Anxiety can be hard on relationships. But healthy communication and understanding can help avoid any issues. Here’s how to navigate it together.
Relationships thrive on concessions and acclimation. On the one hand, you’re human — stubborn and proud, enjoying things a certain way. On the other, you’re human — forgetful and malleable, able to navigate new roads and think they were always the fastest route. To balance these two things is important for any relationship — and absolutely crucial if one partner suffers from anxiety.
There are countless examples of what partners of people with anxiety experience. Maybe you drive hundreds of miles to visit family because you know your partner won’t step foot on an airplane. Or maybe you’ve accepted that food shopping is your job because they get overwhelmed in grocery stores. Maybe when that nice dude you chat with at the playground invites you and your partner to a meet-up with other local parents, you start running through the bank of unused excuses in your head, because you know your better half would never go for it. At first glance, these concessions can seem arduous and frustrating. Research suggests that when one partner has anxiety, it can cause a significant strain on relationships. But experts say that if couples learn to navigate anxiety in a healthy, collaborative way, it can make the relationship stronger.
Anxiety disorders are common, affecting 19 percent, or 40 million adults in the US, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. There are many different types: Anxiety is an umbrella term for different anxiety disorders such as panic disorder, phobias, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), and Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), says New York City clinical psychologist Ernesto Lira de la Rosa, an advisor for the Hope for Depression Research Foundation.
Anxiety itself is not necessarily a disorder — it’s a normal emotion everyone experiences on some level, Lira de la Rosa says. We study for a test to quell nerves telling us we won’t do well, for example. Anxiety becomes a diagnosable disorder when it’s persistent and begins to interfere with someone’s social, emotional, and psychological functioning.
That interference can have a significant effect on partners, both as individuals and on their relationship as a couple. Some studies suggest that anxiety tends to rub off on partners: When wives suffered anxiety, husbands reported feeling distress as well, the authors of a 2010 study published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology found. The anxious women in the study rated the quality of their relationships lower, and their husbands did, too.
In a review of the literature published in 2017, the authors noted that the impact of anxiety disorders on marital and partner life isn’t well understood. They also wrote that the link between anxiety disorders and family relationships can go both ways: Psychological problems adversely affect the relationships of people with anxiety, and the attitudes of the partner towards the person with anxiety can sometimes exacerbate the anxiety.
“Anxiety can be contagious. We may feel like we’re taking on other people’s anxiety,” Lira de la Rosa says. “Partners may begin to worry they’re going to make their significant other’s anxiety worse if they let them know that they’re feeling anxious as well. They may hide their stress and other worries out of fear they’ll exacerbate their partner’s anxiety.”
Depending on its severity, anxiety might also affect the way the partners live their lives, such as by avoiding certain situations or social gatherings, says Marisa T. Cohen, Ph.D., a relationship researcher and marriage and family therapist in New York City. The partner with anxiety may pull back at times as they try to navigate their feelings and emotional experience, she says. In a long-term relationship, there can be pressure on the partner who doesn’t have anxiety to know exactly how to handle the anxiety situation or support their partner without being told. This, per Cohen, can feed the vicious cycle.
When your partner has anxiety, neither ignoring it, getting angry about it, nor making constant concessions to help them avoid anything that makes their anxiety worse will help. What will: understanding their specific anxiety, communicating about it in the right way, supporting them properly, and drawing healthy boundaries. One finding of the 2010 study mentioned above is that good communication and support between couples dealing with one partner’s anxiety may be protective for them. Meaning? Anxiety was less likely to have a negative impact on relationship quality day to day among couples who communicate effectively. So, if your partner has anxiety, here is some expert advice to keep in mind.
1. Study Up
How your partner experiences anxiety is individual. But it can help you to empathize if you educate yourself about the type of anxiety they have.
“It’s important that when your partner tells you they suffer from anxiety, you don’t diminish it or exaggerate it,” says Brooke Bralove, a licensed clinical social worker in Bethesda, Maryland. “Learn about the symptoms, causes, and treatments. The more basic knowledge you have, the better.”
Also important, however, is not to weaponize what you learn when talking to your partner about their anxiety. You’re looking for understanding that can help you be compassionate, not to become an expert about how your partner feels and what they need to do to “fix” their anxiety.
2. Talk Through Anxiety-Related Issues Together
When your partner has anxiety, it helps to acknowledge their feelings and make a game plan that might include compromises. Cohen says to encourage them to talk about their anxiety, such as potential triggers (if any), symptoms they experience, and ways in which they typically prefer to work through it.
It’s possible that someone with anxiety might not know what they need at the moment even if you were to ask them. You can also try asking if they need you to just listen or if there’s anything you can take off their plate to help them feel less anxious, Lira de la Rosa says.
“Or perhaps they need you to just be present while they’re doing something that causes them to feel anxious,” he adds.
3. Learn How to Be the Right Kind of Helpful
It’s important to not offer solutions unless explicitly asked by the person experiencing anxiety, says Cohen. What works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for another. Once you’ve talked with your partner about their triggers and what tends to be most helpful to quell their anxiety, however, then you can ask what would most help them at that moment.
“Offer specific suggestions for things they could do to ease their symptoms. You could recommend a five-minute meditation, box breathing, a brisk walk, or listening to their favorite song,” suggests Bralove. “Distraction and physical movement can be lifesavers when someone feels overwhelmed with anxiety. When in doubt, tell them to breathe, breathe, breathe.”
Many people with anxiety don’t find reassurance, such as saying, “It’ll all be OK, don’t worry,” very helpful. It can make them feel like you don’t understand them or you’re sick of hearing about their issues with anxiety.
“If reassurance worked, no one would have anxiety,” says Bralove. “Acknowledge that you don’t fully understand their anxiety, but that you believe them and feel empathy toward them.”
4. Set Boundaries
While it’s important to be patient and compassionate with your partner if they suffer from anxiety, you also need to set boundaries for the sake of your mental health.
Say your parents want to come visit for a week, but your partner insists she can only handle two days of them being around, Bralove says. You can say something like, “I know you get anxious when my mom visits, but we also know it’s good for our children to have a relationship with grandma. Let’s put our heads together to figure out how this can go smoothly,” she suggests.
You can say that you understand that they only want them to come for two days, but explain that you think three or four days would be a reasonable compromise that would allow more time for your mom and the kids to bond.
It’s possible your partner won’t like such boundaries, and it can be difficult to hear them accuse you of “making them anxious,” which she might say if she’s feeling hurt or angry. But remember that no one can make another person anxious, Bralove says.
“I do think a partner can make it worse if they’re not empathetic, however,” she says.
5. Take Care of Yourself
It’s okay to feel a range of emotions – frustration, anger, sadness, guilt, hopelessness, and helplessness – if your partner is experiencing anxiety, Lira de la Rosa says. Those feelings, particularly if you feel you can’t share them with an anxious partner, can be a heavy burden. And if they’re over-relying on you instead of learning to manage their anxiety, it can strain your relationship. It might be helpful for both of you to see a therapist, separately, to help you cope.
“It’s important to take care of yourself before you take care of someone else,” Lira de la Rosa says. “You can only be a supportive partner if you’re also in a good mental, emotional and physical space.”
If you need to get away to the gym sometimes or hang out with friends, you can do that with some compassionate boundaries in place. If your partner wants you to call them every hour that you’re out, for example, you can say that you’re not willing to do that, but you will promise to text them once you arrive where you’re meeting friends and when you’re leaving. Once a plan is established, it’s important that you follow through and do it because a lack of consistency can worsen their anxiety, Bralove says.
It isn’t easy to have the kind of tough, boundary-setting discussions necessary to help your partner manage their anxiety. But not doing so – ignoring the problem or giving in continually, for example – isn’t good for them, you, or your kids.
“Work with them, compromise, but don’t let anxiety hold you hostage,” Bralove says.
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