Living with a partner who has anxiety can present a lot of uncertainty, even for the most supportive of spouses. Here’s how to cope.
While money, infidelity, and intimacy issues might grab all the headlines as causes to marital strain, there’s another one that you might not be thinking about: anxiety.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), roughly
Research has also found that people with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) are significantly less likely to consider themselves in a “healthy and supportive” relationship compared to people who don’t have this mental health condition.
Not only that, but folks with GAD in the study were two times more likely to have at least one relationship problem, such as regular arguments, and three times more likely to avoid intimacy with their partner.
So, does that mean that all relationships with an anxious partner are doomed? Definitely not. But it does mean that a relationship with someone anxious might take a little more work in order for it to thrive.
We all feel anxious sometimes. But if you don’t live with an anxiety disorder, it can sometimes be difficult to understand the condition.
That’s why relationship coach Callisto Adams says that “educating yourself is key to being empathetic, to really seeing and hearing your […] partner.”
There are several different types of anxiety disorders, including:
- GAD: chronic, excessive worry about several things
- Social anxiety disorder: an intense fear of social situations
- Panic disorder: frequent and reoccurring panic attacks
- Separation anxiety disorder: anxiety due to being separated from a loved one
- Agoraphobia: intense fear of a situation they can’t escape from, like crowded spaces or public transport — it can also make someone struggle to leave the house
- Specific phobias: irrational fears of specific things like water, flying, heights, and more
Other mental health conditions, like obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), can also have anxiety as a symptom, but they’re not considered anxiety disorders.
If your spouse has an anxiety disorder, they may generally worry a lot, but they may also:
- have trouble making decisions
- second-guess themselves
- seem on edge
- over-plan every detail of an upcoming event
- revisit decisions that you two had already decided on
- have trouble regulating their negative emotions in discussions
- insist that you “talk now” instead of giving you time to consider options
- spend a lot of time dwelling on “what ifs,” worst-case scenarios, or potential tragedies
- seem irritable or negative, especially in response to unexpected change
- repeatedly ask whether you’re OK or seek reassurance themselves
- be easily angered or quick to cry
- fidget often
Anxiety can cause physical symptoms too, including:
- racing heart rate
- queasiness or nausea
- chronic pain
“Anxiety can be very tough and trying for even the most patient of spouses and partners,” says Dr. Liz Jenkins, a therapist and relationship coach in Pflugerville, Texas. “Literally, [it] begins to dominate and shape the relationship.”
Here are some examples of things that you could experience in a relationship with someone with anxiety:
- You might feel pressure from your partner to turn down invitations from friends and family. This can take a toll on your relationships and make you feel isolated.
- Decisions might be stressful.You might avoid bringing up difficult topics to sidestep conflict, find yourself gridlocked with your spouse, or you might make financial, health, or other important family decisions without their input to evade conflict.
- It might affect finances or your career. You might feel pressure to turn down job promotions or career changes because it makes them anxious. Or conversely, your spouse might find it challenging to keep their job, causing financial repercussions.
- Parenting can become a battle.Your spouse might want to restrict activities for the kids out of worry, causing you two to disagree or argue.
- Vacations or outings together might not get past the planning stage. Your loved one might be indecisive, making it hard to settle plans, or they might refuse to go or cancel last minute.
The good news is that there are things you can do to make sure anxiety doesn’t dominate your relationship.
Whenever possible, try to identify your partner’s triggers and plan for them ahead of time. Consider giving yourself plenty of time to talk through and work through challenges so that you can arrive at a compromise.
Jenkins says that she likes having her clients use the “Three Ts” activity:
“Tag the trigger or anxious thought, tease it out by asking how much is accurate and how much is anxiety, then toss what is not working and keep what is accurate,” she explains.
Even with plans, things will happen that might cause your spouse to feel anxious. So Adams suggests, “When planning an activity or event, have a backup plan just in case.”
You might also want to consider having a signal between the two of you so that your spouse can let you know easily if they need to change the plan, suggests Stefanie Juliano, a clinical counselor in Rio Rancho, New Mexico.
When unexpected roadblocks appear
Your spouse will likely respond anxiously to unexpected events, so aim to be their support system.
“Let them know, ‘It’s OK, I’m here for you’ and that they’re in a safe space where they’re seen and understood, [and try] a soothing, supporting tone when talking to them,” suggests Adams.
Support rather than ‘fix’
It’s not your job to “fix” their anxiety, but you can acknowledge the work you see them doing to manage their anxiety.
As their life partner, you could learn when to push and when to back off, and try to avoid accusing your partner of “imagining” things or overreacting.
Instead, Adams says, “Have a calm conversation on what’s triggering their behavior, and what can you do together to help one another in this particular situation.”
It can be hurtful to your spouse if you assume that you know what they need or how they’re feeling. Instead, it might be beneficial to make time to talk and listen to each other.
These regular discussions can also help you have some structure for when you tackle difficult topics, like finances, upcoming events, chores, parenting, or work.
You might also find it helpful to use “I” statements rather than “you” statements because they’ll help emphasize your own feelings and sound less accusatory.
When the marriage itself is difficult
If your partner has long been managing a diagnosed anxiety disorder or they’re just beginning the road to treatment, you may want to offer to join in on their therapy now and then.
You might want to consider your own therapy to be an ally and fortify your mental well-being as well.
Adams says that couples counseling might help reinforce the idea that you’re a team and foster “the idea that you can go and move past obstacles together.”
Anxiety can be difficult within the bounds of a marital bond.
It could help to remember that best practices involve time, healthy communication, and patience.
You might also want to look into online resources, such as: