by Jan E. Estrellado, Ph.D.
Most of CSAM’s blogs focus on the experience of having a mental health condition, such as anxiety, depression, or PTSD. This blog is a little different because it focuses on the impact of a mental health condition, anxiety, on couples. What is it like to care for, live with, and support someone with anxiety? What kind of strain might this cause in a relationship and what can couples do to sustain each other and their relationship?
Loving Someone with Anxiety
Partners or spouses of individuals with anxiety might experience feelings of helplessness. When anxious loved ones feel intense fear (i.e., scared of having a panic attack or becoming severely preoccupied with worried thoughts) or avoid certain situations (i.e., not wanting to drive on the freeway or refusing to leave the home), partners may not feel there is much they can do to help reassure or calm them down. When a partner does attempt to help ease his or her loved one’s suffering, those attempts (i.e., reassuring, problem-solving) may be rejected by the anxious individual. This can be extremely hurtful and can lead to other intense feelings described below. In addition, partners may try to help by offering to drive for the anxious partner, agreeing to skip a social event, or allowing the anxious partner to engage in compulsions so that he or she gets relief. While these efforts are meant to be helpful, the avoidance partners are enabling actually contributes to and maintains the anxiety-related problems.
The emotions that partners of anxious individuals can experience range and vary greatly. They may feel anger and frustration that the anxiety inhibits their lives, and because their partner’s anxiety is outside of their control. It is difficult to accept that a loved one may continue to feel anxious, regardless of the actions of the partner. If a partner’s anger remains unresolved over a long period of time, this can turn into resentment, minimization, or blame. Partners may feel overlooked or overshadowed by their loved one’s anxiety, perhaps feeling like their needs can’t be met when calming their partner down feels the most urgent.
Being the Anxious Partner in the Relationship
The partner who experiences extreme worry can easily feel guilt, shame, and embarrassment at their lack of ability to manage anxious feelings. They may also feel misunderstood and alone. These negative feelings, if not addressed or acknowledged effectively, might actually contribute to further anxiety. If an anxious person feels his or her partner is getting frustrated, that person might shut down, withdraw from the relationship, or engage in unhelpful coping behaviors, such as smoking cigarettes or shopping excessively. When worry and stress take up a lot of space in a relationship, the anxious individual often feels responsible for his or her partner’s feelings of frustration, hurt, or helplessness. These feelings of guilt or embarrassment compound the individual’s pre-existing feelings of worry, increasing the suffering of that person.
It may be difficult for the anxious partner to know what he or she needs. Perhaps he or she is too ashamed to ask for support when so much help has already been requested of the partner. When a person experiences intense fear in the moment, it can be challenging to know what is helpful and perhaps even more challenging to communicate those needs effectively. Intense fear, by nature, prevents a person from thinking logically or rationally and it can be tough to know how to reign one’s self in during those moments.
Sustaining the Relationship
What can a partner of an anxious individual do to help make the relationship work? One crucial element is for the partner to make sure that he or she is able to maintain his or her own health and wellness. A partner can feel guilty for taking care of himself or herself, especially knowing that his or her loved one may be suffering. However, if both partners are suffering, especially over a long period of time, the relationship is no longer sustainable. A partner might need to seek this support outside of the relationship. Examples of support outside the relationship include trusted friends, family members, health providers, faith leaders, co-workers, and therapists.
In addition, a person may want to communicate his or her needs to the anxious partner, even if it is difficult. If only one person’s needs are being met or paid attention to consistently, the relationship feels one-sided—another predictor of an unsustainable situation. Asking for one’s needs to be met can also include discussing feelings and reactions to the partner’s anxiety. While communicating feelings in an authentic, yet caring way, can be challenging, both partners might experience some relief and a greater connection, and the likelihood of resentment decreases.
An anxious individual may not want to wait until he or she experiences intense fear to know what help the partner can provide. Rather, identify wants and needs during more calm or grounded moments. When an anxious person knows what works, it is easier to engage his or her partner in a collaborative manner. Having a “game plan” can ease some of the intensity of fear in the moment.
Finally, as we say in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, anxiety can have a place in the relationship, but it shouldn’t be “driving the bus.” When anxiety appears to be controlling the direction of the relationship despite the couple’s best efforts, it’s time for one or both individuals in the relationship to seek outside support.
CSAM is here to help
If you or someone you love might benefit from acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), or biofeedback for anxiety, depression, stress, or PTSD, or if you would like more information about our therapy services, please contact us at (858) 354-4077 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.