Have you ever felt anxious in a dating relationship?
Now, I don’t mean anxiety about dating in general – although that is a valid anxiety. I have definitely felt anxious about the mere prospect of dating, especially in my early adult years – putting myself out there over and over again to talk to people I don’t know, hoping that I say the right thing and we hit it off, while dreading both the disappointment of being rejected by someone I really like and the discomfort of rejecting someone who seems to really like me. Not to mention stress and fatigue that comes with constantly dancing on the line between playing the dating game, while also refusing to play by the ‘rules’ of the dating game (because, in my opinion, dating shouldn’t be a “game” at all).
To put it simply, dating as a practice is hard. It’s anxiety-inducing, and I’m exhausted just thinking about it.
But that’s not actually what I’m talking about today.
What I’m talking about is much more specific than dating in general; I’m talking about a very special kind of anxiety that comes right in the sweet spot between casually chatting with no expectations, and having the conversation that thus begins the official committed relationship with a specific person.
I have also included a diagram* for reference, for those of you who prefer visuals (it starts on the left-most dot and moves to the right):
*Please note, the timeline featured on this diagram is personal to me and based on my experience as a heterosexual woman in monogamous relationships, which I understand is heavily influenced by cultural scripts/expectations on how relationships ‘should’ progress; I acknowledge that it does not reflect everyone’s romantic relationship experience timeline, nor does it cover nearly all the nuances of relationship progression. Please take this diagram as you feel it applies to you, and if it doesn’t resonate, that’s okay, too!
See that star right in the middle? That’s the spot I’m talking about – things have been going well thus far, and now I’m at the point where the feelings are really beginning to develop. In fact, I can start to see the potential for something more serious! Maybe this will finally be the time I can stop dating (at least for a while)! Oh the places this could go!
And just like that, I’m swept up in the novelty of new (potential) romance. *Insert heart eyes emoji here*
But we know my brain, and we all read the statement corresponding with that star in the middle of the timeline…naturally, my mind is going to find something to freak out about.
And at this particular point, that lovely little brain of mine is ramping up the anxiety of the unknown – after all, just because I’ve developed feelings for them does NOT mean they feel the same way. But I don’t feel comfortable enough to have that conversation with them yet to find out if we’re on the same page…so I live in the unknown, feeling both excited by my newfound interest in them, but highly anxious wondering if they have the same kind of interest in me.
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My mom recently pointed out to me that when it comes to dating, I’m extremely confident when things are casual (and I don’t mean casual as in sexual – I mean casual as in ‘not-romantic-whatsoever-because-I’ve-just-met-you’). When I’m just getting to know people, I’m cool as a cucumber (for whatever that phrase is worth).
But as soon as I actually start to kind of like them and might possibly want something more serious, I start to freak out. Like, a lot.
And while part of that has to do with what I mentioned above regarding the fear of the unknown, the other part is entirely my own emotional baggage, which is more or less irrelevant of the other person.
You see, this is the point that I start to care about the outcome – and caring about something is dangerous territory for me, especially when the circumstances are so uncertain. When I start to care about something (i.e., have feelings for someone), I now have an emotional stake in how this thing turns out, whereas before, when they were just another person I was getting to know, I did not have that same emotional investment. If I didn’t vibe with the person, oh well; no harm, no foul, I didn’t lose anything except a few hours of time. My emotional well-being is left intact and I can move onto the next date.
However, once I start becoming invested, I’m treading in potentially emotionally dangerous terrain – à la Inside Out, the little purple ‘fear’ character in my brain is running around the control center while the red alert blares and shrieks
YOU COULD GET HURT. RUN AWAY! RUN AWAYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY!
It desperately wants to protect me from rejection and pain, because it believes that rejection and pain reinforce old bullying narratives that I’m not worthy of love. So rather than take a risk to see where a relationship might go, it screams at me to walk away now before the other person has a chance to prove to me that I’m still ‘unworthy’ of love.
You and I both know that logically speaking, those messages embedded in old emotional wounds are not true. I know full well that I am, in fact, just as deserving of healthy relationships and love as anyone else. But it is darn hard to convince my little fear guy of that (especially when it’s on an anxiety tirade).
So I split the difference: I let logic push me to continue on the dating path as ‘normally’ as I can (ya know, to see where it goes), while also listening to my insecure, bullied self question literally everything I do, say, and think so as not to mess up and ruin everything and get hurt.
But then I end up pulling double duty, because indulging both of those parts of myself – all the time, every time – means that I do things like spend fifteen minutes trying to respond to one single text because I’m afraid of saying the wrong thing.
It means that I force myself to wait to respond to a text because I don’t want to seem overeager or clingy.
It means that I restrain myself from sending flirty messages because I don’t want to come on too strong.
It means that I (automatically, and without meaning to) analyze everything to determine whether or not I think they’re still interested.
It means that I won’t reach out when I’m having a really rough day (even though I reeeeeeeally want to) because I’m afraid of being emotionally too much.
It means that I won’t actually tell them how I’m feeling because I’m afraid to ‘rush’ things.
It means that everything about moving forward with another person feels so much harder because I’m so afraid of messing things up – I care about what they think, and I’m afraid that anything I do or say could be the eye-opening moment when they realize they don’t actually feel the same way. And then I’d be left heartbroken before anything ever started – feeling foolish for having been so invested to begin with.
And no matter what happens – whether it works out or not – I’m exhausted from managing all the feels! It’s utterly draining to try to keep going when the urge to protect myself from rejection and pain is so strong because it means that I work so much harder than I need to. I’m constantly in crisis management mode because I’m so scared all the time – scared of being hurt again, scared of being gaslit, scared because, frankly, I’ve rarely, if ever, made it this far in dating. It’s been years since I’ve even felt excited by another person.
But what makes this point in dating so scary, is that even though, per my timeline, it looks like I should be able to wait it out and make it to the official relationship conversation, there are no guarantees.
Just because I’m on the timeline doesn’t mean I’ll make it to the end. The ‘end’ could be anywhere.
But that’s life, isn’t it? There are no guarantees for anything.
The best we can do is learn to live despite the uncertainty and fear.
The best I can do is manage my anxiety, and hope that maybe – just maybe – this is the time I’ll make it just a little bit further.
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I wrote everything above those dots (⬆) two months ago, in early December. I’ve had it saved since then, unsure of when I wanted to use it, if I wanted to use it at all. The person that initially inspired this post reads my blog, and I wasn’t sure if I ever wanted them to see it.
I’ve since moved past this stage in the dating process, and this particular anxiety is, as of now, not an issue for me. But one of my best friends is currently experiencing a very similar anxiety in her dating life, and she inspired me to pull this post back out and share it this week.
(And also, this topic feels apropos given the holiday this weekend, although in complete transparency, that was not even on my radar when I picked this one for today, so that was more of a happy accident.)
The number of times my mom had to get real with me over the past two months and tell me when I was letting my nerves get the better of me is staggering. There were many moments that I was freaking out so hard, when I was 100% convinced I had either messed something up or the other person didn’t feel the same way or that this was somehow going to end poorly “just like all the others have.”
Of course, none of those beliefs were true. Listening to them as if they were, though, did nothing except distress and exhaust me.
That’s not to say that the feelings I was having every step along the way weren’t valid, or that I needed to work harder to push past those feelings and ignore them. If they were there, they clearly needed something from me, and pushing them down wasn’t going to do me any good.
But in hindsight, letting them take up as much mental and emotional space as they did was not helpful, either. I got so caught up in those feelings that I couldn’t see beyond them, and I couldn’t muster enough belief in myself to remember that the messages those emotions were hurling at me weren’t true. They were nothing more than the fears of a bullied and broken little girl who is still, to some degree or another, convinced that she doesn’t deserve love.
My fears come from my own baggage and experiences, and so much of healing is unlearning those negative and hurtful lessons that I picked up along the way. I give so much credit to my mom for being my voice of reason when I couldn’t be that for myself, and I’m so thankful that she was able to help me ride out that period of anxiety. I’m happy that things are, so far, going in a positive direction with the person I’m dating, but even if things hadn’t worked out like I was so afraid they wouldn’t, I know that it’s not because I’m a bad person or I deserve to be alone.
The majority of the time, relationships don’t work out, and that has nothing to do with our value as human beings. And I know that it’s hard to not take things personally – it’s so challenging to refrain from asking myself what I could have done better, what I should have changed in order to ‘fix’ the relationship (which is a result of living in a goal-oriented, pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps, your-life-is-exactly-what-YOU-make-of-it kind of culture). And for me, that notion is not at all helped by the number of exes who have gaslit me in the process of breaking up.
But disappointment and pain are not a personal or moral failings, despite what the other person might say about me. It’s simply the nature of dating and relationships – they’re risky. But I have the foresight now to know that there is the potential for a beautiful outcome, and so I choose to find ways to manage my stress in dating in order to find that beauty that makes it worth it.
We all deserve that, even when our brains are adamant otherwise.
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