Your most recent relationship just ended. While you’re upset, you’re not very surprised. Honestly, you could tell from the beginning that it was going to fail. Does this sound familiar? Do you believe that attachments lead to expectations and expectations lead to disappointment? When you start to feel too close in a relationship, do you pull back?
It is likely you’ve experienced similar thoughts to these, or you’ve been in a relationship with somebody who has. These attachment issues go by several names, such as “relationship anxiety” or “commitment phobia.” This struggle often stems from previous poor romantic relationships or negative relationships observed at a young age. However, there are endless other causes that can result in fearing commitment. Stereotypically, people tend to think of men as dominating in commitment issues, but anybody can develop these.
When you have relationship anxiety, you try to keep your partner at a distance. You believe that if you keep yourself from getting too close, it’ll hurt less when the relationship inevitably ends. Unfortunately, that anxiety can be the cause of a failed relationship that may have otherwise survived. A recent study in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships sought to understand how attachment security (or lack thereof) affected relationships. Researcher Ashley Cooper and her colleagues discovered that people with relationship fears were more likely to have erratic feelings about their partnerships. Additionally, when women exhibited relationship anxiety, it triggered the men in their relationships to experience similar feelings.
The study found that when one person in a relationship had commitment phobia, both partners began to feel anxious and distrustful, and there were low levels of relationship satisfaction. Researchers determined, “Our findings highlight the importance of being aware of attachment insecurities for both partners, how they manifest, and the different ways in which they impact relationship quality.” You shouldn’t be ashamed of having relationship anxiety, but it’s important to be aware of how it can affect relationships.
According to the study “Rejection Sensitivity and Relationship Satisfaction in Dating Relationships: The Mediating Role of Differentiation of Self”, commitment anxiety can cause several problems in relationships. For example, someone fearing rejection might become emotionally distant with their partner, which “might result in fewer opportunities for engaging in shared activities or other intimate acts, further leading the individual to find his or her relationship unsatisfactory.” This emotional distance might also cause the individual to “engage in self-silencing behaviors, whereby they purposely withhold expressing their needs or desires in order to preserve their relationship.” Meanwhile, the person interprets their partner’s ambiguous actions to be negative towards them.
Put more simply, fearing rejection can cause it. Imagine you are in a new relationship and it’s going well. Suddenly, your partner becomes more distant, without any explanation. You can tell that they need something from you, but they aren’t telling you what. As you try to help, they interpret your concern as criticism. Communication is key here. It’s important that both partners in a relationship feel they can be open with each other. When we fear something, our body’s natural response is to shut down, but this is the very time we need to open up. Don’t try to love from a distance. If you’re feeling anxious in a relationship, let your partner know. You can better fight it as a team.
By Carlos Todd, PhD
 Ashley N. Cooper et al. Volatility in daily relationship quality, Journal of Social and Personal Relationships (2017).
 Norona, J. C., & Welsh, D. P. (2016). Rejection sensitivity and relationship satisfaction in dating relationships: The mediating role of differentiation of self. Couple and Family Psychology: Research and Practice
Accept Conflict Let’s admit it. If there are two or more individuals in the same space during the holiday season conflict is almost inevitable. People will disagree. One will disagree about who does the driving, how your partner drives, where to go for the holidays, how much money to spend on gifts and the list can go on and on. If one can accept the very real possibility that conflict will likely occur you set the stage for lowering your expectations and being more open to listening to different opinions.
Be Willing to Say “Sorry” One of the most important aspects of a relationship is emotional safety. Refusing to say sorry creates an environment where individuals defend turf and avoid, at all costs, any hint of vulnerability. Saying sorry opens the door to allowing the other person to express remorse themselves. Holiday planning can be stressful. An environment of vulnerability and openness can be a great stress reliever. I encourage couples to own up to mistakes quickly. Long drawn-out fights in the middle of the holiday add to stress and create negative memories that one may regret for years to come. Therefore, let it go. Say sorry sincerely and move on.
Steal Moments Together Conflict can be a sign that a couple is not connecting. In the hustle and bustle of the holiday, couples can have their time pulled in many directions. This can put a strain on the quality time spent growing the relationship. It may be unrealistic to go for a walk in the park when family members are visiting but spending a few moments talking in the bed before you get moving in the morning, or stealing a few minutes in the restroom together just for a quick hello, or sending sweet texts to one another just to let the partner know that that they are loved and supported during the stress of the holidays can go a long way to avoid unnecessary conflicts
Fight Fair Let’s face it! During the holidays, conflicts will occur and when they do following a few simple rules will ensure that couples do not create emotional injury with nasty fighting. According to John Gottman, there are four rules to fighting fair. 1. Don’t criticize. This means to not say things like, “how could you be so stupid to spend money on that item.” 2. Don’t use contempt. For example: “you’re stupid,” “you’re lazy.” 3. Avoid defensive behavior (it’s not fair, But…, It is not my fault that…. 4. Don’t stonewall (leaving the room, silent treatment, mumbling under your breath, etc)
Access Your True Feelings Finally, instead of expressing anger express your true emotions. Anger is considered a secondary emotion–meaning that any time one feels anger there is an underlying emotion that is driving that anger. In the case of the holidays feeling of disappointment that one cannot spend time with his/her family; or feeling of inadequacy because there is not enough money to get certain gifts can be expressed as anger. The same is true if there are feelings of grief over relatives that are not around for this holiday. Because of social conditioning, all these underlying emotions can be expressed as anger instead of what are they truly. Expressing your true emotions can bring you closer to family members and reduce the incidences of conflict.