Whether you’ve been married to someone with an anxiety disorder for twenty years or you just went on your first date last week, it can be tough to figure out the best way to support and be there for your significant other when they are struggling. To make things even more complicated, not every anxiety disorder is the same, and even two people with the same diagnosis might experience their symptoms in completely different ways! Regardless of what they’re going through, it’s hard to feel like a helpless bystander while your loved one is suffering. As a Marriage and Family Therapist, I not only work with individual diagnoses, but I pay special attention to the ways those diagnoses can affect relationships (which is a lot of ways!). I’ve put together four brief tips to help you start navigating these challenging waters:
1. Do your research
Read up on your partner’s diagnosis and symptoms. While it’s important to let them tell you about their individual experience with their anxiety, it can also help them feel cared for and understood if you take the time to educate yourself on what they might be going through. For example, if your significant other has Generalized Anxiety Disorder, one of their symptoms might be becoming tired more easily than usual or even just feeling tired for no apparent reason. If you’ve done your research and know that fatigue is a common symptom of anxiety, you’ll be able to sympathize with your partner when they complain of not knowing why they’re so tired all the time. Another great way to do your research is to read articles (like this one!) that offer tips on how to help someone with the diagnosis that your partner has. So, great work! You’re already taking a positive step toward helping your loved one manage their anxiety.
2. Don’t take it personally
Sometimes (or oftentimes) your partner’s anxiety might spill into your relationship. They might feel some anxiety about whether you still love them or about whether your relationship is the “real deal”. They might ask you for reassurance over and over again no matter how much you say you want to be with them. As the person on the receiving end of these insecurities, you might start to wonder what you’re doing wrong or why your significant other doesn’t trust you the way you trust them. While it’s normal to have those thoughts, my encouragement to you is to remember that your loved one’s anxiety isn’t about you. If you take their worries personally, it’s easy to think that they have anxiety about your relationship because they think you’re an untrustworthy person or that you’re the type of person to cheat on them. In reality, the source of their anxiety is probably not related to you at all! If your partner tells you they have some fears related to your relationship or if they exhibit any of the behaviors I’ve mentioned here, take a moment to remind yourself that their anxiety doesn’t mean you’ve done anything to hurt them, and ask them how you can help them ease some of those worries. Your support in those moments can be so valuable to the strength and the growth of your relationship.
3. Listen first, suggestions later
You care about your partner, right? So, naturally, you want to make all their problems go away and ensure that they never feel any negative emotions - ever! It is really hard to just stand by and watch someone you love suffering through moments of anxiety. How often do you catch yourself thinking or saying something along the lines of “Maybe if you tried …xyz… then you wouldn’t feel so anxious”? We automatically go into problem-solving mode when we know our partner is in distress because we want to help them to not be in distress anymore. The trouble with anxiety is that there isn’t a perfect solution that makes anxiety go away. Even when certain things work in some circumstances, they might not work all the time. On top of all that, when anxiety hits, it can be hard to process potential solutions when your nervous system is on such high alert. When your partner tells you they feel anxious about something, let your first response be listening. Help them to get through that difficult moment. Then, later on after their anxiety has calmed, offer your suggestions: “I know you were really worried about that thing before. I was wondering if you had ever tried …xyz… Do you think that would help?” When your significant other has anxiety, giving them space to feel heard and supported can often be more helpful than any piece of advice you could offer.
4. Consider therapy
What better way to support your significant other with anxiety than to learn how to do it from the experts: therapists! Couples’ therapy can be a really amazing bonding opportunity for people in relationships, even if you don’t have anything you consider to be a major “problem” you want to work through. A therapist can help you and your partner learn more about how to work together and support each other through a variety of difficult situations, including times when your partner is feeling anxious. If you’re not quite feeling up to couples’ therapy, or if your significant other isn’t ready to try it yet, you might also consider individual therapy for yourself. I imagine you may be thinking, “But I don’t have the diagnosis, my partner does!” True, but therapy isn’t just for people with diagnoses. Therapy can be just a space to vent and process day-to-day life, a time to discover more about yourself, or, in this case, an opportunity to practice skills that will help you in your relationship with a person who has anxiety.
If you’re interested in trying out couples’ therapy, individual therapy, or even both at the same time, the therapists at EVOLVEwithin would love to help! Give us a call at (262) 649-3297 or visit our website to learn more or to request an appointment. We can’t wait to get to know you!
Article contribution by Tabitha Schroeder, MS, MFT-IT