People experience anxiety and panic episodes in a wide variety of different contexts. Anxious thoughts may be related to health and illness, work stress, trauma, or unexpressed dissatisfaction with a coworker, friend, or family member, among other things. Perhaps lesser known, though equally distressing, is the fear and anxiety associated with worrying that you’re in a relationship with the “wrong” person.
Hollywood and popular culture love to have us believe that romantic love is a fairy tale, in which each of us is destined to meet our one true soulmate and live happily ever after. As it turns out however, while this line of thinking can make for great entertainment, it can also set us up for some very problematic and damaging expectations.
People who are delayed in, or never actually do meet “the one” for them, may feel that somehow they have failed – or even that the universe, destiny, God, or some higher power have let them down.
Equally concerning can be the pressure and anxiety this evokes for you if you are in a committed relationship or marriage, but then start to doubt whether you have mistakenly chosen the “wrong” one, and in reality should be with someone else.
Perhaps you saw someone whom you found more physically attractive. Maybe another person laughed at one of your jokes or just really seemed to understand something about you in a way that your own partner wouldn’t. Perhaps you were just really enamored with this other person and it scared you to realize that you hadn’t felt that towards your own partner in a long time.
If so, you might find yourself in a mental battle between your logic and your emotion, experiencing intense doubt and anxiety, and feeling left alone to decide for yourself which is “right.” To make matters worse, you might also begin to feel anxious about hurting your current partner, disappointing others who have been champions of your relationship, and tearing apart shared social circles.
If this is something you relate to, here are a couple of truths to keep in mind. Just because you are attracted to, or feel a connection with someone other than your partner or spouse, it does not automatically mean that:
1) The other person would make a better partner or spouse for you.
2) There is something wrong with your current partner/spouse and your compatibility with him/her.
3) You need to distance yourself from your partner/spouse and pursue a relationship with the other person.
[For the record it also doesn’t mean that this other person is even available or (I’m sorry to say) open to pursuing a relationship with you.]
What it DOES mean for certain is simply this: You felt an attraction to, or connection with, someone other than your current partner or spouse…and nothing more.
When people feel a magical connection with someone new, we forget that those feelings of newness and infatuation are fleeting, as are all the fantasies of perfection we may project onto this new person. The allure of new attraction, similar to newly realized romance, does not last forever – hence the term “honeymoon” period. In reality, most who have been in a longer term relationship know that those feelings of passion and mystical connection do not typically persist.
Part of us would love to believe in the idea of the fairy tale – that when we get this feeling, it means something cosmic and bigger than us is being set right with the world. We want to hope that the universe, God, stars, psychic energies are trying to tell us,” You’ve made a mistake! You should leave your husband of 17 years for that other man!” or “See?! That cute barista smiled and was nice to you while your girlfriend of 3 years has been cranky and stressed! You can do better!”
This mimics symptoms of OCD – and in fact, is sometimes referred to as “Relationship OCD” in that there are unwanted, anxiety-inducing thoughts of uncertainty (obsessions) and, frequent efforts to avoid, suppress, rationalize, or get rid of those thoughts (compulsions).
Here’s some more truth:
It is NORMAL and COMMON to feel attracted and/or connected to different people – even if you are in a committed relationship, and even if you are generally happy in that relationship.
Problems arise when we start to believe that the alternative fantasy – those feelings, thoughts, or attractions about this other new person – represent something real.
Are there relationships that don’t work out for good reasons? Of course. But ultimately when there are common interests, values, mutual respect, and attraction, there’s no need to buy into the lies – even if there is someone else that even for a moment seems more attractive, understands you better, or makes you feel something differently than your current partner.
So, here are 3 Do’s and 3 Don’ts if you have had unwanted anxiety about your current relationship:
– DON’T make any quick impulsive decisions about your current relationship. When emotions like anxiety are high, our decision making may not be at its best.
– DON’T get down on yourself for merely having thoughts about another person. Thoughts alone don’t mean you are a cheater, a bad person, or have any actual intention of being unfaithful or leaving.
– DON’T forget that you previously have had similar feelings for your current partner. You’ve probably had to put a lot of time and work into preserving and building your relationship, so it’s not something to give up on a whim. You know that good things in life take work and don’t happen overnight, and there’s no guarantee that what you feel for this new person now predicts something more amazing in the long term. The seductiveness of “the new” can often be extremely deceptive.
– DO invest actively in your relationship with your current partner. Spend time talking, reconnecting, being together in intentional and meaningful ways. This can help you remember and reexperience all of the reasons why you value your partner and are great together.
– DO remember that the high emotions and perfect fantasies of a new crush are temporary. Experiencing them with someone else does not mean your current partner is suddenly “wrong” nor that the other person is better for you.
– DO consider consulting a professional – more specifically, a therapist that specializes in OCD or Anxiety.
Martin Hsia, Psy.D. is the Assistant Director of CBT SoCal, and specializes in helping people with OCD, Anxiety, and Insomnia in Glendale, CA.