Managing Anxiety as a Relationship Skill

People are made for relationship.  Our DNA directs us to belong and to seek intimacy.  What we rarely consider in our pursuit of belonging is that underlying anxiety effects the way we relate. Unbridled, reactive anxiety hurts the quality of our relationships. Therefore, managing anxiety is critical to healthy relationship and intimacy. Perhaps one of our most important relationship skills is to identify and modify the impact of anxiety in our relational lives.

While relationships are complex, our responses are often predictable. Two common and temporary coping strategies to avoid anxiety are to distance or to attach. Frequently, tense moments with others cause us to withdraw or even disconnect. Certainly, disconnecting offers a temporary resolve, but it fails to benefit the health of a relationship.

Some people ignore or distract anxiety by over-attaching or fusing to another person or even an activity like volunteer work or running.  It is a refocusing of energy and emotions.  Like distancing, attachment is only a temporary relief from anxiety.  In both cases, learning to communicate more skillfully, while staying in tension is the beginning of anxiety management.

Working with a therapist can accelerate the process of learning to manage anxiety.  For example:

  • Withdrawal can severely rupture relationships.  Therapy can help cultivate courage and skills to embrace the tension as a time of relational growth.
  • On his/her own, one might never recognize or address the real issues in the relationship.
  • Unresolved problems repeat. Disruption of patterns can be helped if aided by an outside set of eyes.
  • Counsel on where one might be stuck in patterns promotes healthy intimacy.

Managing anxiety is not a short-term solution, but the relationship benefits are significant. As Harriet Lerner said in her book, Dance of Intimacy, “Whatever goes unresolved and unprocessed may cause trouble in our next relationship venture.  It’s a matter of short-term relief in exchange for long term cost.”


Sheri Schulze, LAPC