Marital anxiety ruins your relationship

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Marital anxiety ruins your relationship because it compromises your ability to listen and empathize with your partner.  When one partner is constantly anxious the relationship runs with two flat tires. But if both parties tend to be anxiously attached to one another, then the relationship is flat on the ground, with all four tires deflated. That’s how marital anxiety creates an imbalance in the security and safety level for partners, and totally disrupts honest and open communication.

Where does marital anxiety stem from?

Marital anxiety has its roots in the relationship anxieties you experienced in childhood. These anxieties develop from feeling unsafe, in an unpredictable environment. You get wired to be alert, and mistrust actual evidence of reliability and commitment. In your mind anything that smacks of looking good is just bait waiting to weaken and debilitate you – threaten your survival.

Then you find a partner and for a short while allow yourself the fantasy that your new mate is the real deal, someone you can count on, but as soon as you let your guard down, your psyche’s immune system goes into overdrive. It senses a foreign body that must be eliminated for you to stay alive. Anxiety is your psyche’s T-cells that fight infection. Your new partner feels like an infection, because it triggers all those old memories of torment and fear.  That same anxiety from childhood recognizes the danger, and shifts from an anxiety about not being safe within your family, to not being safe with your spouse – and that becomes marital anxiety.

What does marital anxiety look like?

The three F’s of marital anxiety

  • Fear that expressing your irritation will escalate into a nasty row and estrangement
  • Fretting that unless you are in your partner’s face you don’t exist for them
  • Feverish attempts to be a “good girl” or a “good boy”– anticipating their every need so that they never have cause to find you deficient or insufficient.

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Marital anxiety effects on marriage

Two years into his marriage 31-year-old Travis’s marital anxiety was so extreme that he cut his 32-year old wife Maggie off when she spoke before she could blame him for whatever cause he imagined. He’d give evidence of having either been a ‘good boy’, or having not being a ‘bad boy’ by failing to repeat something that annoyed her.  It was as if he saw Maggie walking around with a big stick waiting to strike him, so he had to prove his ‘goodness’ and his ‘lovability’ to avoid being whipped.

Travis had been an anxious child, constantly on edge about his parents breaking up and coming together on a regular basis. He had tried to be the ‘good boy’ so that his parents didn’t blame him for their troubles. Sometimes when he felt he was going to be blamed he just wanted his dad to beat him and get the punishment over with, rather than leave it lingering, raising his anxiety to toxic levels. His only way of surviving was to live in the future, preparing for taking over the ‘man of the house’ role when his father next left home after a big blow out with his mom; or preparing for his mom to succumb to her husband’s promises, and have his father return home and rule like a drill sergeant.

Meeting Maggie at a concert venue felt like the answer to his prayers. She was so calm, and responsive to his attentions. He felt honored and special to be in her orbit, but always anxious that she could turn her eye to someone else and fall through his fingers at any moment. Those early fears turned into a full throated marital anxiety that came out and covered the lenses through which he experienced his relationship. He automatically assumed that Maggie’s phone conversations with her longtime friends Kobe and Colin meant that they were giving her something he couldn’t and that she was bound to leave him. The images in his mind were like a speeded up movie leading to a sad and scary end where he would be left alone, without ever knowing what he had done wrong.

Bursting with marital anxiety, and overwhelming insecurity Travis was laser focused to get into Maggie’s head and either verify or debunk the catastrophic anxiety images that plagued his waking hours – as he suffered with throbbing temples, restlessness, dry mouth, shallow and rapid breathing, snappy demeanor, difficulty concentrating, and making mistakes because his automatic pilot was disabled with marital anxiety.


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Marital anxiety blocks the ability to listen accurately

When Maggie communicated her experiences, her feelings and her take on their relationship, Travis seemed like he was listening attentively. But he was not really hearing what she said. He had already decided what she was likely to say that backed up his worst fears. Whatever came out of her mouth, he heard his own script – why? Because the marital anxiety he experienced was activated by the fear center in the brain, the amygdala, and he was in a state of fight or flight – the threat level to his sense of being wanted and important was at its highest level – intense stress in effect knocking him out.  He was shut out of the real world where Maggie was actually reassuring him while also being honest about her doubts and fears that she could ever fully soothe him.

Marital anxiety obscures reality by interfering with your ability to think and make sound judgements.

Caught up in his tornado of marital anxiety Travis was unable to think clearly. Marital anxiety gave him messages of danger, so instead of listening to Maggie’s words and her intentions, he was solely focused on protecting himself from feeling rejected. He’d talk to himself about being a good person, and that he’d manage without her so it didn’t matter what she said. He was unable to use his power of judgement because he wasn’t in touch with reality.

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Marital anxiety need not jeopardize the relationship

An American Psychiatric Association report in 2018 found a 5 point jump in anxiety scores from the previous year especially among younger people, whose anxiety increased as they got older. That means general anxiety is primed to turn into marital anxiety. But it doesn’t have to get to this disturbing point. Here are some ways that marital anxiety can be managed effectively.

  • Get professional help for family of origin insecurities so that you limit the extent of anxiety that you take into your marriage. Rehearse being in the ‘present’ rather than the future to get grounded and have a better connection with reality.
  • Marital anxiety can be curtailed when couples enter premarital counseling and air their anxieties instead of hiding them to maintain a false image. Practicing doing reality checks so that the anxiety from familial relationships doesn’t overwhelm your experience is a necessary skill to master before the marriage.
  • Marital anxiety can be minimized when couples choose to learn about their attachment styles and deal with anxieties inherent in them, when they enter into couples counseling.
  • Marital anxiety can be managed when couples discover their listening and communicating patterns that exacerbate the anxieties between them – they can do this in couples communication counseling.

Copyright, Jeanette Raymond, Ph.D. 2108

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