Socially Anxious People Can Have Great Relationships Too

Psychologist Christian Hahn discusses his new research on social anxiety, depression, and romance.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | October 1, 2021

A new article appearing in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology examines the impact social anxiety and depression can have on a person's ability to sustain a healthy romantic relationship. The results suggest that depression is more damaging to a relationship than social anxiety.

I recently spoke with Christian Hahn, a psychologist at the Nova Scotia Health Authority and lead author of the research, to discuss his findings in more detail. Here is a summary of our conversation.

What inspired you to investigate the topic of social anxiety and romantic relationships and what did you find?

I find the intersection of social and clinical psychology to be fascinating. The degree to which mental health can impact and be impacted by our relationships is quite significant. Social anxiety disorder is one of the most common psychiatric disorders and is inherently social so it stands out as an area ripe for further study. In recent years, there has been an increase in research in this area but the results of that research have been somewhat variable. I wanted to take a deep dive into this and attempt to replicate my own results along the way. We did this by collecting three independent samples, analyzing the results of each sample, and then running meta-analyses to determine how consistent or robust those findings are.

Our findings were quite interesting to us. When we looked at just social anxiety, it is correlated with a host of difficulties in romantic relationships including lower relationship satisfaction, lower trust, and lower perceived availability of social support. However, when we account for participant level of depression, we see a lot of the correlations between social anxiety and relationship variables lose significance. That is to say, comorbid depression seems to be more important to relationship well-being than social anxiety.

In the end, we found robust associations between higher social anxiety and lower levels of perceived availability of social support, and between higher social anxiety and higher levels of commitment to partner (although this effect was quite small). With respect to depression, we found depression to be associated with lower levels of relationship satisfaction, trust, perceived social support, and commitment. This suggests that although socially anxious people experience a number of difficulties in romantic relationships, that anxiety does not seem to be driving these difficulties but comorbid depression may be.

What percentage of the population has social anxiety?

About 12% of the population in the United States will meet diagnostic criteria for social anxiety disorder at some point in their lives and about 7% will meet criteria within the past year. It is also important to consider that a number of people may not have social anxiety disorder but still experience some level of social anxiety and associated difficulty in relationships, employment, or education.

What other personality traits is social anxiety related to?

With respect to personality traits, research has shown social anxiety to be linked to higher levels of neuroticism (i.e., the tendency to experience negative emotional states) and lower levels of extraversion. We also tend to see some other features such as low assertiveness, shyness, and inhibition in social situations. Clinically, social anxiety shares a high degree of comorbidity with other anxiety disorders and with depression.

Did you find any evidence to suggest that social anxiety is more harmful to romantic relationships depending on the gender of the partner who exhibits it? Are there other demographic moderators?

We were curious about this as well and ran additional analyses to test this. No significant effects of gender were found.

What teachings does your research hold for individuals who struggle with social anxiety?

For people who struggle with social anxiety, I would hope that this research provides some new understanding of how that anxiety does and does not impact their romantic relationships. A lot of headlines on the subject just discuss surface-level correlations, which would suggest social anxiety has a greater impact than it actually does. So I think the teaching there is that the impacts of social anxiety on romantic relationships are not as dire as they may seem when you come across a headline stating that social anxiety is linked to lower relationship satisfaction

How might this research inform clinical efforts to improve relationship health and satisfaction?

Relationship satisfaction is one of the best predictors of relationship outcomes. We also know that healthy romantic relationships have a whole host of associated benefits to mental and physical health. Although socially anxious people tend to experience lower levels of relationship satisfaction, it does not seem to be the anxiety that is driving this. Clinicians should consider this when selecting interventions best suited to a client's goals for therapy. Additionally, our findings suggest that successful treatment of depression may have greater potential to positively impact relational well-being than treatment of social anxiety, but further research is needed in this specific area.

Where do you hope to see this research go in the future? Do you have plans for follow-up studies?

The next step for this body of research is to collect data from both members of a couple over multiple time points. We have recently finished a study where we followed over 100 couples for a period of three months and investigated changes in social anxiety, depression, and relationship well-being (e.g., relationship satisfaction) over time. This will allow us to do two important things:

  1. Make stronger inferences regarding the ways that changing social anxiety and depression do or do not impact an individual's experience in their relationship
  2. Examine how the social anxiety or depression of one individual may impact their partner and vice versa

We are currently in the process of preparing that study for publication.