Intimate relationships can suffer if you're not dealing with the elephant in the room.

By Karen Pallarito
January 28, 2019

Your plus one is stuck in a wormhole of worry and won’t leave the house. You’ve been down this road before and it sucks, not just for your partner, but for you.

“Anxiety doesn’t live in a vacuum,” says psychologist and author Carolyn Daitch, PhD, director of the Center for the Treatment of Anxiety Disorders in Farmington Hills, Michigan. “Even in the most loving relationships,” she says, “if one partner has anxiety, it can really strain the relationship and dampen the trust and the intimacy, and it can make for frustration when neither gets their needs met.”

Treating anxiety as his problem or her issue only goes so far because it can also smother your partnership if you let issues fester.

Once you understand how anxiety is hijacking your loved one’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, you’ll be better equipped to defuse tense situations, and the two of you can begin to work as a team to work out anxiety-induced kinks in your relationship.

RELATED: 11 Ways to Help Someone Who Has Anxiety

You're not on the same page

It can feel as if the two of you are speaking different languages and, in fact, you are, Daitch explains.

You speak “logic,” and your anxious partner speaks “emotion.” No wonder there’s a breakdown in communication! “It’s like you’re lost in translation,” she says.

Your partner may avoid certain places or situations

Avoidance is a key feature of anxiety. Unless you’re both on the same page, it can cause a rift in your relationship.

If grocery shopping pushes all of your partner’s anxiety buttons, you might be the one handling that chore. But after a while, you resent it. And your anxious partner may never chip in, because treatment involves doing the thing that triggers anxiety, Daitch explains.

RELATED: 14 Signs You Could Be Having a Panic Attack

"I'm tired" is code for "I'm afraid"

Yes, anxiety can be exhausting, says Jeremy Tyler, PsyD, clinical psychologist at the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. But if your loved one is always “too tired” to go out, it’s probably an excuse.

People with social anxiety worry they’ll “do something embarrassing,” he says. To avoid looking foolish, they skip outings that may make them uncomfortable.

Anxiety has a physical component

“A lot of people feel their anxiety in their gut or their chest or their neck,” Daitch says.

Panic attacks can be particularly frightening because the physical sensations sometimes mimic a heart attack, but these symptoms are short-lived.

If you know your partner’s not in any real danger, give her space to acknowledge the thoughts that triggered the anxiety and time to take some deep breaths.

RELATED: 12 Signs You May Have an Anxiety Disorder

You only see the tip of the iceberg

Your partner gets worked up about things. But do you really understand what he’s struggling with?

“Some people just don’t disclose all the depths, all the scary parts, of their anxiety in detail to the person who in theory is closest to them,” Tyler says. “They’re trapped with their own anxiety.”

Modeling calmness can help

When your partner is stressed out, the last thing you should do is get worked up about it yourself.

“We actually mirror each other’s neurotransmitters,” Daitch explains. Remaining calm and compassionate may help prevent that anxious moment from boiling over.

RELATED: 'I Have Relationship Anxiety—Here's How It Affects My Dating Life'

Find a way to connect

Think of a time you’ve been anxious about something—your fear of heights or a traumatic event that left you rattled—and then multiply that by 10. That’s how your partner with anxiety is feeling, Tyler says.

Tapping into your own experience can help you empathize with your partner. “Just listen and connect,” he suggests, “because that’s going to open up all the communication.”

It's OK to provide validation and support

Your partner may feel ashamed of his anxiety. It’s fine to acknowledge how he’s feeling.

He’s nervous to drive again after his recent accident, and you totally get it. But you believe in him. He’s so much stronger than he thinks he is.

“Supporting, but not enabling,” Daitch explains. What you don’t want to do is drive him everywhere.

RELATED: Do Essential Oils Work for Anxiety–and What Are the Best Ones?

Your partner may need professional help

Everyone has anxious moments, but when anxiety disrupts a person’s life and relationships, it’s time to seek help. It could be an anxiety disorder.

Anxiety is super treatable, Tyler says. Visit the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapists and the Anxiety and Depression Association of America for resources and help finding a therapist.

Know when to tag out

There’s only so much reassuring a person can do. At some point in therapy, Tyler will give the non-anxious spouse permission to “not talk to the anxiety.”

Together they devise a plan. When the anxious spouse starts going down the rabbit hole of “what-ifs,” the partner can gently say, “Look, I’m not going to feed into it, and it’s not because I don’t care about you. It’s actually because I care so much about you.”

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