This is something I’ve been meaning to write about for a long time, but haven’t ever got around to. As with most things in my life, anxiety has deeply affected my relationships and in typical form I’ve only just really begun to realise how and why. Talking about relationships and my mental health isn’t something I’ve necessarily wanted to do a lot of, but equally it’s something I haven’t read a lot about, either.
In order to be open about the impact my mental health has on relationships, I’m probably going to have to expose parts of myself (ooh er) that I don’t really want to. I’m also going to have to really look at how my behaviour affects and has affected other people. I don’t want to do that. Publicly admitting that I’ve made mistakes and that I’m far from perfect isn’t usually something a person with anxiety jumps at the chance to do.
Relationships are social
Relationships are difficult and require work. We know that, and if you don’t know that, well, you do now. They’re also extremely rewarding when you get it right and utterly devastating when you don’t. Of course, as someone who’s never taken a risk in her life, my relationships have always fallen on the side of healthy, safe, and ultimately fairly problem-free. Until, of course, you factor in chronic overthinking, a constant need for validation, and a complete unwillingness to acknowledge my own feelings.
There are times when I could have pursued relationships but didn’t because I was unable to deal with the uncertainty of not knowing how things would work out. Although I have been the ‘dumper’ in my significant relationships, it never came easily and I usually had my hand forced in some way. I’m not going to attempt to excuse any of my shitty behaviour but instead I’m wondering how much of it was caused by my complete inability to accept my own emotions alongside a desire to hide completely from anything that might cause blame to fall in my corner.
My anxiety is very firmly rooted in what other people think of me; what would people think if I ended a relationship? How would I cope with an ex-partner no longer loving or even liking me? How on earth was I ever supposed to deal with the new stages of a relationship, when it’s impossible to know how someone else feels and there are so many risks? Relationships are social, and I’ve got social anxiety, thanks very much.
It may make sense for me to take the development of traditional romantic relationships step by step and try to iterate how my mental health has helped or hindered the development of said relationships.
Widely regarded as the best part of a relationship, the ‘honeymoon period’, the start of a new romantic relationship can be straight up horrible if you’re anxious or if your mental state is affected in any other way. Imagine having to navigate the perils of modern dating with a less-than-clear head. Signing up to apps, choosing the right pictures, and talking about yourself. Shudder. This is hard if you’re socially anxious, never mind actually having to instigate or respond to conversations. Someone might decide they like the look of you, but then what on earth do you actually say?
The thought is terrifying. I’m not sure about anyone else, but depression stole a lot from me and I really struggled with any sense of identity for a long time. Not an ideal start for trying to sell yourself to potential suitors. A lot of uncomfortable questions might arise – who am I, what do I like? In the past, I think I’ve been guilty of moulding myself a little too much to someone else’s personality. It’s easily done when your sense of identity is skewed or non-existent.
Not to be dramatic, but over time that could result in what you thought was a match turning into very much a mismatch. What happens when you rediscover yourself? More importantly, though, it paves the way for people-pleasing and full submersion into becoming ‘us’ or ‘we’ instead of ‘you’.
Intentions and overthinking
If you do manage to get past that, then congratulations. The first stages of a relationship are undoubtedly fun, but not knowing how someone else feels is something that lurks at the back of an anxious mind. People play games. They blow hot and cold. How do you deal with that alongside the inevitable overthinking? Regardless of someone’s intentions, it’s hard not to take these things personally.
It’s hard not to be convinced that someone doesn’t really like you, or that you’re the victim of some cruel game.
Even if someone does like you, well, the overthinking doesn’t stop there! No, instead it’s prime time to question every (and I mean every) little thing they say or do and try to infer some meaning from it.
I don’t know about anyone else but my anxious brain is often desperate to be proved right. That voice that tells me I’m not good enough needs placating. I need evidence and if I have to make it up then I will. Someone spending time with friends are they? Nah. They’re cheating on you because you’re a piece of shit.
It might be alright now, but just you wait until they meet someone else or realise they can do better!
Alright, so I’ve convinced some poor fool I’m worth their time. I’ve even stopped imagining they’re carrying on with someone else or are a potential murderer or paedophile. Yes, really. The fact that you never really know someone plays suitable havoc with my dogshit brain.
Things may become settled. Perhaps I’m even happy. Much as relationships are rewarding and (for my sins) I’m quite good at them, these periods of stability are not without incident.
If I’m settled my brain might go into self-sabotage. I struggle to understand what’s real and what’s anxiety. So if I love someone, every now and then my brain will pop up with, “Ah, but do you really?” Fucked if I know, babes. Sadly that’s been a real conversation I’ve had with the ever-patient Mr Seeds. I was in some sort of state (as usual) and he asked if I loved him – it was contextual, he didn’t just barge in and demand answers – and my honest answer was that I didn’t know. Not because I don’t, but because at that time I genuinely had no idea what was real and what wasn’t.
The longer things go on then of course certain things are easier but my brain doesn’t care about that. What if it’s the wrong thing? How will I know? Will I be able to tell if something goes badly? I can push these things to one side, but it’s difficult. That voice is loud sometimes.
Keep them around
I’ve got a long term partner and have been in long term relationships before. For the majority of my adult life, actually. This in itself is indicative of my deeply rooted social anxiety. Finding someone who accepts me, or seems to? Bang. Keep them around because you won’t be so lucky again! My impressive propensity for completely quashing my emotions may have caused some relationships to go on longer than they ought. There’s safety in established relationships and the unknown is terrifying.
My anxiety makes me sensitive to things sometimes but I worry that it’s the person rather than the anxiety. Do I need some quiet or some alone time? Ah, it must be because you hate him! It’s not because spending time with people is exhausting. It’s because you’re a cold hearted, loveless cretin. Honestly, it’s making me tired just thinking about it.
Maintaining relationships in the face of anxiety is hard. Relationships can be hard anyway, and I’m thankful that I haven’t had to put up with an awful lot of man-based gobshitery. I am perfectly capable of love (side eye to those who say ‘yOu hAvE tO lOvE yOUrSeLf bEfORe yOU cAn lOVe anYoNe eLsE’). I am affectionate, caring, understanding. I’m good at these things. It doesn’t mean, though, that I’m perfect. Far from it.
Ah, the end of a relationship. A time to be celebrated, to part ways with good humour, reflecting on your time together and wishing each other well.
Unsurprisingly, my relationships have not ended in such a manner. A preface: I’m not excusing my shitty behaviour by crying mental health. I’m reflecting upon how my staunch avoidance of emotions has caused me to act in a less-than-savoury manner. As a slightly more sassy teen, before adulthood squashed me into an anxious mess, I had the bollocks to end a couple of relationships properly. Dramatically, you know. The good, teenage angst stuff.
More serious relationships, however? No such luck. My first serious relationship began not long after I started uni. No, I didn’t plan for that, but met someone quite early on in proceedings and we stayed together until after we graduated. We stayed in Liverpool., living with a bunch of friends. I started a job whereas everyone else remained at uni.
My new job brought along a different lifestyle and a new set of friends. The job was dubbed the ‘graduates’ graveyard’ owing to the volume of young freshly-graduated people making up the ranks. We went out a lot after work, enjoying earning money properly and, seemingly, having little responsibility. In hindsight the change in lifestyle was probably the catalyst for the impending break up, but I was 21 at the time and basically didn’t know anything.
The actual break up wasn’t ideal. I grew to have slight feelings for one of these new work friends, but did I handle that in an adult, emotion-facing way? Of course not. I ignored it until I could ignore it no more. I spoke to no one about it until it was too late. An attempted liaison, or something along those lines (it was a long time ago, ok?) was the final straw; whilst nothing actually happened the temptation was certainly there and that was a red flag.
A head in the sand
As I said, I didn’t handle it well and my refusal to accept new, different feelings was the cause of heartbreak and confusion. In typical fashion, I took up with aforementioned work friend and stayed with him for five years. We moved in together when I was 26, but that didn’t last long. Can you guess what happened?
Yes, instead of understanding that perhaps I was unhappy or growing out of the relationship, I was completely and characteristically oblivious. Around the time we moved in together, I started thinking about children. Not necessarily because I wanted them (and I knew this at the time), but because I wanted something to happen. With the clarity of hindsight, I was stuck. Having absolutely no adult grasp on my own emotions due to my significant anxiety-based repression did not serve me well. I was vaguely aware that something was amiss, but I buried it. I assumed, as usual, that the problem was me.
That’s the issue with being so insecure it borders on self-obsession. There could be a perfectly reasonable situation (such as, you know, a relationship running its course) but I’ll find it a way to make it my fault. Then I can berate myself and internalise it. It’s simply not possible there’s anything actually wrong, it’s just me. I’m ungrateful. In this case, we were very clearly on two different pages but it had simply never come up. He was ready (or at least said so at the time) for settling down, a house, whatever. When we discussed that, I realised I wasn’t.
Brave-facing the heartbreak
I had one brief moment of clarity where I thought on the past five years and if I saw myself with him in a further five years. The answer was no – but trusting my own judgement isn’t a strong suit of mine, and the breakup was still drawn out and painful. To make matters worse, I felt guilty, saw it all as my fault, and burdened the role of being ‘okay’, of being the ‘heartbreaker’. This meant I wasn’t allowed to express how sad I was. I didn’t have a right to be upset.
In fairness to past me, that role was very much reinforced by everyone else. I got a strong sense from friends that because he was so upset, I had to be alright. Equally, though, I had to find somewhere to live. On my own. I had to move. I had to accept that the splintered friendship group were going to take his side (which they did). I brave-faced it which let people think I was okay, and in turn I assumed that I had to continue doing so. I showed no weakness until it was far, far too late and I broke down at the end of 2014.
I haven’t been well since.
Not to be dramatic but my complete inability to recognise or process my own emotions imploded right in my face. The coping mechanisms I’d abused for so long no longer served me. I was completely finished. Five years on and I’m still working my way back to some semblance of normality and function. Was it entirely because of the breakup? No, of course not. I’m deranged but I’m not that bad. No, that was just the final straw. The last significant life event I allowed myself to blunder through before I crumpled.
Reflection or excuse?
So you see, I’m not excusing myself. I’m highlighting how completely inept I had become at dealing with my own emotions. To the point of hurting others and the point of breakdown. This is what I mean when I speak about anxiety and relationships. That fear of being wrong, of being the bad guy, of doing anything that might upset the general consensus on what type of person I am. I was terrified of it.
That, in case you didn’t grasp from the above, isn’t a healthy way to exist and it’s completely fucking useless when it comes to dealing with some of the ups and downs life and relationships throw at you.
Communication is a key part of relationships, right? Well, what happens when you can’t even communicate with yourself? Have a look at what I just wrote. That’s what happens, or at least it’s what happened to me.
I’ll reiterate that I don’t think mental ill health makes anyone a bad person or incapable of maintaining relationships. Not in the slightest. It’s made me compassionate, understanding, loving. It’s also made me blank, robotic, scared, and stunted.
Anxiety isn’t just something that I throw around for a laugh. It’s been huge. Only now am I starting to realise its impact and work on how it affects me and those around me. I’m learning how to communicate properly and how to understand myself.
If these things are ringing bells, that’s alright. You’re not a terrible person. Everyone has their own struggles, and emotions are tough. Brick walls are extremely common, not just in those of use who live with mental health difficulties, but in society as a whole. It’s a wonder we can see each other at all. Letting down those walls is a terrifying prospect but it has to be done. For our sake and the sake of others. Anxiety has told me, and continues to tell me, many things. I’m hoping that from now on I can recognise that a bit more and use that knowledge to empower myself and my relationships.