When Matthew, 45, married Denise, 39, he was aware she suffered from anxiety attacks. Deeply religious and traditional, the two didn’t move in together until after the wedding. But having been high school sweethearts, Matthew thought he knew everything about his sweet, soft-spoken wife.
“We were long distance for a while – I went away to school and Dee stayed home,” says Matthew of the couple’s history. “We’d always had some issues that I thought were normal in young relationships… she was constantly asking if I was interested in other girls, or she’d get really upset if I didn’t call her around the same time every night, or if I was in a bad mood she’d think right away it was because of her.
“When we did the distance thing, all that stuff got magnified. She was always losing it on me. It got so intense sometimes, to be honest, I would want to walk out or walk away. I just chalked it up to her being jealous, and I’d always be like, ‘What the heck did I do to make her feel like this?’ I’ve always adored her. Right from when we were kids. I seriously had no idea where any of her angst about us came from.”
But Matthew and Denise’s family noticed she was exhibiting signs of anxiety in other parts of her life too. Denise was nervous about making new friends, keeping up her GPA, and gaining too much weight.
“I guess I can explain it as my mind just takes over and I go right to worst-case scenario with everything,” explains Denise. “If I’m making plans with friends, I wonder if they’re all talking behind my back planning on doing something without me. If I’m making dinner for a bunch of people, I worry it’s going to taste like crap and no one’s going to say anything but no one will ever come over again. If I’m flying somewhere, I’m worried mine is the plane that’s going done.
“This is my mind, every day.
“So if Matthew thought it was bad when we were doing long distance, his eyes got wide open when we got married and started living together,” continues Denise with a laugh. “I’m not sure anything truly prepares you for living with someone with a mental disorder.”
After over two decades of living with an anxiety disorder, Denise is skilled at keeping her thoughts under control. She admits that she’s more relaxed and accepting of her disorder than most others she’s met, but attributes her health to a successful cocktail of treatment: a mixture of medication, talk therapy, and a supportive partnership at home. Anxiety within a marriage, she says, isn’t fatal for the relationship.She attends therapy as an individual, and the two go to therapy as a couple as well.
“There’s a lot to be said for having a spouse who loves you just the way you are, but is willing to hold you up when you need to be held up and doesn’t punish you for hurting,” says Denise.
“Don’t get us wrong,” chimes in Matthew, “this is not easy. Anxiety impacts both individuals in a marriage. As the person without anxiety, sometimes I feel like I’m going crazy.
“But when I sit back and think about how she’s trusting me to hear her out, when I really try to have an understanding of who she is and where she’s coming from, it’s not so hard.”
Does your spouse have anxiety? Here are some the warning signs and symptoms of this type of disorder:
Catastrophic thinking (thinking that something bad is about to happen, or will eventually happen)
Criticism of self or others
Suspicion (thinking you’re cheating on them or going to leave them)
Excessive controlling behaviors
May not support you or your children
Keeps very few close friends
Inability to trust spouse with chores, children or other daily tasks
Compulsive eating or other compulsive behaviors
Hesitation in showing affection
Isolation from friends or family members
Discomfort in social situations
Overreaction to minor life events
Insomnia or hypersomnia
If your spouse has exhibited any of these behaviors, he or she may have a type of anxiety disorder. Here are five ways you can help your husband or wife who may be living with anxiety:
1) Don't try to “fix” it. Your spouse is not broken, and therefore needs no fixing. What your spouse needs is full and genuine understanding, a listening ear, and unconditional love.
“There were so many times in the beginning that I’d step in and suggest all these things that I read online or in a book,” says Matthew. “But the more I suggested things, the more she’d withdraw. I didn’t get it. I’m a guy who likes to fix things. And it was like she didn’t want to get fixed.”
It wasn’t long before Matthew realized that feeling the need to “fix” his wife was exactly the error he was making. No human being, whether or not he or she suffers from any kind of physical or mental ailment, wants to hear that they need to be fixed to be better. Your spouse needs to hear that he or she is beautiful, intelligent and whole - not broken, incomplete or crazy.
When your spouse reaches out to you for support, wanting to talk, just listen. It is an invaluable gift from you to your partner to listen to them disclose their feelings and fears, because for a person with anxiety, sometimes just saying it loud out or writing it down alleviates some of those terrible feelings. If your partner is experiencing symptoms of anxiety and shuts down, that’s okay too – in those moments, let them know you’re there without suffocating them. Say words of encouragement, like “It’s ok,” and “I’m here.”
2) Don’t dismiss their feelings. When you are in a relationship with someone who has anxiety, it might be tempting to say things like, “You’re fine!” or “Just stop worrying!” It’s insensitive to tell your spouse that he or she can’t be stressed or anxious about something, even if to you it’s trivial thing to be worried over. You may not intend to sound indifferent or dismissive when saying things like “You’re fine,” but for a person who has anxiety, it feels like invalidation, which may make their anxiety worse.
While it’s not your responsibility to eliminate your spouse’s anxiety, just as you cannot take it personally or feel that it’s your fault when they’re feeling anxious, it is your responsibility to make sure they know they’re loved. Validate their feelings and say things like the following:
“Your fears/triggers aren’t silly.”
“We’ll get through this together.”
“How can I help?”
“Take your time.”
“I’m here for you.”
“This too will pass.”
“I know you can’t control it.”
“I love you.”
“When I’m spinning, my fears are very, very real,” explains Denise. “I could wake up from a nightmare that Matthew was cheating on me and I’m sobbing in the middle of the night. Oh yeah – this has actually happened. More than once!
“And on those nights, Matthew recognizes that when I’m anxious in my waking hours, there’s no difference for me between the imagined and reality. And with all the compassion in the world, he just holds me and stays quiet and lets me cry. Sometimes he says things like, ‘Honey, I am so sorry you’re feeling this way. I know how much it must hurt,’ and I swear to God, it’s a beautiful, wonderful thing.”
3) Help your husband with anxiety, or your wife with anxiety, feel safe. Imagine this: you’re in a bomb shelter. You’re worried about what’s on the outside, but you don’t feel great about being in the bomb shelter either – it’s a sign that there’s something dangerous out there, and that you need to be in here because if you’re not, something bad is going to happen.
That’s how a lot of people with anxiety feel. It doesn’t feel good to have to seek shelter, but it feels much safer in here than it does “out there.”
When your spouse has anxiety, it can be very intimidating for both of you, especially in the middle of a full-fledged anxiety attack.
Fortunately, there are some things you can do if your partner is having an anxiety attack:
When a person is having an anxiety attack, ask for consent before touching them, even if it’s your spouse.
Reach out and hold their hand first, and ask if they would like a hug.
If they’re willing, take them into a room with low light if a dim atmosphere is calming, or bring them into a room with lots of sunlight or outside if brightness is more soothing to them.
Speak to them in a low, gentle voice.
Do some breathing exercises together.
If, however, you happen to be physically absent when your husband or wife is having an anxiety attack, don’t despair. You can still be there for your spouse, even if you’re not right beside them.
Say encouraging things over the phone. If they don’t want to talk, send a message or two. Don’t bombard with them with texts because that might be overwhelming too, but don’t leave them alone either. They need to know you’re there. Make sure to use encouraging words.
Take a selfie, or a picture of what’s around you, so that they feel as if they are with you, and you’re with them.
Ask how you can help. If you’re at work and can’t get away, let them know you’ll be there as soon as you can. If you’re miles away and can’t get home, ask if they’d like to Skype, or if there’s a friend or family member you can call to take your place for now until you can get there.
4) Do you. When you’re caring for a husband or wife with anxiety, it’s easy to forget your own self-care. It’s important not to stop your own life because you’re worried about your loved one.
“For a long time, I felt guilty wanting to go golfing with the guys at work or going for a beer,” says Matthew. “I just had this feeling in the pit of my stomach, like I was neglecting her and having fun, while she was at home and having a really hard time.”
But Matthew realized that the more he set himself aside, choosing to let go of what he loved to do as an individual, the less he was equipped to care for his wife. Caring for someone and supporting them doesn’t mean letting go of your own physical, emotional and mental health.
Caring for someone with anxiety doesn’t have to come at the expense of your own wellbeing. It’s not a sin or a crime to take time for yourself, especially when you expend so much energy on taking care of a loved one.
Some things you can do for yourself include exercising, eating well, keeping up with your own friends, taking up your own hobbies, and treating yourself now and then to a small gift or experience. Taking care of yourself maintains your health, energy and positive outlook, and gives you the soul food you need to keep taking care of the person you love.
5) Don't be afraid to ask. No matter how long you’ve been living with a spouse with anxiety, keep checking in. Ask how they’re feeling, how they’re doing, and how you can further help. Anxiety can occur in waves, and things may change in terms of what your spouse is worried about, or the severity of their symptoms, so you might be surprised what they tell you when you ask.
Remember that anxiety is neither rational nor logical. It makes people worry about things even if there are no triggers, or even if there’s no evidence to suggest that anything could be wrong.
Your partner probably knows this, but they can’t help it, and they’re doing their best. You are too.
If your husband or wife suffers from anxiety, and you’d like help for them or for yourself, make an appointment today.