, truly understanding this in itself reduces anxiety because it is anxiety-producing to attempt the impossible: to not need others.
Did you know that even autonomy and the ability to self-soothe is created IN functional relationships?! In other words, if you want to be autonomous, you need good relationships to get there!
Is it a Healthy Relationship?
But next comes the tricky part: how do you discern if a relationship is a healthy one that could serve as a “secure attachment,” i.e. one that naturally reduces anxiety for both people while simultaneously allowing both to grow and/or separate at times? A secure attachment has these qualities:
- Both people feel more secure and stable as a result of the connection, they can use the relationship to “calm down”.
- Both people actively “track” the other person (and their own) emotional state and seek to keep both people in a reasonable state of emotional wellbeing.
- Both people experience some, manageable level of distress when separated and are able to and anticipate relieving that distress upon reunion.
- Both people work to maintain a relative proximity, or closeness. (emotional and physical)
If both people are WILLING and EDUCATED, it’s possible to create a secure bond that can enormously reduce both the anxieties of everyday living, and of anxiety disorders.
Signs There is a Problem
However, when emotional abuse or manipulation is present, your efforts to reduce anxiety or build a secure bond will only INCREASE anxiety, and although it will likely feel counterintuitive, you need to leave the relationship to reduce anxiety.
Here are some key signs of emotionally manipulative relationships:
- Your partner wants to isolate you from friends and family.
- Your partner belittles, humiliates you, and attacks your self worth, even “jokingly”.
- Name calling, insults, and false accusations.
- Your partner relies inordinately on blame, towards you and others.
- Your partner instills fear, uneasiness or intimidation with words, actions or an explosive temper.
- Your partner “punishes” or retaliates for time you spend away from them.
- There is excessive or extreme jealousy.
- Your partner manipulates your emotions in an attempt to induce guilt.
- Your partner checks your phone or social media accounts without permission.
These are signs that your partner is not able or willing to form a mutually supportive, fair connection with you. The tricky thing about manipulative relationships is that well-meaning people tend to work harder to try to resolve or fix the situation. This is a good instinct unless the relationship is manipulative, in which case doing so will only increase your anxiety.
If your relationship is healthy, you will experience a mutually supportive connection that decreases anxiety overall.
In other words, if you have the building blocks for a secure connection, dive in and use the relationships to help you build a power-house self-soothing mechanism! If you’re doing it skillfully, you’ll feel less anxious over time. On the other hand, if you have a predominance of manipulative or abusive patterns in the relationship, it’s time to recognize that the relationship is and will only manifest anxiety for you. Bite the bullet and exit the relationship unless your partner is ready and willing to learn radically new behaviors. Use your time and energy to build healthy relationships which are designed to be the most natural and most effective anxiety-reducers!