Why dating and romance can trigger difficult emotions and unwanted behavioral patterns

dating and romance

Have you ever felt confused or overwhelmed by your emotions when starting a new relationship? Or maybe you’re already in a relationship, but you feel caught up in negative emotions or difficult behaviors that you can’t explain.

That’s a feeling many of us can relate to.

Dating and romance are often thought of as purely joyful experiences, full of love and excitement. But unfortunately, relationships can also trigger complex feelings and reactions that are difficult to cope with.

So, why do romantic relationships sometimes make us feel scared, insecure, or even act in ways we don’t recognize?

In this article, we’ll explore the hidden side of dating and romance and help you understand why these experiences can bring up complex emotions and lead to unwanted behaviors.

Emotional Rollercoaster of Dating and Romance

When we think about love and romantic relationships, our minds may naturally provoke associations related to happiness, warmth, and companionship (depending on our childhood experiences). However, reality shows us a more complex picture.

Alongside joy and comfort, relationships can also lead to challenging emotions that damage our intimacy, well-being, and relationship satisfaction.

Have you ever noticed that the start of a relationship often feels like a rollercoaster ride? This is often referred to as the ‘honeymoon phase,’ characterized by intense emotions, euphoria, and sometimes, anxiety (Lorber et al., 2015). It turns out that this emotional rollercoaster isn’t just a metaphor. It’s a phenomenon backed by psychological research.

In fact, researchers from Harvard Medical School (HMS) found that the feeling of ‘new love’ triggers specific areas of the brain associated with pleasure, attention, and reward-seeking behavior (Schwartz & Olds, 2015). When we see someone we’re romantically attracted to, our brain releases a neurotransmitter called dopamine, known for creating feelings of happiness and pleasure. This is why you might notice physical changes like flushed cheeks, a racing heart, or sweaty palms during the early stages of a romantic relationship.

But other than dopamine, new love also increases cortisol (a hormone linked to stress) and decreases serotonin (a neurotransmitter that helps regulate our mood and social behavior). Lower serotonin levels can sometimes lead to intrusive thoughts and obsessive behaviors. This contributes to the state of infatuation that often characterizes new relationships.

Experiencing complex emotions and heightened neurotransmitters are completely normal. Even couples in long-term relationships experience anxiety, insecurity, and other negative emotions, often triggered by factors such as significant life changes, relationship milestones, or personal insecurities.

So, if you’ve ever felt like you’re on an emotional rollercoaster when navigating your relationship, remember that it’s not just you. It’s a universal experience. Still, these emotional fluctuations can be overwhelming, and understanding their triggers can help you manage them better.

Common Emotional Triggers in Dating and Romance

The first step in dealing with your emotional rollercoaster in romantic relationships is to identify specific triggers that lead to these complex emotions. Even though everyone’s experience is unique, there are some common emotional triggers, usually related to personal histories, insecurities, or experiences within the relationship itself.

  • Past relationship trauma

Our experiences from past relationships can significantly influence our emotional responses to current ones. For instance, if a person has experienced infidelity, rejection, or emotional abuse in the past, similar situations or even seemingly harmless cues in the present can trigger intense emotional reactions. Past trauma almost always has a significant negative effect on intimate relationships (Goff et al., 2006).

  • Insecurity and fear of abandonment

Insecurities, the fear of not being ‘enough’ or the anxiety of being left alone, can be potent emotional triggers. For instance, if a partner doesn’t respond to a text message promptly, it could trigger feelings of insecurity or fear in the other partner, assuming they’re not cared for.

  • Conflict and disagreements

It doesn’t matter whether you and your partner argue on small issues or disagree on significant problems, conflicts can become an emotional trigger in your relationship. The reason is that the tension and stress of unresolved conflicts can lead to complex negative feelings, such as anger, sadness, or fear (e.g., Caldara et al., 2017).

  • Changes in the relationship

Major changes within the relationship, such as moving in together, getting married, or having a child, can trigger complex emotions. While these are often positive changes, they can also bring up feelings of anxiety or fear due to the uncertainty and adjustment required.

  • Jealousy

Witnessing a partner’s interaction with others, especially those of the opposite sex, can trigger feelings of jealousy. It’s an emotional response that can occur even in the most secure relationships.

Relationship OCD & Unwanted Behavioral Patterns

Keep in mind that these emotional triggers don’t exist in isolation. If not effectively managed, they can lead to certain behavioral patterns that can negatively affect the relationship. One specific condition that illustrates this well is Relationship Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (ROCD).

Relationship OCD is characterized by intrusive thoughts and compulsive behaviors centered around one’s romantic relationship. It’s a condition that revolves around the obsessions and compulsions typical of OCD, but in the context of romantic relationships.

Those experiencing this condition constantly question their relationship’s rightness, their feelings for their partner, or their partner’s feelings for them, even when there’s no real reason to doubt. Studies have linked these obsessions to decreased sexual functioning and lower mood (Doron et al., 2016). Besides, the symptoms of R-OCD are related to distress and decreased relationship investment and satisfaction, which is why it may have a detrimental effect on relationship commitment (Littman et al., 2023).

As a result of relationship OCD, the following unwanted behavioral patterns often arise in relationships:

  • Seeking reassurance about their partner’s feelings or the relationship’s stability, even in the absence of real issues.
  • Avoiding situations or discussions that might trigger negative emotions or doubts about their relationship.
  • Overthinking over particular aspects of the relationship.
  • Constant observation of a partner’s activities, such as social media usage or interactions with others.

How to Regulate Difficult Emotions in Relationships

Regulating emotions in a relationship can be challenging, but various research-backed strategies can help you prevent the negative effects of emotional difficulties:

  • Pause and think before acting

Taking a moment to pause and think before reacting to a situation can prevent impulsive responses and allow for a more thoughtful approach. This pause can give you the space to identify your emotional triggers and choose a more balanced response.

  • Reflect on your emotions

Regularly reflecting on your emotions, perhaps through journaling or introspective practices, can help you understand your feelings better and identify patterns in your emotional responses.

  • Practice mindfulness

Regular mindfulness exercises, such as meditation or deep breathing, can help reduce stress and improve emotional regulation (Iani et al., 2019). As a result of practicing mindfulness, we can become more aware of our feelings without becoming overwhelmed by them.

  • Engage in effective communication

Open, honest communication is key to resolving issues and preventing misunderstandings in a relationship (e.g., De Netto et al., 2021). Therefore, if you try to express your feelings and concerns to your partner, you can help both of you understand and address the triggers that might be affecting your relationship.

  • Seek professional help

If emotional triggers and the resulting behavioral patterns become overwhelming, seeking help from a mental health professional can be crucial. Professional therapists can provide tools and strategies tailored to your specific needs and guide you through the process of managing these emotions.

So, if you feel you need assistance from mental health professionals, don’t hesitate to get in touch with our team at Health for Life Counseling. Our licensed counselors specialize in navigating the emotional complexities of relationships.

Reach out to us at Grand Rapids, MI, or Ada, MI, or schedule online sessions either individually or with your partner. Our therapists are willing to help you process your emotions and develop deeper, more fulfilling connections in your relationships.

Health for Life Counseling Grand Rapids provides the following programs that could help your relationship.

Learn more about the Trauma-Informed Counseling Center of Grand Rapids

Learn more about Counseling and Therapy services at Health for Life Counseling Grand Rapids

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