Marriage is a huge step and an exciting milestone, but it can also come with its fair share of anxiety and apprehension. Marriage anxiety* is a common and totally normal experience, and how you handle it will play an important role in shaping the dynamics of your relationship going forward. Below I’m going to expand on the art of communicating with your partner about marriage anxiety and on how open dialogue leads to deeper understanding and a stronger relationship. I’ll also offer communication-based strategies for dealing with marriage anxiety.
*Marriage anxiety is not a clinical diagnosis. The strategies and content provided are for general knowledge and do not constitute professional advice. Please reach out to a medical professional if you are experiencing anxiety symptoms that are having a significant impact on your daily functioning.
What is Marriage Anxiety?
Marriage anxiety is anxiety that is triggered, exacerbated, or maintained by marriage-related factors. People experience feelings of unease, nervousness, or fear, and difficulty controlling those feelings. While this predominantly occurs before the marriage, it can also sustain or occur during the early stage of a marriage.
Causes of Marriage Anxiety
Anxiety can be caused by a variety of things – genetic predisposition, childhood factors, and life experiences are a few factors. Triggers for marriage anxiety can vary from person to person, but the anxiety usually manifests as persistent worries or fears focused on a change the marriage will or has brought. Common worries include fear of commitment, fear of change, doubts about compatibility, worries about losing their personal identity/freedom, or concerns about financial stability. These can often be triggered if a person has had difficult past relationships, childhood experiences that color their view of marriage, or if someone acutely feels the weight of societal expectations. Unlike other presentations of anxiety, this anxiety is centered around marriage which includes the other spouse, whether or not that person is actually the core cause of the anxiety. If you or your partner is experiencing marriage anxiety, communication is key in coping and addressing that anxiety. Sit down together as a team to begin a discussion; it won’t be solved in one conversation, but exploring the factors contributing to the anxiety and both partners understanding the signs and triggers is instrumental to addressing the concerns quickly and effectively.
I know, I know, it’s said so often that it has begun to sound cliche…open communication is vital to the health of any relationship. However, even as a soundbite, it still holds true, especially for worries and fears around marriage. The quality of your communication directly impacts the quality of your relationship, and skillful communication is absolutely essential in navigating marriage anxiety.
Open and Honest Dialogue
Anxiety is often triggered or exacerbated by the unknowns and the “what ifs” in life. How can we limit or ease those fears? Gather data to combat the beliefs and provide alternatives to the worst-case scenario that can often take hold. With anxiety focused on marriage (or any relationship really), creating a space for open and honest communication with your partner will help you do this. Who better than your partner to help provide a counterbalance to your worries?
Depending on your worry (especially if it involves doubts about your relationship), your first instinct may be to keep them inside and hide them from your partner. After all, you may not want to worry them, or hurt them, or perhaps you’d like to process and sort out your feelings. Taking time to process and gather your thoughts before beginning a discussion with your partner can be helpful, and in certain circumstances necessary, and don’t wait too long to bring your partner into the conversation. Being open and honest with your partner, even if it’s a little messy, exemplifies trust – trust to be vulnerable with them, which in turn fosters emotional intimacy. A note – honesty can be expressed without cruelty. Share your experiences as just that. Experiences, beliefs, and opinions; are good to share and should not be held as the ultimate truth.
Conversations like these can be cathartic; immediate release of (some of) the stress you were silently holding. Fears can also be addressed before they grow; repressing, ignoring, or hiding your anxiety is likely to magnify it, overwhelm you, and cause a preventable rift in your relationship.
Listening and Empathy
Active listening is difficult; to really listen to another person and not just listen to respond. Make it a practice to solicit the other’s perspective in a conversation and to be attentive to each other’s emotions. Make an intentional effort to check your judgment at the door before getting into a sensitive or high-stakes conversation. Remember empathy plays a significant role in making your partner feel understood and supported. Being empathetic to your partner doesn’t mean you have to agree with them; it just means you care for them and can understand the emotional experience they are going through. With anxiety, it’s a power message to send to your partner that you take their worries and emotional pain seriously.
Create a Safe Space
In order to have difficult conversations, it must feel safe for both partners to do so. Here are the ingredients you need to create that enduring, pervasive sense of safety.
Trust is defined as the firm belief in the reliability, ability, or strength of someone or something. It is, therefore, something that can increase or decrease over time and events. To address vulnerable subjects, such as marriage anxiety, trusting your partner is critical. Trust is interpersonal and requires action from both partners. Ways to foster trust? Encourage one another to express yourselves, be reliable and accountable through everyday actions, and admit when you’re wrong.
For example, if you say you’re going to pick up groceries on Tuesday, do it. If you say you’ll be somewhere at a certain time, be there–or call to say why you’re running late and what your new ETA is. Being able to rely on each other plays a big role in overall trust levels in the relationship. And if your trust in your partner has been impacted, share that with them; share that information with them and give them the opportunity to rebuild that trust.
What shuts down real and honest conversation? Judgment. It’s difficult for any one of us to be vulnerable, and if it’s met with judgment, it’s less likely to happen in the future. If the goal is to build a safe space to have honest conversations with one another, check the judgment at the door and instead focus on listening to your partner’s perspective. You don’t have to agree or even understand their perspective to support them; support is providing a space for them to be heard and to offer them reassurance that you’re there to help. All emotions are valid, and expressing anxiety does not diminish the love in the relationship. Expressing that anxiety illustrates a desire to address it and, in turn, the desire to be in the marriage. Sharing these feelings and worries shows a dedication to being vulnerable and trusting in one another.
Seek Support Together
Just because you and your partner are a team, doesn’t mean you have to handle marriage anxiety on your own. Seeking external support gives you access to a range of perspectives you may not have considered.
If marriage anxiety becomes overwhelming, seeking therapeutic services can be highly beneficial. A trained counselor or therapist will be able to provide individual support to address the anxiety symptoms, and can also provide support to you both as a couple. Couples counseling often includes a space to learn, practice, and improve communication, and understanding of each partner’s perspective & experience, all of which is likely to reduce anxiety.
Social support is a wonderful network to turn to. These can include family, friends, and trusted co-workers. Sharing experiences with others makes space for reassurance while hearing about how others have experienced or navigated similar situations restores a sense of normalcy and reduces the burden of marriage anxiety.
Overcoming Communication Challenges
Although we’ve established by now how important good communication is, that doesn’t mean it’s easy. There are plenty of challenges and barriers that arise and stifle communication. Here are some common communication challenges + how to deal with them successfully.
Dealing with Conflicts
Conflict is a natural part of any relationship, but it is extra challenging when combined with marriage anxiety. In order to address conflicts constructively, take a moment to center yourself, normalize all the feelings you may be experiencing, and explore different conflict management frameworks. If you need a place to start, I’d recommend:
- Chapters 8-11 in John Gottman’s ‘The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work’
- Marshall Rosenberg’s ‘Nonviolent Communication’
- Deborah Tannen’s ‘That’s Not What I Meant’
Improve Emotional Connection
Humans are wired for connection, and creating ongoing opportunities to connect with your partner (emotionally) is essential for a fulfilling relationship. Emotional connection also helps alleviate anxiety and build trust–but it’s normal for a couple’s emotional connection to wax and wane like the moon, feeling particularly strong at times and more aspirational at others. The good news is that there are plenty of things you can do to promote a greater degree of emotional connection.
First, define and share your definition of “connection;” for some, the connection is done through honest conversation, and for others, the connection is spending time doing new activities together. Sometimes connection is built through big gestures, and other times it’s the simple, everyday things that significantly strengthen your emotional connection.
Setting Goals & Expectations as a Couple
Setting goals together gives couples a clear direction and common objective that fosters a sense of unity and collaboration. In doing so, it reduces feelings of uncertainty and anxiety about the future.
Openly discuss future plans and aspirations; it will help align both of your visions. Knowing that you are on the same page regarding the future–or getting yourselves on the same page at least somewhat–is often enough to significantly reduce uncertainty and anxiety.
In the same vein, misaligned expectations = misunderstandings and anxiety. For a more harmonious relationship, get clear about what each of you expects from one another and from yourselves. When discussing expectations, consider the following:
Roles and Responsibilities
What do you expect your own and one another’s roles and responsibilities within the marriage to be? How will you divide tasks such as housework, childcare (if applicable), and other aspects of managing your shared life together?
Talk about this early on and as often as possible. Many of us find talking about money uncomfortable, taboo, or unnecessary; this avoidance will have a huge (negative) impact on your relationship. Talk about your financial goals and how you plan to manage finances as a couple.
Each of us can have strong beliefs and opinions regarding family, especially based on each of our own upbringing and family experiences. Explore each other’s desires and expectations regarding starting a family. Lean into the details; when one of you says you want to wait until you’re “ready,” what does that really mean? Is it tied to an age, a career stage, financial goal?
Even if you have a child together already, continue the conversation. Each of you is allowed to change your mind as we progress in life, and something we believed we wanted may not be the same a few years down the road. The faith and confidence that your partner will initiate and share their thoughts (even if it’s hard or a departure from their previous beliefs) will decrease one’s anxiety level or time experienced.
Career and Personal Goals
Share your individual aspirations and how they align with your married life. If any of them feel misaligned or could cause complications, try to bring those to your partner sooner rather than later. Springing these things on a partner can decrease trust, and trigger or increase anxious feelings.
Block Out the Noise
Family, friends, and society can place (wittingly or not) tremendous pressure on couples to meet certain milestones in a particular time frame. Learn to focus on your values, your partner’s values, and your values as a couple first. While outside advice and perspective is sometimes helpful, ultimately your and your partner’s own inner compasses are the most important factors to consider in relationship decisions. Avoid rushing into decisions and take the time needed to address any anxiety together instead of caving into external pressure.
Respecting each other’s boundaries is vital for a healthy relationship. Oftentimes, one partner prefers to move forward at a slower pace than the other. Disrespecting or pushing this boundary is a great way to induce marriage anxiety; on the other hand, explicitly and implicitly respecting the boundary through words and actions can quell an anxious partner’s doubts over time.
Coming face-to-face with your marriage anxiety by cultivating mindfulness towards it increases your ability to navigate it while reducing the influence of past anxieties on the present moment. In contrast, simply running away or trying not to think about uncomfortable things like marriage anxiety has the opposite effect. Additionally, practicing mindfulness in your relationship means more moments in which you are truly able to be fully present with your partner, which enhances emotional connection and, by extension, reduces anxieties.
Reframe Negative Thoughts
Help each other challenge and reframe negative thoughts related to marriage anxiety by replacing irrational fears with more realistic and positive perspectives. To do so, try this exercise:
1. Identify an activating event that induced marriage anxiety. It could be a time when you noticed your partner doing something that made you doubt their reliability, a situation in which someone in your social network pressured you to reach a certain relationship milestone, or anything else.
2. Identify your underlying thoughts and beliefs that show up during or right after the activating event. For example, let’s say the activating event was that your partner broke eye contact and looked down the last time you mentioned your dream of starting a big family. You noticed you following thoughts:
- “They don’t want to have kids with me”
- “They’re questioning the relationship”
- “I’m not lovable enough for someone to want to make that kind of commitment to me”
- “This relationship is too good to be true and it probably won’t make it to that point”
3. Ask yourself what you are feeling. When you experience those beliefs or thoughts, how do you feel? Likely feelings of worry, anger, sadness, and fear arise. When you feel that way how do you behave? Behaviors may include:
- You start withdrawing emotionally from your partner
- You confront your partner in an angry manner due to the belief that they are questioning this relationship
- You seek reassurance from others (in a way that may negatively impact your relationship) to combat a fear of being unlovable
- You experience a fear of abandonment, and clinging, lashing out, or sabotaging the relationship to avoid rejection
4. Reframe your thoughts. Although you can’t change the activating event, you can change your thoughts and beliefs about it. This, in turn, brings up different emotions and sets you up for different (more productive) behaviors. For example:
- “Maybe my partner had a stressful day and is a little bit distracted”
- “Maybe they’re nervous about starting a family because they’re not sure if they’ll be a good parent”
- “Maybe they want one or two kids, not five”
Practicing this exercise (even on a daily basis) builds up your capacity to do so quickly in situations that call for it. Being able to do it in the moment can provide immediate relief from your anxiety and avoids situations that can strain your relationship.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) About Communicating With Your Partner Regarding Marriage Anxiety
Q: How do I approach the topic of marriage anxiety without sounding accusatory?
A: When discussing marriage anxiety, use “I” statements to share your feelings and experiences. This approach avoids blaming your partner and encourages open dialogue. Also, soften your tone and speed of voice and touch your partner affectionately if it feels right to do so.
Q: What if my partner is not willing to talk about their anxiety?
A: Give your partner time and space to process their emotions. Express your willingness to listen whenever they are ready to talk. In the meantime, focus on maintaining a supportive and caring environment, which may also include finding another listener (friend, family, or therapist) for your partner.
Q: Can marriage anxiety be a sign of deeper relationship issues?
A: Yes, marriage anxiety can sometimes indicate unresolved relationship issues. Addressing these concerns through open communication and, if necessary, professional counseling tends to lead to a stronger relationship.
Q: Is it normal to have doubts before or after getting married?
A: Yes, it’s entirely normal to have some doubts or anxieties around making such a huge commitment. Openly discussing these feelings with your partner can help alleviate the pressure and strengthen your bond.
Q: How can I reassure my partner that my love is unwavering despite their anxiety?
A: Show your support through their love language (not yours). Be patient and know that consistency is a powerful tool against anxiety, even if you may not see the effectiveness right away.
Q: When should we consider couples therapy for addressing marriage anxiety?
A: If communication becomes challenging or anxiety persists despite your efforts, couples therapy is a valuable resource. A therapist can provide unbiased guidance and help you navigate the issue effectively with evidence-based treatment.
Q: How can I differentiate between normal pre-marital jitters and marriage anxiety?
A: Normal pre-marital jitters are common and may include excitement mixed with nervousness. Marriage anxiety, on the other hand, is more intense, leading to persistent worries and fears. While marriage anxiety is also common, it’s something that requires more attention and energy to address than just pre-wedding jitters.
Q: What if my partner doesn’t understand my marriage anxiety?
A: It may take time for your partner to fully comprehend your feelings, so expect that that could be the case. Be patient and continue to communicate openly. Consider seeking professional counseling together if you are consistently unable to see eye-to-eye or feel understood.
The Bottom Line
Marriage anxiety is a normal and understandable experience that many people in committed relationships go through. Addressing marriage and anxiety requires time and patience. Anxiety will ebb and flow, but over time it can get to a manageable level. Remember, seeking support when needed is a sign of strength, and taking things at your own pace stacks the odds in favor of a successful and happy marriage.
Dr. Vivian Oberling is the Founding Psychologist at Pace Groups. She is also a licensed clinical psychologist who has dedicated her career to improving the lives of clients across the lifespan. Background-wise, she’s been trained and worked in academic centers and hospitals (Stanford, Harvard, UCLA, Kaiser and Rady Children’s), and utilizes evidence-based treatments and research to enhance non-clinical, supportive services.