Married to Anxiety
Our columnist has two decades of experience managing anxiety in his relationship. You don't want to miss this advice.
It’s not easy loving someone “in sickness and in health,” which is probably why they crammed it into marriage vows. Whoever wrote that bit probably wasn’t thinking about mental illnesses like anxiety disorders, but it’s still important: Without a little mindfulness, anxiety can color your entire relationship.
Luckily (for you, not me), I’ve been on both sides of this exchange. In fact, I’m offering lived experience as someone dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and panic disorder who has been happily married to someone with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and major depressive disorder (MDD) for 20 years.
In the beginning, I could have won an Oscar for acting like things were okay when they really, really weren’t. But I learned that doesn’t do anything but deflect the situation, cause misunderstandings, and result in explosive fights. It certainly doesn’t deal with the issue of how anxiety is affecting your relationship. Let’s talk about this for real.
Have an Open Relationship
I’m not suggesting you start sleeping with other people (unless that’s your thing—no judgments), but I am asking you to practice radical honesty with your partner. When I first started having chronic panic attacks due to PTSD, I kept it from my wife. I was embarrassed. I had bought into that whole stoic, toxic masculinity thing, so instead of having a real conversation about how anxiety was destroying my ability to socialize, I told her I felt too sick to attend our friend’s wedding with her. When she wanted to see a movie premiere with our favorite actor doing Q&A, I said I was too tired from working to go. I pretended all sorts of things because I deeply feared having a panic attack in public.
Though I did manage to avoid some social engagements, this strategy was hurting our relationship. My wife now had a surprisingly unreliable, flaky jerk for a husband because I was afraid she’d think I was weak if she knew about my fears. But guess what? When I eventually fessed up, she got it right away and she still loved me. That was such a huge relief.
See, “partner” isn’t just a neutral term for the person you’re hooking up with. Good relationships happen when partners work together to create a better life for both people. For that, you have to be honest in a way that might be uncomfortable for you. (It’ll be awkward, yes, but not having a secret “flaw” hanging over your head is worth it.)
Take Their Concerns Seriously...
Anxiety is a term that’s so overused in popular culture that the actual meaning of the psychological disorder has been lost. Anxiety disorder isn’t just feeling stressed out before a job interview or your turn at karaoke—it’s a distressing and debilitating condition characterized by a state of excessive worry, fear, compulsive behavior, and panic attacks.
If you dismiss your partner’s concerns as “just anxiety” or try to logic your way out of their feelings (“C’mon, the shark cage is safe. Cows kill 5x as many people as sharks!”), you’re being a lousy partner. Their fear feels very real to them, and it feels awful. I spent a lot of time in group therapy with people whose partners refused to understand or acknowledge their anxiety disorder—that lack of support gave them more stress than the condition itself.
...But Not Too Seriously
Once all your cards are on the table and you’re both aware of what’s up, you don’t have to act like life has irreparably changed and you’ll never smile again. In fact, a little humor can sometimes take a stress spiral from DEFCON 3 back down to 5.
My wife has generalized anxiety disorder, and when she is stress-texting me with a work emergency that’s driving her to tears, I listen and let her know I’ve got her back. Then, I send her a ridiculous music video (“Miracles” by Insane Clown Posse is always a winner), a silly meme, or an inside joke to make her laugh and hopefully redirect her bad mood.
Come up With an Anxiety “Safe Word”
Call it male fragility, but I imagine that to my wife, the least sexy thing in the world is hearing the man she’s sharing a bed with complain about his anxiety problems. You know what is sexy? A safe word (or even just a safe signal). In this case, fear is your hard limit.
When my wife picked up on my reluctance to express when I was having big PTSD energy, her solution was simple and effective: If we’re out someplace and I start having a panic attack, all I have to do is give her hand a little squeeze. It saves me the temporary embarrassment of having to essentially announce, “I feel scared and vulnerable” out loud. Now, if I squeeze her hand and casually mention wrapping things up, she picks right up on my signal.
It makes me feel understood without piling on the vulnerability, and it allows her to stay plugged into the situation. Sometimes I’ll squeeze her hand and she’ll gently ask, “Are you sure?” If I feel able to practice getting comfortable being uncomfortable, I take it as a challenge. Am I sure? Can I last another five minutes? A lot of the time, I’m surprised that the answer is yes.
Take a 20-minute Vacation
When my wife is trapped in a negative loop of anxiety, I’ll trick her into leaving the apartment by making up an errand that we absolutely have to do at that moment. (We’re both writers who work from home, hence the need for trickery.) If all goes according to plan, we’ll wind up having lunch or coffee in our local park. This 20-minute vacation from her stressful situation is just the change of mental scenery she needs. Once we’re walking and talking, her mental focus shifts organically, her mood lifts, and the emergency she thought was so unmanageable somehow doesn’t seem like such a Herculean task.
Take the Pressure Off
As much as I encourage my fellow anxious folks to challenge themselves, I recognize that it can be exhausting and overwhelming. Anxious people kind of hate having looming plans, no matter how fun they seemed when you clicked ‘going’ on Facebook. On one hand, you dread having to go out and be around people because you know you’re going to be uncomfortable; on the other hand you don’t want to be the person who misses out on all the fun because of your anxiety again.
When we have plans, I notice my wife gets irritable when she’s getting ready to go out because she’s got conflicting notions of FOMO vs. the idea of having to be witty and friendly, and having to wear something other than home clothes. I used to deal with this by acting like a human Big Ben and counting down how much time she had left, then inevitably arguing with her once her stress level reached its max.
What works better is telling her to take her time and we’ll get there when we get there. When she second-guesses her outfit, I remind her that she’s an absolute smoke show. If her stress is still escalating, I’ll remind her that we’re not punching a clock and we don’t actually have to go—especially if I’d also be just as happy staying home in sweatpants, getting pizza, and watching a film noir. That takes the pressure off completely. Interestingly, it’s at this point that she usually pulls it together.
It sounds terrible to say you should leave your anxious partner behind and go do things without them but hear me out. Anxious people often fear their anxiety is “ruining” the relationship and making their partner unhappy. I was acutely aware of every plan I bailed on and every date night I rushed through like Henry Hill in Goodfellas.
Every time I rejected an invitation that would put me out of my comfort zone, I felt like my wife thought I was rejecting her. It’s perfectly normal that she felt some degree of resentment—even Mother Theresa would get annoyed by that kind of thing. Plus, I wanted her to enjoy herself, even if also secretly wanted her to stay home. We decided she’d let me know when she really wanted to do something, and I could make my own action plan: go with her, stay home, or make other arrangements.
I was probably happier than she was when she went to dinner with her girlfriends and saw Phoebe Waller-Bridge do the stage version of Fleabag. It’s important for the anxious partner to know that they’re not dragging the other person down. (Consider shooting the worrier a text or two over the course of the night to let them know you’re OK and having fun.)
Don’t Panic Over a Panic Attack
It’s only natural to want to leap right into the deep end and solve your partner’s problem ASAP. Now’s not the time to be overbearing.
If your partner is in the middle of a full-blown panic attack, they’re not thinking straight. Don’t rush at them with a worried expression and a bottle of Gatorade, don’t ask a million questions that require logical thinking, and please don’t make a panicking person feel worse by having to worry about you worrying about them. Don’t make it about you.
Instead of asking, “What can I do for you?” which is more about your need to do something than their immediate needs, suggest skirting the crowd and dipping into a quiet café, or even taking a breather while leaning against a wall. Let them know that you’re there with and for them as they ride the panic attack out. If you can master this skill, you’ll be a keeper.