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Can anxiety affect relationships?

Meg, a 34-year-old retail associate, was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder when she was 28, after a tumultuous divorce from her childhood sweetheart.

“I was so exhausted. Breakups like that really take it out of you,” says Meg. “I wasn’t sleeping, I was barely eating, I was really barely existing because my heart was so broken.

“I worried about everything, like how I was going to make rent the next month or pay my student loans. I couldn’t function. I had no idea there was a name for it other than divorce.”

It turns out that Meg had generalized anxiety disorder, or GAD, which is characterized by persistent worries – worries over money, health, relationships and even daily tasks. People with GAD might experience extreme fatigue or exhaustion, irritability, insomnia, muscle tension or other physical problems. Having GAD makes one more likely to develop other forms of anxiety as well as depression.

GAD can also contribute to relationship problems.

Meg attributes her GAD to the dissolution of her marriage, although she stresses that “that didn’t come from my therapist. He didn’t tell me it was my fault. I just… I look back and think of how jealous I was, how insecure I was. I never gave (my ex-husband) a chance to breathe. It was like, ‘Pick me, pick me, pick me,’ even when he’d already picked me. Even when we were married, I was still clinging to him like we were kids and we’d just met.

“In my head, I was passionate. But probably in reality, I was clingy, needy, critical, afraid. By the time I figured it out, it was too late and we were done.”

It’s said that some individuals with GAD perceive the actions and behaviors of their loved ones with more suspicion than those who don’t have anxiety; they’re more vigilant than others, and tend to “police” their loved ones’ activities. They’re easily hurt, and they might be aggressive in their relationships. They may, however, seem to be passive and quiet, although underneath they’re criticizing their partner and may avoid being emotionally present and open so as not to stir the pot or cause themselves any further distress. As a result, people with GAD often feel incapable of authentic, lasting connection.

So if you have GAD and you find yourself struggling in relationships, is there anything you can do? Of course.

Here are some ways to strengthen your relationship with yourself, your partner, your family member or friend, when you have GAD.

Practice active listening. This is a great skill to practice, because it’s important to fully understand what another person is saying or feeling before contributing our own words and emotions.

When we’re actively listening, we can ask our partner to repeat what they’ve just said, and then say it back to them. You can do this in a loving – not condescending – way. For example, if your partner says, “You never listen to me!” you can say, “Please tell me again,” and repeat what they’ve just said, instead of yelling back, “Yes, I do listen to you!”

By doing this, you can ensure you and your partner are on the same page and understand each other in this moment.

Be positively mindful. What are you grateful for in your relationships? Does your partner make the bed every morning? Do they make sure there’s enough toilet paper on the roll (or at least within reach?) Do they go grocery shopping for the two of you and grab your favorite brand of cheese without fail every single week? Do they take out the garbage without you asking?

When we tend to listen to our worries, we can easily forget to look at the good things. Make notes for six weeks, daily, on the wonderful things your partner does. You may be surprised at how much more they do once you really start paying attention.

Reflect on who you want to be. What kind of partner would you be in a perfect world? What steps are you taking to make sure you can get there (or close enough?)

If you feel like screaming, think about what you’re upset about and if there’s another, calmer way to soothe your spirit. If you’re insecure, what do you really, truly need, to validate yourself? If you’re exhausted and just can’t bring yourself to do anything more, what self-care practices can you partake in right now so you can recharge?

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