01 Mar

Relationship Anxiety

When asked why life is stressful, we often talk about the demands of work, the responsibilities of being a parent, paying our bills and so on.

Yet, as I discuss here, every time we interact with another person it introduces an element of uncertainty into our lives, and under certain conditions, can generate remarkable levels of stress. This article examines the fundamental basis for this stress response and how it  connects to conflict, anxiety, and depression.

At a general level, there are many similarities between people in how they experience their self, others, and the world. Without such commonalities we could not communicate, share ideas, work together towards goals, and so on.

But I don’t think we properly appreciate the remarkable quality or quantity of  the differences which exist between each and every one of us, in how we are experiencing this thing we call reality.

Neither do we properly appreciate how those differences impact on our relationships with others. Let me expand on this further.

From moment to moment, my experiences  of the “me in here”, the “you over there”, and the “world out there”, comprises my reality. That experience provides the basis for what I believe, and how I live my life. I must be able to trust this.

Trusting that my perceptions are accurate is as important for me as it is for you.  Yet surprisingly, none of us experiences or interprets “reality” the same way – ever.

Even at the same moment in time, and same physical location, someone standing next to you, looking at the same event will be having differing experiences from yours.

Indeed it is quite possible the two of you could be having experiences so dramatically different you would never even know you were in the same room.

Nonetheless, both of you will be experiencing your own personal reality; a reality which is true for each of you, but not the same for either.

Thus when two people start talking to each other, they are always expressing their personal version of reality to each other.

Every interaction I have with someone introduces me to a version of reality different from mine; sometimes similar, sometimes diametrically opposed – never the same.  Both of us will assume that our view of reality is true.

So what happens when one person’s perceptions and experiences of reality, their truth, comes up against another person’s perceptions and experiences, and those truths do not match?

Every time this happens, we experience some measure of anxiety; a response which is often so small it is unnoticed.  Sometimes however, this anxiety response triggers a large alarm.

The answer to the question as to when is the alarm small and when is it large is, “It depends”.

If we happen to be engaging in “small” talk, differences in our experiences may seem inconsequential such that the alarm bell will be essentially silent.

But if two people present each other with differing experiences of reality that have high personal importance where there is a need to be right about one’s perceptions,  the alarm bell will be loud, and each person will begin to experience strong emotional reactions. It is here that the possibility for conflict begins.

This can become painfully obvious when disagreements occur with those we are supposed to feel safe with, or to whom we are “close. Depending on a complex array of personal, relational, and situational dynamics, such disagreements may lead to aggressive argument or even conflict, or they may eventually be peacefully negotiated. Whether we like it or not, conflicted disagreements threaten the fundamental assumption of trust we work so hard to establish in our close relationships, which was one of the primary reasons for having that relationship in the first place.

What is fueling this conflict  is not simply the subjective differences in opinion.  Rather, the conflict is being energized by a challenge to each person’s perception of reality, which links directly to our fundamental need to know what is happening around us and to be able to trust those perceptions.

Interestingly, for some people, their fundamental sense of security concerning their own perceptions is strong and robust.  When their perceptions of reality are challenged by others their reactions are well controlled and relatively calm.

For others however,  their fundamental sense of security is weak and fragile.  Their reactions when their perceptions are challenged can be quite volatile and even aggressive.

Why some people are secure while others are insecure is complicated.  Why some issues in particular press “hot buttons” for some people and not for others is also complex and neither issue can be properly covered here.

What I do want to emphasise is that If threats to our beliefs about what is right, true, and fair are constantly occurring, then even the strongest amongst us will begin to more experience mounting anxiety.  And if this continues over an extended period of time we will begin to experience chronic stress with all of the associated symptoms.

If we have no solution to this chronic threat we will begin to burn out.  Eventually we will begin to experience depression.

Please read my next post, Relationship Anxiety (Conclusion), for my closing remarks.