No couple is without its challenges, but when an anxiety disorder appears as the third wheel, there’s bound to be a host of difficulties not necessarily experienced by couples untouched by anxiety.
Research has shown that those who suffer with generalized anxiety disorder report that they feel less supported in their relationships than those who don’t have the disorder, and are twice as likely to experience some kind of issue or problem within the relationship. These problems can include constant arguing, jealousy, or even withdrawal from physical or emotional intimacy.
Chris and Amy
Chris had always been well aware of Amy’s sensitive, delicate spirit; when they first started dating, she’d admitted to him that she’d changed her outfit four times before he’d arrived to pick her up for their first date. She also shared that as they were starting to get to know one another, she would scope out other women, measuring herself against them, curious if Chris found them more beautiful, or funnier, or more appealing. When Chris would tease her affectionately about how long she would take to get ready, or how many shoes she had, Amy would snap first, then break down into tears, asking him to explain why he loved her at all if she was such a failure as a human being. Learn more about perfectionism and it's connection to anxiety here.
“I guess in the beginning, stuff like that for any couple isn’t totally out of the ordinary,” says Chris. “You know I think everyone suffers from some kind of anxiety when they’re first getting to know someone, or definitely in the first few months of dating. You want them to like you so badly, that no matter how confident you usually are, dating can take the wind out of you.”
But as their relationship progressed, Chris began to see those telltale signs of a more serious condition – Amy wasn’t growing any more confident or comfortable in their relationship, or in the place she occupied in his life. Despite his constant affirmations of love, and his continual declarations that there was no other woman who could ever replace her, Amy was in “a perpetual state of distress,” Chris says. “She was so jealous. She just couldn’t shake this feeling, she said, that I was going to leave her or that someone else was prettier or funnier or smarter or just better. It got to the point I was walking on eggshells with her because it felt like anything I said, she would take the wrong way.”
Cassidy and Bill
A self-described workhorse, Bill says he’s in a constant state of motion because “time is money.
“When you’re sitting still, you’re wasting time. You’re wasting a good opportunity to make profit.”
Cassidy, Bill’s wife of 12 years, says she’s now grown used to Bill’s aggressive mentality. “He grew up in a household that didn’t have much,” she says. “His parents were immigrants and they struggled. Growing up, he told himself he would never put himself through that stress, and that his kids would never know what it was like to be without.”
“I know I’m an anxious human being,” Bill admits. “But I actually credit my success to my anxiety. My anxiety keeps me on my toes. My anxiety reminds me not to stop working. I always think, ‘If I stop, what’s going to happen? Will I lose what I built all these years? What if I take my eye off the prize and something takes it away from me?’”
Cassidy smiles and holds Bill’s hands, but the exasperation is evident on her face. “I have so much sympathy for how exhausted Bill must be from this constant state of worry. It doesn’t stop for him,” she says softly. “But, you know, there’s me too, and there are the kids. It’s a lot of personal distress for him, but it’s just as difficult for the rest of the family because it impacts us and our moods and our overall well-being. He’s not here a lot because he’s working, and when he is here, it’s like he just can’t divorce the anxiety.”
Learn about ADHD and anxiety here.
What are the challenges in a relationship where there’s anxiety present?
When one half of a couple has anxiety, and the other one doesn’t, it can be a very challenging time. The one with anxiety is likely to be in a constant state of worry – worrying about day-to-day things, worrying about school or work, worrying about his or her financial situation, or worrying about the relationship – while the one without anxiety is likely to be increasingly irritable with what he or she considers irrational thinking. Anxiety can create a wall between the most loving of couples if it’s left ignored or misunderstood.
Anxiety can disrupt a number of things within a relationship, including regular activities, like paying bills, running errands, having date nights, or even just calm, everyday conversations. The partner without anxiety may feel as though they’re taking on the brunt of the work, and even though they’re for the most part compassionate and sympathetic, may start to feel burned out and frustrated. Here are some easy tips to coping with your anxiety.
Anxiety can also affect the financial aspects of a relationship. A married couple, or a couple living together, may feel the impact of anxiety on their finances. Those with severe anxiety disorders may be unable to find or keep a job, causing a bank account drain, and possibly causing the healthy half of the couple to make ends meet all on their own.
Anxiety can also begin to tear apart the non-anxious partner’s sense of health and wellbeing. They may begin to feel anxious themselves, or may be sad, scared, lonely or even guilty for wanting their partner to be different. It’s also possible for them to feel angry, resentful, or irate when their anxious partner seems to be “falling apart, again.”
My partner has anxiety. How can I help?
Anxiety, although potentially a lifelong disorder, does not have to be a prison for you or your partner. You can certainly encourage recovery and support your partner by trying any (or all) of the following:
Learn everything you can about their anxiety disorder
Empower them and support healthy behavior, celebrating small wins
Avoid criticizing their fears or belittling their rituals or beliefs
Encourage them to seek treatment
Avoid comparing them to others
Ask how you can help, and really listen – what you think they need may not be what they know they need
If you’ve never had a panic attack yourself, admit to them that you don’t understand the experience of one
Learn when you need to be patient and when you need to be firm
It’s a brave and wonderful decision to support your partner who has anxiety. Although moving forward with treatment and into recovery lies fully in the hands of your partner, you can play a vital role in their journey toward betterment. Your partner will most certainly need individual treatment, but it’s also a very loving act to attend couples’ therapy too. You may be asked by your therapist to help your partner commit to something called a behavior contract, which assists your partner in controlling his or her responses to their anxiety or its triggers. You can be there to discourage your partner from repeating old behaviors, positively encouraging them to partake in new, healthier behaviors.
What about me? Their anxiety is stressing me out too.
You’re absolutely right – if you are the partner to one with an anxiety disorder, you need support as well. It’s so important for you to take care of yourself and not neglect your needs as an individual and an active member of your relationship. Here are some things you can do to make sure you’re taken care of too:
Surround yourself with supportive people. It’s imperative you have your own crew, so to speak – when things feel really bad, you need your tribe to lift you up and remind you that everything will be okay. These people will be there to assist you, to remind you that you’re loved, and to remind you that you matter. Remember that your partner thinks those things too, but sometimes just isn’t capable of showing or telling you.
Keep up with your own hobbies. Take up a sport, knitting, or a musical interest. Join a gaming group on online. Take salsa lessons. Whatever it is, do it and do it regularly, and you’ll find yourself better equipped to handle the tough times.
Set boundaries. When your partner is able to fully listen and engage, set those boundaries for yourself. This is the time to share what your expectations are, and what you can and can’t handle. If the two of you are unable to discuss these boundaries alone, seek the assistance of a therapist, who will be able to help.
Find a therapist for you. Your partner may or may not choose to seek treatment, but you should definitely consider it for yourself. It may be just be a safe space for you to vent, or you may discover you too are now suffering from symptoms of anxiety or depression.
If your partner has anxiety, and you’re looking for more ways to help your partner or yourself, visit us at www.hopetherapyandwellness.com.
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