People with social anxiety tend to have less satisfying romantic relationships, according to findings published in the journal Behaviour Change. But the findings suggest that this tendency to have less satisfying relationships is driven by higher levels of depression among people with social anxiety rather than social anxiety itself.
Social anxiety is a common mental health issue defined by fear of social situations and social judgment. A backdrop of psychology research suggests that people with social anxiety, even at the sub-clinical level, are less likely to date or be in romantic relationships. Moreover, the romantic relationships they do have are less satisfying.
Study authors Frances L. Doyle and her team note that it is unclear why people with social anxiety experience these relationship issues, but some researchers suggest it has to do with co-occurring depression. A diagnosis of social anxiety disorder often goes hand in hand with a diagnosis of major depression, and depression is known to be associated with poor relationship outcomes.
“Many people spend a lot of time seeking out romantic partners and wanting to spend time with them,” explained Doyle, a lecturer in clinical psychology at Western Sydney University. “However, speaking to strangers and dating might be harder for some people, like those who may be anxious in social situations. Research has shown that 1 in 12 experience clinical levels of social anxiety in their lifetimes, and the majority of these people do not seek help. Yet social anxiety can influence many areas of an individual’s life. We were interested in knowing more about how social anxiety may influence dating and relationships.”
An initial sample of 444 Australian adults completed a survey that included assessments of social anxiety and relationship status. The results revealed that participants with higher social anxiety scores were significantly more likely to say they had never been in a romantic relationship that lasted more than three months.
Next, the researchers focused on the subset of 188 respondents who said they were currently in a romantic relationship that had lasted longer than three months. These respondents completed various relationship measures, including relationship satisfaction, self-disclosure toward their partner, social support felt from their partner, trust in their partner, and conflict initiation.
A series of regression analyses revealed that depression was a significant predictor of relationship satisfaction, but social anxiety was not. “This finding suggests that once socially anxious adults manage to find a romantic partner, their social anxiety does not seem to impact how satisfied they feel about their relationship,” Doyle told PsyPost.
The findings also suggest that any links between social anxiety and relationship satisfaction are driven by the confounding factor of depression. “It is possible that depression symptoms may still impact satisfaction in romantic relationships, and those with social anxiety are at a greater risk of experiencing depression symptoms,” Doyle said.
The researchers propose two potential explanations for this result. One possibility is that the repercussions of depression are driving less satisfying relationships among people with social anxiety. Alternatively, there may be shared elements to social anxiety and depression that are affecting relationship satisfaction, like negative emotionality. If so, these shared characteristics and cognitive biases might be appropriate targets to address during treatment.
“Regardless of the exact mechanisms at play, the findings from the present study are suggestive that depression symptomology may be a better target for treatments for socially anxious individuals wishing to improve romantic relationship satisfaction,” Doyle and her team write in their study. “Further research is needed to examine the clinical utility of addressing depression symptoms in socially anxious individuals, and the impact on relationship satisfaction.”
Interestingly, social anxiety was unrelated to any of the relationship variables that were assessed, except self-disclosure. Participants with higher social anxiety had lower levels of self-disclosure, suggesting that they were less likely to disclose to their partners and that disclosure was less intimate. However, when depression and all other relationship variables were taken into account, self-disclosure and social anxiety did not interact to predict relationship satisfaction, suggesting that lower levels of self-disclosure did not significantly impact relationship satisfaction among those with social anxiety.
The implications of these results are somewhat novel since they suggest targeting the reduction of depression symptoms among people with social anxiety, rather than aspects of social anxiety like safety behaviors. The authors note that future longitudinal research is needed to clarify the ordering of variables, as it could be that lower relationship satisfaction leads to greater social anxiety and depression, rather than the other way around.
The study, “Examining Whether Social Anxiety Influences Satisfaction in Romantic Relationships”, was authored by Frances L. Doyle, Andrew J. Baillie, and Erica Crome.