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There’s worry -- and then there’s worry. Some of us get sweaty palms before a big work presentation or stay up all night wondering if we’ll meet a major deadline. People with anxiety fret over the big stuff, plus the minutiae of everyday life. Their thoughts are a constant barrage of what ifs. What if my train isn't on time? What if it rains? What if there are bedbugs in this movie theater seat? What if my friend is mad at me? Every situation, it seems, comes with the potential for disaster.
Here's the problem: A high degree of worrying can take a serious toll on a person’s relationships. A new study in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology found that anxiety -- and the techniques used to cope with it -- can erode both friendships and marriage. For that reason, the researchers believe that problems in interpersonal relationships are often a symptom of anxiety, and should be dealt with in therapy when treating anxiety disorders.
Even though people with anxiety tend to worry most about their interpersonal relationships, it often gets expressed in negative ways, such as excessive doting or criticism. According to the study, people who are anxious tend to have what researchers call an “insecure attachment” style. They magnify threats, so that the slightest infraction turns into an all-out catastrophe: He didn’t call when he said he would means he’s dead or he hates me. Other research shows that people with this relationship style also have a harder time regulating their emotions. The result is a minor misunderstanding, like a forgotten phone call, can turn into a major blowout fight. For that reason, says the study, people with anxiety tend to have more marital conflict and dissatisfaction.
Anxiety can manifest in different ways, depending on other aspects of your personality, according to the study. Some people react to their worries with aggression, while nonassertive types may withdraw. Nurturing types hover and fret, while others put up walls and appear cold.
For instance, says Case Western Reserve psychologist Amy Przeworski, the study’s lead researcher, one person may exhibit their worry with frequent expressions of concern, like the woman who calls her spouse every five minutes to get an update on what’s going on. Another may express the same worry by criticizing the behaviors in her partner that she deems careless or reckless.
“The worry may be similar, but the impact of the worry on their interpersonal relationships would be extremely different. This suggests that interpersonal problems and worry may be intertwined,” Przeworski says.
A few weeks ago, while out with my friend and his long-time partner, I witnessed just how much of an impact worrying can have on a relationship. Even though my friend James has been cancer-free for over a year now, he is plagued by a lung condition and autoimmune disease -- the result of his cancer treatment. Tired of being the patient, James wants to get back to his normal life and not worry so much about his health. His partner Steve, on the other hand, can’t stop obsessing over his condition, and continues to assume the role of caregiver (albeit a nagging one). From the moment we met up, Steve was on James about everything. “Did you wash your hands?” “Don’t touch that.” “Did you eat today?” “You had red meat yesterday.” In turn, James gritted his teeth, rolled his eyes and snapped at Steve. They bickered relentlessly, until finally I couldn’t take it anymore and excused myself.
Much to the credit of my husband, he does not seem to mind that I, too, hover, fret, am constantly on the lookout for disaster and apologize way too often. He often takes it all in stride. Of course, a good deal of therapy has also helped. If he doesn’t call me when he says he will, my mind still jumps to macabre conclusions, but it’s nothing a quick text message can’t resolve. So, I don't have to worry.