This post was written by Robert T. Muller and Lucas Norton, a contributing writer at The Trauma and Mental Health Report.
Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health issues, with approximately 284 million people suffering from an anxiety disorder in 2017 alone. Although anxiety disorders can impact relationships with friends and family, they particularly strain romantic relationships. For couples where one partner has an anxiety disorder, family activities, finances, social events, emotional well-being, and intimacy can all be impacted.
Anxiety and relationships
Anxiety in relationships takes many forms. Some people who struggle with anxiety become overly dependent on their partners, constantly seeking reassurance and support. This sometimes manifests as insecurity, jealousy, or worrying that their partner may leave them. Others push in the opposite direction, avoiding conflict and struggling to open up or be vulnerable. This may appear as frustration, annoyance, or anger with one’s partner.
Effectively supporting a loved one who is suffering from anxiety is often complicated, and it can be difficult to know the best way to help. We interviewed Kathleen Tallon, a Toronto-based practitioner in clinical psychology with extensive experience researching and treating anxiety disorders. She stressed the importance of understanding that anxiety is common:
“Anxiety is a normal human experience. The main difference between an anxiety disorder and the anxiety we all experience is a matter of degree. In an anxiety disorder, the person experiences a higher level of anxiety, which may interfere with their functioning and/or cause a significant amount of distress for them. Another way of putting this is that the difference is in the quantity of anxiety, rather than the quality.”
How to help a partner with an anxiety disorder
Since feelings of anxiety are universal, Tallon recommends supporting a partner suffering from an anxiety disorder the same way one would support a loved one without a disorder who is feeling anxious: “Try to understand their experience, validate what they are going through, and support your partner’s independence in facing their problems.”
Validation, which involves accepting and recognizing another person’s thoughts or feelings, is central to this kind of support. Tallon explains:
“Validation means letting your partner know that you understand they are having a difficult time. You may not understand why your partner is so anxious, but dismissing their anxiety by saying things like ‘That’s nothing to worry about’ or ‘Just forget about it and relax’ can make things worse and be hurtful to your partner. Instead, saying something like ‘I can see that this is really difficult right now’ lets your partner know you are trying to understand their experience.”
Tallon also recommends other ways to support a partner with an anxiety disorder:
“If your partner has an anxiety disorder one important way to support them is to educate yourself. This could involve reading trusted sources (such as Anxiety Canada, the ADAO, the CCI, the ABCT, or the MDAO), or joining a family education and support group. If your partner is in therapy, see if your partner and their therapist would be open to you joining one of their sessions!”
When living with a partner who has anxiety, it is important not to shield them from experiencing distress as this may inadvertently reinforce their anxiety. Such attempts to reduce a loved one’s anxiety are known as accommodation and can include problem-solving for your partner, providing excessive reassurance, or avoiding situations that provoke anxiety. Tallon explains:
“Accommodation comes from a good place—we don’t want to see our loved ones suffer—but one of the best ways for someone to overcome anxiety is to practice approaching the situations that are making them anxious. When we accommodate our loved ones’ anxiety by clearing the path for them, we rob them of the opportunity to learn how to cope with those situations and to build self-confidence. In this way, accommodation can maintain anxiety.”
Instead of accommodating anxiety, Tallon recommends gently encouraging a partner to approach the things they have been avoiding. In this way, it’s possible to be supportive of a partner while helping them gain exposure to and overcome the things which cause them stress.
Above all, Tallon advises:
“Patience, open-mindedness, and caring will go a long way to supporting a partner who is struggling with anxiety. We cannot ‘cure’ another person’s anxiety, but we can do our best to support them as they learn to manage it. Remember that anxiety does not define the person or your relationship. Work to build positive experiences together as a couple—laugh, travel, do things you enjoy, spend time with friends, have fun. These positive experiences can serve as a buffer to the stress anxiety can cause.”
Copyright 2021, Robert T. Muller.