Could A 'Scarcity Mindset' Be Undermining Your Relationship?

We may receive a commission on purchases made from links.

When we find ourselves experiencing a vague panic in our relationships, we may question the root cause of that impending danger. Are we afraid of losing a good thing? Are we worried we won't find someone else if this relationship doesn't work out? Modern dating thrives off both an illusion of choice, as well as an illusion of scarcity. Dating apps provide seemingly endless options, and we're constantly receiving messages from the media that great loves are "once in a lifetime." 

If we're feeling a scarcity mindset — a perceived lack of an important resource in our lives — getting the best of us when it comes to intimate relationships, there may be an evolutionary reason as to why. Neuroscientist Tara Swart shared with mindbodygreen, "Because of the evolutionary wiring throughout the ages for the survival of the species it's natural for the scarcity mindset to prevail." She also added a surprising figure to her analysis; "We're 2.5 times as likely to want to not lose anything as we are to want to gain something."

So if you're constantly looking for signs that your relationship is in trouble, instead of thinking of ways to enrich and add to the connection, it may simply be that your brain is wired to find a mate and hold on tight. But how can we maintain a healthy attachment in our relationship that isn't fueled by an underlying fear of losing out on companionship — an element as crucial for survival as food and water?

Watch out for tunneling

To understand how a scarcity mindset might already be showing up in our relationships, experts highlight the term "tunneling." Tunneling is a hyper-focus on an object of our desire that leads to other areas of our lives being unattended. Books like "Scarcity: The New Science of Having Less and How It Defines Our Lives" provide research on the cycles and psychology of scarcity, as well as its detrimental impact on our long-term mental health, economic well-being, and relationships. 

University of Washington psychologist and professor Tabitha Kirkland shared a basic understanding of the concept with UW Medicine, saying, "On a very basic level, scarcity mindset makes you feel bad, and abundant makes you feel good." She continued, "When you feel negative emotions, it leads to narrowed attention and hyperfixation on the thing that's causing you to feel negative." When scarcity shows up in our relationships, we may begin ignoring other areas of our lives, putting an unhealthy amount of pressure on a partnership. 

We may also limit our individual potential outside of a relationship without realizing it. As therapist and social worker Jordan Bierbrauer told Men's Health, "Someone with a scarcity mindset may be thinking that everything that is needed for a bright and secure future is becoming scarce." However, it's possible to reconcile a scarcity mindset with reality. Bierbrauer noted, "Learning to manage it can help you live better and have better relationships, more motivation, and more self-worth."

Adopt an abundance mindset instead

The best way to beat a scarcity mindset is by rewiring your brain to believe in the abundance around and within you. Therapist Jordan Bierbrauer confirmed to Men's Health that the antidotes to scarcity include "recognizing the possibilities, not the limits, focusing on learning, having a collectivistic mindset, and focusing on creating something new." 

Neuroscientist Tara Swart has also clarified that there are tried and true techniques for allowing abundance into your daily life and routines, though it may not be easy initially. "There's a balance, or you could even say a struggle, in our brains between abundance and scarcity all the time," she told mindbodygreen. "You have to cultivate the practice of being in an abundance mindset because the natural thing is always to think more in terms of scarcity." But it's also okay to acknowledge the obstacles that make abundance challenging to achieve. Swart shared, "Making a list of all the reasons you might not achieve what you want to ... makes them become less subconscious and more conscious." 

Ultimately, experts point to mindfulness exercises, journaling, and gratitude practices as the best ways to recognize that your relationship — and the world it exists in — are bountiful. You and a partner can also challenge and encourage each other to be consistent with these practices. By reframing your mindset, you'll see a healthy, abundant relationship stretching before you.