Is Anxiety Interfering with Your Relationship?

Anxiety can be helpful when it motivates you to accomplish tasks, but it is hurtful when it causes you to avoid what you need to do. Maybe one or both of you are nervous about how things are going in the relationship but avoid discussing it because it feels uncomfortable. Alternately, anxiety may make you less productive such that your worries get in the way of accomplishing work or household tasks, which can cause tension in the relationship.

Below are common cycles couples experience around anxiety as well as tips for breaking out of these cycles. Because every couple is different, it’s important to read through each cycle. You might find that more than one applies to your or your partner’s behavior.

Cycle 1: ANXIETY THAT CREATES CONFLICT

The anxious partner’s behavior can bother the non-anxious partner. The non-anxious partner may try to help, but if the help he/she offers isn’t what the anxious person wants, he/she can start to feel frustrated. At the same time, if the anxious partner notices the non-anxious partner’s frustration, his/her anxiety might become even worse. Attempts to decrease anxiety may just start the cycle all over again.

Cycle 2: ANXIETY THAT CREATES ACCOMMODATION

Sometimes, instead of creating outward conflict between the two partners, the non-anxious partner changes his/her behavior to help the anxious partner reduce his/her anxiety.  While this can be good in small doses, it can become a problem if the entire relationship becomes organized around the anxiety – a process called “accommodation”.  For example, if one person is afraid of being in crowded places, the other partner may start to do all of the shopping and related activities.  While that might feel good to the anxious person in the short term (even being viewed as a caring act), it ultimately keeps the anxious person from having the very experiences that would help him/her get over that anxiety.

 

Cycle 1: ANXIETY THAT CREATES CONFLICT

Tips for the Non-Anxious Partner   

“Just calm down!”

The more anxiety your partner shows, the more concerned and frustrated you become, and the more you urge him/her to relax and fix the problem.

  1. Empathy is important. Try to empathize with the anxiety your partner is feeling. If this isn’t a core issue you’re working on in this program, tell your partner you see how difficult it must be for him/her to deal with this. Having an open conversation about how difficult it is for you both can start moving things in a more productive direction and out of the frustrating cycle.
  2. Don’t judge. Try not to criticize your partner – that is likely to make his/her stress and anxiety worse. Give your partner some time to figure out how to handle his/her anxiety. Be open to the ideas they share about how you can react constructively.
  3. Focus self-change. Make decisions about things you can control, like what you’ll do when your partner is feeling anxious. Maybe you can remove yourself from the situation, set a timer to allow your partner an agreed upon amount of time to vent, and/or when they are ready, you can problem solve together. Or, maybe you need to make a plan to do some things on your own you haven’t been able to do because your partner’s anxiety.

Tips for the Anxious Partner

“You aren’t helping!”

The more your partner pushes you to calm down, the more anxious you feel, and the more you want to do something else to make the anxiety go away.

  1. Share your feelings. If this isn’t a core issue you’re working on in this program, share with your partner how it feels to be anxious. Give him/her a chance to empathize with you. Oftentimes, anxiety is hidden until it explodes. Be aware of how you are feeling and let your partner in. Letting your partner know, especially when they are doing something that contributes to your anxiety, is important. He/she may be totally unaware of what he/she is doing!
  2. Voice your needs. Try to tell your partner what you need. For example, maybe you want your partner to comfort and support you rather than try to fix what’s wrong or tell you to calm down. Learning to regulate anxiety on your own is important, but so is letting your partner know what makes it worse.
  3. Get advice/ help. Would advice from a therapist or physician be an option for you? There are many effective therapies and medications shown to help people struggling with anxiety. Additionally, self-help books or other online programs like this one, but specifically for anxiety may be an option for you.

 

Cycle 2: ANXIETY THAT CREATES ACCOMMODATION

Tips for the Non-Anxious Partner               

“I’ll help, but it’s starting to bother me!”

The more anxious your partner gets, the more you feel you have to be reassure him/her or rearrange everything so he/she won’t get upset, which can be very stressful for you.

  1. Discuss your plan. Before you do anything differently, talk with your partner about why it’s important to change the way the two of you act because of your partner’s anxiety. Be sure to communicate that you really care for your partner. But it’s BECAUSE you care that you’re going to try to let your partner handle his/her anxiety more independently.
  2. Allow for personal growth. Instead of reassuring your partner that everything is okay and/or taking any tasks to help your partner feel less anxious, step aside and give him/her the chance to practice doing things that make him/her anxious despite feeling distressed.
  3. Remember self-care. When you find yourself wanting to help your partner with avoiding anxiety-provoking situations, or find yourself “walking on eggshells” to make sure he/she is okay, do something else that’s important to you instead. Try taking a walk, reading a book, or engaging yourself in some other pleasurable activity.
  4. Show Love. When you have a partner who is anxious, sometimes one of the ways you show your love is through helping with rituals or helping them avoid feared things. Instead, show you care with other actions. Leave him/her a supportive note on the mirror in the morning, give him/her a back rub after a long day, or text them to show you are thinking about him/her during the day. And, when your partner is anxious, be sure to support him/her AFTER your partner has a chance to handle the anxiety on his/her own.

Tips for the Anxious Partner

“If I don’t do this, I won’t be okay”

The more your partner gets stressed out when you’re anxious, the more anxious you feel, and the more you want to do something else to make the anxiety go away.

  1. Work individually. When you feel pulled to ask your partner for reassurance that everything will be fine, or help you with something that makes the anxiety go away, try not asking and instead try to stick it out. Though you will likely feel more anxiety right away, in many cases you’ll see that directly addressing the issues that make you anxious eventually reduces your anxiety of those issues in the future.
  2. Challenge yourself. Sometimes, when we have been avoiding something for a really long time, when we re-visit it, the feared thing isn’t as scary as we thought. See if you can try out some of the anxiety provoking activities or situations, and make baby steps toward doing more and more activities that used to make you anxious!
  3. Let your partner off the hook. One of the reasons your partner helps you (more than might be good for you) is that he/she really cares about you and wants to help you when you feel anxious. So, let your partner know that you’re going to try to handle the anxiety on your own. And let him/her know that’s not because you don’t appreciate the help but that it’s because your anxiety won’t improve if you don’t push yourself.
  4. Get advice/ help. Would advice from a therapist or physician be an option for you? There are many effective therapies and medications shown to help people struggling with anxiety. Additionally, self-help books or other online programs specifically for anxiety may be an option for you.

 

Additional Resources

The suggestions presented here may help you break the cycle you and your partner are struggling with when one of you has anxiety. Here are a few more resources for you to help in this area.

 

Complete a Free, Online Self-Help Program.  Consider working on your relationship using our proven, self-help relationship program. Our program is developed by leaders in the fields of couple therapy and pre-marital education and has been shown through extensive research to improve relationships – more than in-person classes and almost as much as marriage counseling. You’ll work with your partner to complete online activities and receive free support from one of our program coaches. Our program is developed by leaders in the fields of couple therapy and pre-marital education. So, you can be confident that it’s the best thing you can do to strengthen your relationship without the hassle and cost of a therapist. Not sure your partner would go for it?  Take a look at these tips for how to introduce the idea. To find out more about our program, go to our home page.

 

For the anxious person to read on their own:

  • For General Worry:
    • MASTERING YOUR ANXIETY AND WORRY – Drs. David Barlow and Michelle Craske
  • For Sudden Panic Attacks:
    • MASTERING YOUR ANXIETY AND PANIC – Drs. David Barlow and Michelle Craske

For those having difficulty following a traumatic experience:

  • FINDING LIFE BEYOND TRAUMA – Victoria M. Follete and Jacqueline Pistorello

Online programs: