Living with anxiety can be tough — your thoughts might race, you might dread tasks others find simple (like driving to work) and your worries might feel inescapable. But loving someone with anxiety can be hard too. You might feel powerless to help or overwhelmed by how your partner’s feelings affect your daily life.
If so, you’re not alone: Multiple studies have shown that anxiety disorders may contribute to marital dissatisfaction.
Anxiety is experienced at many different levels and in different forms — from moderate to debilitating, from generalized anxiety to phobias — and its impacts can vary. But psychiatrists and therapists say there are ways to help your partner navigate challenges while you also take care of yourself.
Start by addressing symptoms.
Because an anxiety disorder can be consuming, it can be best to start by talking with your partner about the ways anxiety affects daily life, like sleeplessness, etc. Something as simple as using the word “stress” instead of clinical labels can help too. Often people may feel a little more comfortable talking about stress as opposed to … anxiety [disorders].
Don’t minimize feelings.
Even if the perspective of the other person absolutely makes no sense to you logically, you should validate it. Try to understand your partner’s fears and worries, or at least acknowledge that those fears and worries are real to your partner, before addressing why such things might be irrational.
Anxiety doesn’t have an easy solution, but helping someone starts with compassion. Too many partners, particularly male partners, want to fix it right away. You have to start with empathy and understanding. You can move to logic, but not before the person feels like they’re not being judged and … misunderstood.
Help your partner seek treatment — and participate when you can.
If your partner is overwhelmed by anxiety, encourage your partner to seek therapy. You can even suggest names of therapists or offices, but don’t call the therapist and set up the appointment yourself. You want the person to have a certain level of agency over their treatment.
Don’t talk to your partner at home the way a therapist might. For example, don’t suggest your partner try medication or ways of modifying behavior. Let the recommendations about treatment come from the professional, even if you yourself are in the mental health care field.
It can also be helpful to do some research on whatever form of anxiety your partner might be living with. Many times, people with anxiety feel as if they’re misunderstood. If the partner takes the time to research it a little bit, that can go a long way.
Encourage — don’t push.
When your partner suffers from debilitating anxiety and you don’t, your partner’s behavior can be frustrating. But you should never patronize or diminish your partner’s fears. Comments such as “Why can’t you do this? What’s your problem?” will probably be ineffective.
Instead, try to encourage your partner to overcome the anxiety. Channel your encouragement in a positive direction. Say something like ‘Here’s how it will benefit you if you can face [this] discomfort.
Here is one approach of how to talk to your partner using an example of someone with an immense fear of flying: “Start off saying, ‘I really understand how scared you are of flying. It makes sense you’d be scared. You can’t get off the plane if you have a panic attack, [you’re] afraid you might embarrass yourself … or it feels like you’re out of control when there’s turbulence.’ See things from their perspective.”
Then you can try to gently push your partner to overcome those fears.
Cultivate a life outside your partner’s anxiety.
To maintain your own mental health, it’s important to cultivate habits and relationships that are for you alone, such as a regular exercise regimen or weekly hangouts with friends. Have your own support network, like a best friend or a therapist (or both), for when your partner’s anxiety overwhelms you.
Partners definitely need support of their own, whether that means their own therapeutic relationship or just friends, family [and] other interests or activities that set them apart from the world of anxiety they might be living in.
And don’t let your partner’s anxiety run your family’s life. For example, someone with obsessive-compulsive disorder, which is closely linked to anxiety disorders, might want family members to keep everything very clean or organized in arbitrary ways. It’s important to restrict how much you will organize your household around your partner’s anxiety — and not to indulge every request or mandate.
Try to be respectful, but also set limits.
Help your partner remember that the goal is to manage anxiety — not to get rid of it.
A lot of people with anxiety disorders understandably view anxiety as the enemy. Actually, it’s not. The real enemy is avoidance. Anxiety causes people to avoid things — like applying to schools, flying to a cousin’s wedding that can lead to an enriched life. … and that can cause depression.
It can also reduce the number of life experiences you and your partner share.
You can have an anxious life, but if you’re do things such as doing that job interview, saying yes to social invitations, getting in that car and driving to the ocean, etc.You’re still doing those things. You might need medication or therapy, but you’re still living life.