Hello and welcome to our advice column, Ask MR, where we answer your burning questions, hoping we’ll become the ointment to your life rash. Ask us a question by sending one of us a DM, emailing [email protected] with the subject line “ASK MR A QUESTION,” or simply leaving one in the comments.
This question may simply be exploratory, but I’m going to take it as an expression of relationship anxiety, as that’s usually the source in my experience. I’ve danced around this topic several times, but I have many more opinions on it and am ready to break it. the fuck. down.
By “relationship anxiety,” I mean the nagging feeling that even though you love your partner, something is telling you it might not be right, and therefore you feel trapped in the emotional vice of wanting to stay and wanting to leave simultaneously. This is an awful place to be. If you’re there, I deeply empathize. It’s a lonely kind of desperation, and it’s difficult to intellectualize for a few reasons:
1. You’re biased.
The problem with trying to think your way out of relationship anxiety is you’re not working with a clear head. The unavoidable grief of ending a loving relationship — and the fear of that grief — is a powerful force. It will likely muddle your logic and make you hope your anxiety is benign because that would mean you’re not faced with a gut-wrenching decision and a broken heart. This is very normal pain-avoidant behavior, but it will lead to a kind of confirmation bias, where arguments that support staying will become more attractive, and arguments that support leaving will be met with more rigor. That doesn’t mean staying is the wrong choice, it just means that you’re biased.
2. People want you to do what they did.
The pursuit of personal validation is often mixed up in advice-giving. Those who have experienced relationship anxiety in the past will believe their approach for dispelling it was the right one: those who stayed with their partners will advise you stick it out (don’t wait for a perfect person! love is hard work! doubt is normal!), and those who didn’t will advise you to leave (that kind of doubt is NOT normal! I don’t feel it anymore! listen to your gut!). In other words, take the advice I’m about to give with a grain of salt.
3. All you get are vague aphorisms.
No phrase is more frustrating to someone with relationship anxiety than “when you know, you know.” Not only because it falls in the camp of “arguments that support your heart being smashed to smithereens,” but because it’s incredibly nebulous. How can you endeavor to understand an emotion you’ve never felt? Who’s to say it’s even real? Why would you break your own heart and someone else’s over something that might be fiction, or impossible for you to feel?
4. You are changing your mind a lot.
In a time where your “honest” emotions are meant to be paramount, they’ve never felt more unreliable. You’ll want to marry your partner one month and break up with them the next. This is a function of human emotion and attachment, which, like all moods, wax and wane based on internal and external factors like hormones, insecurity, fear, ambition, independence or codependence.
5. Relationships are a construct.
Whether we’re comfortable admitting it or not, the idea of committed relationships and being with the “right” person is an invented concept. There is no universal truth or binary about romantic rightness — every single person in the world is just like you: guessing their way through it and writing their own rules based on what feels good or seems right.
All this is to say, relationship anxiety can incite a kind of emotional whiplash. And, like other kinds of anxiety, it often clouds thinking instead of clarifying it. At the peak of mine, I went so far as to diagnose myself with it online and find websites dedicated to writing it off as a mental health concern rather than a relationship concern. That’s how desperate I was to avoid heartbreak.
The source of your relationship anxiety is impossible for me to diagnose as someone who, well, isn’t you, but I will tell you the source of mine: I simply didn’t want to be with my partner anymore. We’d gotten together when we were 19 and 20. We’d grown up together. We had a familiar rhythm I cherished and knew I could never replicate. We knew each other better than anyone and loved each other deeply. And yet, some part of me I couldn’t shake wanting something slightly different. And that was so deeply unsettling to me that I fought it for years.
As the emotion came and went, I waited — pleaded! — to be struck dumb by an answer: yes, be with him, or no, don’t be with him. But in the end, I got neither. What I got was another wave of doubt while on a long walk with my mom. I told her the feeling was back when it hit me: The answer wasn’t hidden somewhere, it had been with me all along as a deep-seated lack of confidence in my desire to be with my partner.
Confidence is very different from certainty. The latter is a form of willful delusion — nothing in life is certain, our beliefs and futures especially. But confidence is something that takes shape in the deep recesses of our minds. It can be intrinsic or hard-earned, but it strengthens over time and can function as an inner guide. When it’s missing, there’s a palpable looseness to our resolve. We’re more vulnerable to winds and whims. When it’s there, we are grounded in something that feels more significant and permanent than a mood or a fear.
For a long time, I gaslit myself into believing my sense that something was “missing” was part of a grass-is-greener complex. But I knew I wasn’t looking for a problem-free relationship or a perfect person to be with; I was looking for a different set of problems and a different person. I was searching for a kind of grounded confidence in a relationship — or even in myself — that didn’t leave me constantly spinning out and changing my mind. There was absolutely nothing childish or delusional about that desire. Nothing.
I’ve been with a different partner for over two years and while I would never claim to be “100% certain” about us (who knows? people change), I can say that I feel “100% confident” about us, a feeling I could never consistently foster in my previous relationships. Do we have off days? Of course. Does he annoy me at times? Definitely. But there is a gut-level sense of I want this and believe in us that underpins our entire relationship. A grounding force that would have been impossible to imagine until I felt it myself.
There is no divine answer as to whether you are supposed to be with your partner. All you have is your confidence or your lack of it. A measure of doubt may be reasonable, but if you’re regularly spiraling about your relationship, you are lacking confidence in it and that can be an important signal that you aren’t getting everything you need from it, whether you understand the mechanics of why or not. And no matter your definition of “right” — whether it’s simply a kind, loving friendship or a soulmate-level bond — obscurity is no way to live, and no way to love; it will distract you and unmoor you over and over. If you desperately want to feel “sure” and don’t, listen to that. Give yourself space to honestly examine it, because you are not crazy. And if you desperately want to be with your partner and quiet your uncertainties, make sure that’s not a fear-based desire and then figure out how to ground your relationship in a positive choice rather than a lack of a negative one.
For me, establishing relationship confidence was ultimately tied to pursuing fulfillment instead of avoiding pain. There’s a reason people say you’re more likely to regret the things you don’t do versus those you do, because fear may be a powerful emotion, but it’s one that seeks to protect rather than actualize you.
If you’re looking for confidence, you won’t find it by hiding from yourself or reasoning you’re not worthy of it. I think you’ll find it by pursuing a connection to your choices that feels deeply honest and genuinely enthusiastic. Not to sound like a cross-stitch pillow but: You get one life. What emotion do you want to fuel it?
Graphic by Madeline Montoya.