Social anxiety disorder is one of the most common mental illnesses in the United States. Chances are you know somebody who has dealt with this issue1, 2, 3 because it causes one-third of the population to experience distress or disability. It can affect quality of life by generating fear of social situations and resulting in social withdrawal.
One of the most central aspects of human life is having close relationships — particularly romantic relationships. Social anxiety is associated with difficulty forming and maintaining close relationships4, 5.
Despite the disorder's high prevalence, its effects on relationships are not yet fully understood. Many socially anxious people form close and meaningful romantic relationships. What do these relationships look like? Does social anxiety affect their overall quality somehow?
To answer these questions, we must take a close look at specific aspects of such a relationship and how social anxiety affects them.
Relationship scientists use the term "relationship satisfaction" to measure the overall quality of romantic relationships6, 7. It taps into how well your partner meets your needs, how much you love your partner, and how many problems exist in your relationship.
Recent research clarifying the link between social anxiety and relationship satisfaction indicates that higher levels of social anxiety may lead to lower levels of relationship satisfaction. As a group, highly socially anxious individuals experience an overall deficit in the quality of their romantic relationships.
The effect goes beyond overall quality. Specifically, high levels of social anxiety are linked with low levels of trust and perceived support in romantic relationships8, 9, 10. This means that socially anxious individuals tend to have a hard time trusting their partners and seeing their partners as supportive. Not only are trust and support key factors in determining relationship satisfaction, they are also associated with improved mental health9.
Overcoming the Barriers
At a glance, the research may seem to paint a bleak picture, but there is reason for optimism. Firstly, not all socially anxious individuals have difficulties in their romantic relationships. Secondly, the better that relationship scientists and clinical psychologists understand these phenomena, the clearer the solutions can become; indeed, some are already becoming visible for those who experience difficulty.
A big part of the way social anxiety affects the quality of relationships appears to be related to trust and support. This gives us a good place to start when we're trying to improve our relationships. The low levels of trust of socially anxious individuals are linked to the symptoms and cognitive effects of the disorder itself: Other people are often viewed as overly critical or even hostile, regardless of any evidence. How much we can trust others depends on how much we can view them as having our best interests at heart12, 13. To combat this and view a romantic partner as trustworthy, couples need to work together.
The way social anxiety affects perceived support is somewhat complex. Socially anxious people seem to have trouble noticing the support their romantic partners provide. This comes back to the fact that social anxiety makes it very difficult to view others as benevolent or as having good intentions. It creates a tendency to give more weight to any information that confirms this bias; as a result, any information that challenges it is often overlooked.
How to Improve Your Relationship
So what do we do? How can socially anxious people and their partners work to improve their relationships? The good news is that socially anxious people do not experience deficits in their desire for successful relationships or in their commitment to their romantic partners, despite any difficulties they face. As with any relationship-enhancing strategies, the foundation must be a desire for the relationship to be successful, and this foundation is not affected by the disorder. When both partners share this foundation, the next step is to repair the lines of communication. This can be particularly challenging for the socially anxious, who may appear withdrawn behind their self-protective communication style14.
Overcoming communication difficulties can be difficult, but the benefits are substantial. Psychologist John Gottman outlines "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse," or negative forms of communication that harm a relationship. Understanding and avoiding these "horsemen" is an important step in improving communication that will lead to relationship satisfaction.
The Four Horsemen
- Criticism: Criticizing a partner, often with hostility, rather than addressing an issue or voicing a concern.
- Contempt: Meanness directed toward a partner, losing sight of an issue due to anger, and lashing out as a result.
- Defensiveness: When we feel attacked our defenses go up, a common response to conflict but one to avoid to truly resolve problems.
- Stonewalling: Perhaps the most relevant to social anxiety, withdrawing from the interaction physically or mentally.
Engaging in each of these "horsemen" can easily become habitual, and avoiding these common pitfalls takes work. It's very easy to turn on autopilot and avoid the hard work of maintaining a relationship, but the results can pay off many times over. Socially anxious people who work to improve communication will directly combat some of these difficulties, which will lead to happier relationships.
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Date of original publication: May 12, 2017