For the first three months after Sarah first met her boyfriend, he texted her every day to say good morning — until one day he didn’t. “I assumed something was wrong, and he was about to break up with me,” the 28-year-old recalls. Though past experiences with guys bailing around the three-month mark also brought upon some stress, Sarah was mostly experiencing a specific type of anxiety that occurs when someone suddenly treats you differently.
Of course, you can’t control anyone’s behavior except your own and attempts to do so typically only cause more stress. But it’s natural to want to establish other people’s behavioral patterns, or “schema” that function as an “inner roadmap to predict their behavior,” says psychologist Jessica Stern. That’s also why this type of anxiety is so common — other people almost always take a detour. “In many ways, our brains are prediction machines; they save us tremendous amounts of energy and effort to be able to predict how someone will behave,” says Stern. “But if someone’s behavior suddenly changes, it disrupts the schema — it violates our expectations and predictions of them.”
When this happens, the more primitive parts of our brain, like the amygdala, become activated and we slip into fight-or-flight mode. “Our sense of safety and familiarity might feel threatened,” Stern adds.
This isn’t unique to new relationships either. For example, when Greg started working at a small startup, he was one of just 10 employees, and he and his boss joked around all the time. But as the company grew, the rapport he built with his boss took on a more serious vibe. “I didn’t get reprimanded or anything, but the tone was suddenly very corporate,” the 34-year-old tells me. Even knowing he wasn’t in trouble, Greg still found it more difficult to feel secure in his position. It wasn’t until he attended a company Christmas party and got to joking again with his boss that he could calm down and accept that his job wasn’t in jeopardy. “Having a few drinks together helped,” he recalls.
All of this frequently stems from an inner need to please people. “People-pleasers often try to read others in order to make everyone happy,” author and psychologist Carla Manly explains. Individuals who are people-pleasers tend to grow up in environments with a lot of conflict, and have learned to cope by becoming peacemakers. As a result, they “can become highly attuned to possible shifts in behavior in order to create homeostasis,” Manly says.
When experiencing such anxiety, it can be helpful to remember that “the change in their behavior is about them, not you,” Stern says. But instead of anxiously asking every vibe-shifter in your life if they’re mad at you, she recommends questions about how they’re doing in order to get more information about where the change might be coming from. “What’s their story? Has something new happened in their lives? Do they have time for coffee to catch up and share more about their experience?” Stern advises you ask.
Their answers will eventually help you develop a new “schema” for how to expect them to behave. For Greg, the new pattern established was that his boss was managing a larger company with higher stakes, and couldn’t shoot the shit like he used to, outside of special occasions. For Sarah, her boyfriend had grown more comfortable in their relationship and merely overslept.
So the vibe had indeed changed. But in a good way. It was just that Sarah’s inner roadmap needed updating.