Anxiety and Negativity in a Relationship

Relationship therapists often note that there is an increase of enquiries in January and it seems that 21st January was designated ‘Blue Monday’ – the most depressing day of the year. Is there a link? Apparently a mixture of the dark evenings and grey weather encourages Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and post-festive/party season depression. There seems not much to look forward to and Spring appears a long way off. Dissatisfactions in a relationship can breed, negatives become a focus, and joy feels in short supply.

However, booking an appointment for couple counselling, making New Year Resolutions, committing to Dry January, and even choosing Veganuary, can be seen as ways of recalibrating, attempting recovery, making improvement, and getting back in charge of ‘Life’. But how to manage the despair and hopelessness when motivational levels drop and good intentions stall?

‘Blue Monday’ may be a cynical PR ploy by the travel industry but the response by the Samaritans was interesting. Rather than accept a general blanket of gloom, they renamed the day as ‘Brew Monday’ and suggested a solution: Talk. Take the opportunity to reach out, share, and chat over a cup of tea – open up to vulnerabilities and CONNECT.

With a similar understanding that empathy can be reassuring and effective in soothing anxiety, Brene Browne, in her book ‘Daring Greatly: How the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love and lead’, describes viewing  vulnerability as ‘the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy and comfort. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability and authenticity.’

John Gottman, the American relationship therapist, said that, ‘I believe that every person has areas of enduring vulnerability. For a relationship to succeed, these vulnerabilities need to be understood and honoured and an empathetic exploration of vulnerabilities offers a couple the opportunity to strengthen their relationship.’

Anxiety can be isolating and leave us feeling misunderstood and alone. We can feel shame and humiliation that we are perhaps overwhelmed and that we are not coping as everyone else seems to be. A flash of envy created by an Instagram picture can spiral into FOMO, then a feeling of being not-good-enough, then worthlessness. We can internalise dark thoughts and get stuck in a toxic place of harsh criticism, disappointment and blame. We are super vigilant to the possibility of threat and reactions of ‘flight, fight, freeze’ play out destructively in our relationships. 

‘Some of the worst things in my life never even happened…’ wrote Mark Twain when describing his tendency to catastrophism and worry and, to varying degrees, we are all programmed to be alert to the presence of danger. Tara Brach explains that it is as if, at birth, the brain received the telegram, ‘Start worrying. Details to follow.’ An emotional trigger, a perceived attack, can strike at any moment. Insecurity wreaks psychological havoc in relationships and can result in reactions of deep despair, or hot fury, or icy withdrawal – creating confusion too. 

So, American therapist, Rick Hanson, encourages clients to change the FBI motto of ‘Follow the money’ (when detecting organised crime) to ‘Follow the anxiety’ when unpicking the cause of relationship distress.

Counselling can help this process and offers an opportunity to reflect on how disappointments and irritations are filling a field of vision. A couple can understand how they have become habituated to a focus on the difficulties and differences. Choosing to lift their heads, feel the warmth of love and core connection, can change perspective. The couple can explore why they have continued stuck in negative behaviour patterns of mistrust, defensiveness and hostility – counterintuitive when faced with the resulting hurt and sadness. Of course it can be difficult to break a loop of chronic pessimism when it has become a default relationship dynamic. But it is true that ‘neurons that fire together, wire together’ positively too. Creating kinder, gentler, more generous and compassionate interactions can offer an optimistic alternative way of relating.

Counselling can help challenge the negative beliefs that drive fear – and help a couple to wake up out of a trance of anxiety. Although beliefs can be deeply ingrained, they are not ‘facts’. A challenge of ‘what would you think, and who would you be, if you did not believe this?’ offers the possibility of explanation, understanding, discussion and choice. The realisation that we all have agency helps us to get in touch with our own resilience and determination. We are then free to embrace empathy and choose affection, admiration, consideration, loyalty, respect which can be transformative and healing. Do we dare to be happy?

‘Clap along if you know what happiness is to you…’

Kathy Rees

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