Relationship Anxiety vs Gut Feeling: How to Tell the Difference

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Relationship Anxiety vs Gut Feeling: How to Tell the Difference

As a couples counselor and a relationship coach, I know it’s totally normal to experience occasional moments of anxiety, insecurity, or doubt about the state of your relationship. But how can you differentiate between internally-rooted anxiety, and those intuitive feelings that may be warning signs of real issues in the relationship? In this article, we’ll explore relationship anxiety vs. gut feelings, and how you can understand and manage your feelings for healthier, happier relationships

Listening to Your Body… and Your Nervous System

When you feel anxiety beginning to rear its head, the first step is to get curious about what your body and your nervous system are telling you. Anxiety can trigger a fight-or-flight response that puts your brain in survival mode, which can make it challenging to assess the situation fully. Grounding strategies, such as deep breaths or activities that engage your senses, like soothing smells, a hot shower, or relaxing music, can help you stop your anxiety and re-regulate. This helps your frontal lobe cortex come back online, allowing you to respond intentionally rather than reacting emotionally.

The Trust Factor

Next, if you’re feeling worried about being betrayed or abandoned, ask yourself whether your partner has given you any reason not to trust them. Have they betrayed your trust in the past? If not, slow down and think about where these feelings are coming from. Maybe you’ve felt them pulling away or being more emotionally distant lately. There are an infinite number of possibilities for why this may be happening, and it’s important not to jump to conclusions. Instead, approach your partner with curiosity and communicate your inner struggles without getting accusatory. 

If your partner reassures you and you have no reason not to trust them, practice reminding yourself of their words and their actions that align with their reassurance. This can help you feel calm so that you can evaluate the situation more clearly. 

Past Experiences and ‘Trust Issues’

Sometimes, our anxieties are rooted in past experiences of abandonment, rejection, or betrayal. Your body and mind may be attempting to protect you from reliving these painful episodes by going into a state of hypervigilance in your current relationship, even if you have every reason to feel secure. In such cases, it’s essential to practice self-compassion and validation of your body’s natural (and sometimes useful!) ability to protect you from painful experiences. Then, you can work towards balancing this with reminders that the context of your current situation may be very different from the past.

If you feel you are stuck in your healing journey from past experiences that are leaving you feeling guarded in your current relationships, it may be useful to seek support from a good therapist or couples counselor. Look for a marriage and family therapist who has an attachment lens and can help you address your relationship anxiety at its root. 

If your current partner has betrayed your trust in the past and you’re still feeling insecure and anxious, that can be a sign that you haven’t been able to thoroughly repair trust in your relationship. In this case, it’s essential to seek support to rebuild trust so that your relationship can remain sustainable. 

An effective strategy for discerning between anxiety and a gut feeling is to externalize the situation. If the things causing you anxiety were happening to a friend or a loved one, what advice would you give them? Thinking this way can help you gain a more objective perspective on what is going on in your relationship. If you would think that the things they were telling you sounded like red flags, then your worries may be giving you important information about your relationship. 

Listening to Your Emotional Guidance System

It’s vital to increase your self awareness and recognize your body’s unique cues, so that you can discern when to listen to your emotional guidance system, and when to focus on managing your anxiety. “Gut feelings” often present as a deep knowing, or a consistent thought, while anxiety can manifest as rumination, overthinking, a flurry of “what-if” scenarios, a racing heart, or tightness in your chest. Reflect on past experiences when your gut feeling proved to be correct and compare those to the times when anxiety put your relational guards up. This can help you identify what those times felt like in your body and apply that information to the current situation.

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Managing Anxiety in Your Relationship

Unmanaged anxiety can wreak havoc on relationships. It may lead to a constant need for external reassurance, which can become overwhelming for your partner. The resulting pursue-withdraw cycle can erode trust and emotional intimacy over time. 

Moreover, an anxious partner may become accusatory or critical, making the other partner feel emotionally unsafe, and like they can never do enough to be fully trusted. This can, ironically, lead to them hiding information and sharing less to avoid conflict, which makes the problem worse. If you have a pursue-withdraw pattern developing in your relationship, that’s a clear sign that it’s time to seek support from a good couples counselor.

Here are a few tips for managing relationship anxiety without damaging your connection: 

  • Ask for Reassurance: If you’re feeling anxious about your relationship, ask for reassurance from a place of vulnerability rather than accusation. This provides an opportunity for your partner to show up for you, dispelling fears of abandonment and bringing you closer together rather than pushing you apart. 
  • Soothe Your Nervous System: After receiving reassurance, practice soothing your nervous system. Remind yourself that you are safe and that your partner cares for you. Use mindfulness, breathing exercises, journaling, and other self-care practices that help you feel regulated and secure.
  • Balancing Co-Regulation and Self-Soothing: When you turn to your partner to comfort you, that’s called co-regulation. The ability to co-regulate is an important part of any relationship, but having a balance between co-regulation and self-soothing is essential. 
  • Discerning Your Body’s Cues: Pay attention to the unique cues your body provides during moments of anxiety. Understanding these cues can empower you to make more informed decisions about whether you’re experiencing anxiety or a gut feeling that something is indeed wrong. 
  • Self-Compassion: Lastly, practice self-compassion for the origins of your anxiety. It’s likely that you developed an insecure attachment style as a child, or had difficult past experiences that led you to develop trust issues that are showing up in the present. Be kind to yourself and remember that it’s okay to have moments of anxiety, vulnerability, and doubt.

Support for Healthy, Secure Relationships

Navigating the fine line between relationship anxiety vs gut feelings is no easy task. It takes self-awareness, emotional intelligence, and often, support from a good couples counselor. 

If you would like my support with managing anxiety, repairing trust, and creating a more secure relationship, I invite you to schedule a free consultation


Elizabeth C., M.A., MFTC

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