Plus how to stop the cycle, so you and your partner feel closer.

By Alice Boyes, PhD
August 06, 2018
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Do you sometimes snap at your spouse when you’re feeling worried about something totally unrelated? Are you dragging your feet on a decision, despite your partner’s steady prompts to make up your mind? There's no question that anxiety is hardest on the person suffering it; but whether you have an anxiety disorder or you're just anxious by nature, your anxiety can also affect your partner, and lead you to inadvertently sabotage your relationship happiness.

It’s a vicious cycle: Your anxiety spills into your relationship, your partner gets frustrated, and as a result, you feel less supported—and more insecure. The good news is that once you're aware of the common problems that unfold, there are remedies you can try. Read on to learn the traps to watch for, and how to avoid them.

Anxiety shortens your fuse

This happened to me recently when my family and I were traveling home from vacation. I was feeling a looming sense of dread about how much work had piled up while we were away. On the flight home, our toddler had a few meltdowns, and I got snippy with my spouse for not helping me enough with our child. I would’ve coped better with my daughter's meltdowns if I wasn’t so worked up about coming home to a backlog of things to do.

Try this: Ask your partner to point out those times when you’re anxious about one thing, and it's causing you to be irritable about something else. You can let them know that you may not always act pleased, and may even react defensively. But at the end of the day, you'd appreciate the feedback.

You can phrase the request as something like, “Can you help me notice when I’m stressed out about work or money and I’m taking it out on you, or being short-tempered with the kids?” Keep in mind that your partner might sometimes identify situations in which they think you’re acting out due to anxiety, but you don’t agree. If that happens occasionally, cut them some slack and try not to get too upset about it. When you both recognize the pattern, it can help your partner be more tolerant, and help you adjust your behavior.

You stonewall your partner

We’ve evolved to respond to anxiety in one of three ways: fight, flee, or freeze. "Freezing" often manifests as decision paralysis. For instance, you might procrastinate getting started on tasks, or put off decisions because you’re endlessly waiting for the perfect option to emerge. Someone with anxiety might find it very difficult to move forward with big decisions, like retirement investing or buying a home. You might even feel frozen over minor household decisions, because you're afraid of making choices you'll regret.

In a relationship, the freeze response can make it hard to even discuss certain anxiety-provoking topics. Say your spouse wants to talk about having another baby, for example, but you block their attempts to even have the conversation. This is known as “stonewalling,” and it’s a pattern that research has shown is predictive of divorce. It communicates that you’re not receptive at all to your partner’s perspective.

Try this: When a touchy subject needs to be discussed, go for a 20 minute walk-and-talk. A spin around the neighborhood may make the conversation feel less daunting because there’s a natural time limit, and you might feel less trapped outside your home. You can also start working on strategies for how to make faster decisions, like the tips outlined here.

You're too critical

Anxiety is all about overestimating threats. When presented with a new idea, people with anxiety think of the potential downsides before the upsides, which may lead you to shoot down your partner's suggestions too quickly. This pattern can cause your partner to withdraw emotionally from the relationship because they learn to always expect a negative reaction to their ideas. And that gets old fast.

Try this: Work on learning to give "sandwich feedback"—that is, pointing out a positive, then a negative, and then another positive—just like you’d do in the workplace. And hopefully over time, your S.O. will learn to recognize the benefits of having the perspective of a “Negative Nancy” (or "Ned"). People prone to pessimism and caution can be a great help in pointing out the potential flaws in a decision, and avoiding mistakes.

The suggestions I’ve made require self-knowledge and relationship trust. I know from personal experience that it’s not easy to apply these tips with consistency. But they do work. Even if you only succeed in using them some of the time, you and your partner will grow closer to one another.

Alice Boyes, PhD, is the author of the The Healthy Mind Toolkit and The Anxiety Toolkit, and a frequent blogger for Psychology Today. Her research has been published by the American Psychological Association.