If you have a partner with anxiety–whether it is “everyday anxiety” or a full-blown anxiety disorder–you know the ways anxiety can wreak havoc on your lives and your relationship. It may feel like everything revolves around what will and will not make your partner anxious. Feelings of frustration, unfairness and anger on your part are all normal.
Since anxiety is one of the easiest psychiatric disorders to treat, hopefully your partner is in treatment for it. If not, encouragement about the benefits of therapy for anxiety might be in order. Whether or not your partner is in treatment, here are ten tips for handling partner anxiety:
- Validate your partner’s anxiety and be empathetic. I started off with a difficult suggestion, especially if you are feeling angry and frustrated by your partner’s anxiety. But you’ve probably discovered that arguing with your partner about having irrational fears and worries doesn’t get you anywhere, either. Try these tips for validating your partner.
- Learn about your partner’s anxiety. Start here with our anxiety guide from Psych Central, and then explore some of the resources listed here. You can also look at posts under the “Anxiety and Panic” category that’s listed to the left for specific posts about various anxiety disorders.
- Be a cheerleader for your partner. When you see small steps towards making changes, applaud your partner. Encourage them to do the behavior again when appropriate (such as driving to the store themselves when previously, they always had you drive) and reinforce their ability to be successful (“You did great when you drove there last week; I know you will be fine again this time. Call me when you get there, okay?”)
- Avoid criticism. Your partner likely has a lot of shame around their anxiety. Being criticized isn’t going to help matters. When you are tempted to be critical, refer back to #1.
- Be patient with progress. Although I said earlier that anxiety is easy to treat, it is not instantaneously cured, nor does it generally go away completely. Following suggestion #2 will give you a general idea of what to expect during recovery, but remember that each person is unique. Suggestion #3 may help speed the process along, but be realistic in your expectations.
- Avoid enabling your partner. When kids scream in the checkout line for candy, it can be hard for parents to resist giving in just to make the child be quiet. While your partner is no child, their anxiety can “scream” in ways that irritate you as much as a screaming child might, and it may feel easier to just give in to whatever will make your partner’s anxiety go away. Unfortunately, all that does is teach your partner that the anxiety can’t be overcome.
- Balance “firm” with “patient”. Learn where your limits and boundaries are, and work to stick to them. There are some situations where you will need to firm with your partner. Other times, being patient and waiting until your partner has more coping skills before proceeding is the appropriate response. You probably have a good idea of which is which.
- Set goals with your partner. When people have anxiety, they are often magnifying the fear they have, making the worst possible outcome seem inevitable. As a result, thoughts of addressing their fears seem impossible. Work with your partner to break down their worst fears into small chunks that can be mastered one step at a time. See this article on exposure therapy for ideas.