Understanding the Difficulties that Socially Anxious Individuals Experience in Romantic Relationships
By Gurdon Haralz
Feeling overwhelmed and frustrated with a socially anxious partner can be detrimental to a romantic relationship. Understanding your partner with social anxiety, the meaning of having social anxiety disorder, and how it can affect everyday life is an important step to maintaining a positive romantic relationship. Being the non-socially anxious partner can be demanding and your partner’s behaviors may negatively affect the quality of your relationship and easily upset you.
Learning about social anxiety in relationships and how your socially anxious partner is likely to respond to situations can guide you to the best way to communicating with and understanding your partner’s feelings and behaviors. About 7% or 15 million U.S. adults have a diagnosed social anxiety disorder. 1
Social anxiety is associated with interpersonal difficulties which means that an individual with this diagnosis feels anxious in social interactions due to the fear of being negatively evaluated and rejected.2 As a way of responding to a perceived danger or threat of feeling rejected, socially anxious individuals withdraw easily from social gatherings or avoid social contact completely.3 Socially anxious individuals are less likely to get married or be in a romantic relationship.4
Despite this, it is clear that some people with social anxiety do seek out, desire and get involved in intimate relationships. As the non-socially anxious partner you may fail to recognize that some of the problematic ways your partner communicates with you in your relationship may be due to their social anxiety and is simply their way of taking precautions and managing risk regulation. Below we will examine what some of the difficulties are that socially anxious individuals express in romantic relationships and what you can do about them.
Expression of negative emotions
It should be of no surprise that intimacy is important in a romantic relationship. Being able to open up about negative emotions and address both relationship and personal problems to your partner can be a key factor in developing intimacy and closeness in a relationship.5 Like mentioned earlier, socially anxious individuals fear rejection and negative evaluation.2
People with greater social anxiety are likely to self-disclosure less in a relationship due to the risk of potentially getting hurt.6 They are also more likely to avoid the expression of negative information in an effort to protect themselves and avoid relationship problems.5 This may be bothersome to you because you want to show your partner that they can come to you for anything and that they should feel safe to express their negative emotions. Surprisingly, allowing your socially anxious partner to withhold negative emotions can actually be beneficial to your relationship.5
Because of the extreme of self-doubt and social fear that socially anxious people experience, encouraging them to express their negative emotions can resolve in greater avoidance, more complaining, and more need for reassurance. These factors can spark increased distress and negative behavior in the non-anxious partner.
Eventually, this causes disconnection and decrease in relationship satisfaction.5 On the other hand, less negative emotional expression can enhance closeness in a relationship.5 Give your partner time and space; do not force your partner to discuss their feelings before than they are willing. With time, they will feel more comfortable with you and will eventually open more up about their negative emotions. Due to their social anxiety, it may take more time than for others.
Failure to recognize capitalization support
Any partner’s ability to positively respond to the good news of their significant other to amplify their happiness can be a key determining factor of well-being and satisfaction in a relationship.3 If you are in a relationship with a socially anxious person, you may feel like you are not receiving enough support or enthusiastic responses from your partner when you experience positive events and share with them good news. Also, you may feel like your partner’s appreciation of your efforts of providing them support is low.3
This can lead to significant relationship dissatisfaction. It is likely that you feel like your socially anxious partner’s non-supportive behaviors are due to jealousy or a problem they have with you, but in fact this may be the result of their social anxiety.3 Individuals high in social anxiety are more likely to fail to recognize when and how to give proper supportive responses. They may also have problems processing enthusiastic support received from their partner.3
Now that you know that your partner’s behavior is not because of their problem with you, you can approach the situation differently. Instead of being angry or upset, start by helping your partner recognize the positive situations. Make a list that contains both positive and negative situations.
Then, sit down with your partner and walk them through the situations and ask them how they would react to each situation: happy, sad, angry, or no reaction. This gives you an overview of the situations your partner is failing to recognize. From there, you can help your partner read the social cues better and help them reactions that may be better fit the situation. However, we don’t expect you to become your partner’s therapist!
Using depreciation as a self-defensive mechanism
Another feature of socially anxious behavior in a romantic relationship is a tendency to put-down their partner as a self-defensive mechanism. Socially anxious individuals are more likely to perceive any little negative interaction in a relationship as a potential risk of rejection. When they feel like a threat of rejection is present, they often protect themselves by devaluing their partner.6
Examples of devaluing could be suddenly treating their partner with less respect, being angry or pretending not to care about them or the relationship. These actions can be very hurtful for you and may push you away. You should try your best to remain physically and mentally present and not let it bother you. It will show your partner that you want to stay in the relationship and that whatever negative interaction you had does not define the relationship and your feelings about them.
Now you have read about some of the problems that an individual with social anxiety could face in a romantic relationship. This information should give you a better understanding of the nature of some relationship problems you might have that may be overwhelming and causing you distress or frustration. Understanding that these behaviors are normal for socially anxious individuals and not purposely done by your partner to upset you is an important reminder.
Maintaining a romantic relationship with an individual with mental health problems will often be more demanding, you may have to be more aware of your actions and understanding of the range of difficulties your partner has to deal with. To enhance relationship satisfaction, encourage your partner to seek out professional therapy to help them learn the best techniques to minimize and deal with their social anxiety.
However, as we’ve discussed, you also have a lot of control over your relationship with your partner even if they don’t seek therapy. As best you can, try to be patient and careful in communication when expressing negative emotions. Also, remember to show your partner that you’re in this together – and that you’ll be there for them. 3,5,6
1Social anxiety disorder. (n.d.). Retrieved November 13, 2021, from https://www.mhanational.org/conditions/social-anxiety-disorder
2Porter, E., & Chambless, D. L. (2014). Shying away from a good thing: Social anxiety in romantic relationships. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 70(6), 546–561.
3Kashdan, T. B., Ferssizidis, P., Farmer, A. S., Adams, L. M., & McKnight, P. E. (2013). Failure to capitalize on sharing good news with romantic partners: Exploring positivity deficits of socially anxious people with self-reports, partner-reports, and Behavioral Observations. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 51(10), 656–668.
4Sparrevohn, R. M., & Rapee, R. M. (2009). Self-disclosure, emotional expression and intimacy within romantic relationships of people with social phobia. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 47(12), 1074–1078.
5Kashdan, T. B., Volkmann, J. R., Breen, W. E., & Han, S. (2007). Social anxiety and romantic relationships: The costs and benefits of negative emotion expression are context-dependent. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 21(4), 475–492.
6Afram, A., & Kashdan, T. B. (2015). Coping with rejection concerns in romantic relationships: An experimental investigation of social anxiety and risk regulation. Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science, 4(3), 151–156.