We are familiar with the concept of anxiety. We would all like to be relaxed and in control, but sometimes people get caught up in worries that lead to behaviors that others find challenging and which end up producing poor results. Often the kind of behavior that results is on the comical side, so we can sometimes play this down. Sadly, anxiety is one of the absolutely most common reasons why people struggle in dating. We will explore here where this anxiety comes from, what impact it has, and some steps people can take to mitigate its effects.
General anxiety during dating
Many people experience a general nervousness about dating. Some people find it stressful to meet new people. Others find it hard opening up to a complete stranger, as is required while dating. It is not uncommon for people to find the intensity of dating discomfiting, especially sitting face to face with someone and having to engage with them over a long period.
Of course, dating is a “job interview” in several important ways, and many people find the situation of being assessed or even “judged” to be pretty uncomfortable. If you add to that the reality that most dates do not “work,” there is a tangible risk of rejection, which is more than enough cause to be anxious. These are just some of the completely understandable reasons why people may feel anxiety about dating. This, however, is not the focus of the current article, and we shall address it separately.
Insecurity Around Attachment Drives Anxiety
The second kind of anxiety is more psychological. A good percentage of people are affected by feelings of insecurity about relationships. We fear the ending of a relationship because we are afraid of losing someone to who we feel close. The minute a person prone to anxiety feels nervous that the person they are dating may be questioning where things are heading, they are prone to react with anxiety. In the early stages of dating, this is typically internalized (characterized by excessive worry). In later stages, it results in outward behavior (such as being clingy and possessive) towards the person they are dating.
Let us unpack all of this in very simple terms – first, by understanding what anxiety is, and then where it comes from.
Anxiety is a reaction to attachment. If you develop a degree of closeness to another person, you are now somewhat invested in that person. The more you have emotionally connected yourself to the other person, the more you are going to be concerned that the relationship may end. An anxious person will not just be unhappy if someone they liked ended up not going forward with the relationship. Such a person is more likely than most people to feel that a part of them has been cut off.
We draw closer to people as we get to know them, especially as we begin to feel we have strong compatibility with them. So there is some level of disappointment if the relationship ends. But a person who is high in anxiety will react much more strongly than average. They are more likely to feel bereft and the impact of the break-off is going to feel much more intense. Most people who have just had a few dates may think, “big deal, we only went out a few times.” That is not how it feels to people who are naturally anxious. To them, it is a big deal and can be experienced as genuine heartbreak.
Jumping into the Deep End
But that is not all. There is another major difference between how anxious people relate to dating. Most people gradually develop closeness. That is generally a process that is carefully choreographed with the level of progress of the person they are dating. If she is “into it,” he also becomes more attached – and vice versa. The feelings of both parties tend to be closely calibrated. It is not rare that one party in a dating situation feels very different than the other – but with an anxious person, this is really common.
An anxious person is likely to go “all in from a very early point by comparison to other people. A person with an anxious attachment orientation is likely to feel they are in a serious relationship long before other types of people. So, they can be hit with a double-whammy. For these reasons, dating can be quite tough for someone with an anxiety issue.
The issues discussed so far relate to the reaction at the early stage of dating to the possibility of the connection ending. They worry a lot about this and it plays heavily on their mind. It can result in them feeling unusual levels of stress for seemingly no reason. It can cause them to struggle on the actual dates. Part of their minds are pre-occupied with worries about what might happen instead of enjoying the experience. They are concerned about opening themselves up in case they get rejected – which will be super hurtful to them. This makes dating awkward and stilted. Mostly, though, the anxiety is turned inward, and just makes the person more tense and nervous. It is simply not a comfortable state to be in.
The anxiety then brings on clinginess and possessiveness
Once the dating continues to a more established phase, after there have been a good number of dates (the exact number varies among people, of course), the effects of anxiety may shift outwardly. As the people in the couplet now feel more at ease with each other, some unhelpful behavior may start to exhibit. The most usual way the anxiety comes out is by struggling with periods of lack of communication. If you are anxiety-oriented, you will likely balk at a meaningful stretch of time without hearing from the person you are dating.
To the one on the receiving end, this can feel suffocating. He or she does not understand what the big deal is if a day goes by without communication. After all, people have lives to live. But for you who are experiencing anxiety, the gaps in between communication are torture. The gap is filled with worrying thoughts that your date is drifting apart. These sentiments may seem absurd to someone who does not experience anxiety, but they are very real to you.
The real problem is the resultant behavior. The anxiety can drive you to bombard your date with messages asking for endless details about where they are, what they are doing, who they are with, and so on. The rate of the requests constant contact and information can feel overwhelming; in extreme cases, the calls and messages are at a speed of several times an hour. When the responses are slow coming, the messaging and calling behavior can become more intense – and thus more difficult to bear.
While I am describing here a worst-case scenario, to some degree this phenomenon is common for people with an anxious orientation. Ironically, these behaviors are intended to foster connection, but the impact is typically the reverse. People often find the incessant interaction exhausting and dysfunctional. Irrational fears of separation could alienate your date, thereby triggering the realistic prospect of actual separation. In fairness, it should be noted, that some people really enjoy all the attention coming from the anxious person, but it is mostly a negative thing that risks driving the other person away – the very thing the anxious person is most terrified about.
The Roots of Anxious Attachment
Why do anxious people react this way? This is a long story and the answer could fill an entire book. The very short answer is that at a very young age we learn to develop a sense of security. We see how our parents stay with us, support us, provide our needs, and are not pushed away by our sometimes-challenging behavior, and we learn to believe that relationships are strong and dependable. Over time, we internalize these ideas and develop a resilience that allows us to interact confidently with other people.
For a variety of reasons, not everyone developed that inner sense of security. Clearly, if a child is raised in an unstable or chaotic home, they are prime candidates for an anxious state. Children who suffered neglect, abuse, or high levels of tension are highly likely to end up with an anxious orientation. However, plenty of people who did not have such experiences in their early years can develop an anxious attachment orientation, most usually because other experiences in their life generated a heightened sense of fear of detachment. (It does seem that some people are more naturally inclined towards this orientation).
So, what does someone do if they are anxiously-inclined and find that all or part of what is presented here reflecting their reality? This article is already long, so a detailed look at this is not possible, but here are a few helpful insights.
The first thing you could do to help yourself you have already done, namely familiarize yourself with the way you experience anxiety, and the impact it has on you. Self-awareness is vital. Once you understand what is happening, you are in a position to make smart choices. Left in the dark, you can only flail around and stagger your way blindly.
Secondly, please understand that you are fine. This is not an illness. It can have significant negative effects, but usually it can be easily dealt with. Unless this is impacting you in extreme ways, you most likely do not need therapy, and therapy most likely will not help you. You do not need to change, nor can you. This is you, so learn to live with it.
Thirdly, you can date and you can get married. You are not crippled by this. Even if you have had a string of bad dating experiences, now that you are looking to approach things in light of this new knowledge, things could be very different. So, chin up and soldier on; you will be fine.
Fourth, do not go it alone. While an anxious orientation affects a very significant proportion of all people – according to some studies up to one-fifth of people experience some degree of an anxious attachment orientation – it inherently messes with the mind. You are going to be a whole lot better off having a trusted sounding board. If you have a substantial degree of anxiety, it is very difficult to see things completely objectively. You need to take advantage of the expertise of someone who understands these things.
Finally, if you hit a roadblock, do not panic. That is the worst reaction. You are prone to certain over-reactions. Sometimes they may cause a problem. If that happens, everyone needs to stay calm. Life is rarely smooth, and dating is for sure capable of experiencing turbulence. A bump here or there – as unpleasant as it is – is not a reason for losing perspective. These things can be ironed out with good communication.
At an appropriate moment in the dating process, it would be best to explain about the anxiety orientation and how this can put pressure on people to react. Your date is most likely going to be supportive and keep the relationship on track.