10 Things You Need to Know if Your Partner Has Anxiety

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

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 can be troubling, not just for your partner, but for you.

"Anxiety doesn't live in a vacuum," psychologist and author Carolyn Daitch, PhD, director of the Center for the Treatment of Anxiety Disorders in Farmington Hills, Michigan, told Health. "Even in the most loving relationships, 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."

A 2018 review in Neuroendocrinology Letters describes how anxiety can play out in a relationship. Using search terms such as "anxiety disorders," "marital problems," and "family functioning, the authors culled related studies from 1990-2017. Based on their analysis, they conclude that the link between anxiety disorders and family relationships is "bidirectional." In other words, having an anxiety disorder can sour your relationship with your partner, and your partner's attitude toward you can significantly affect your anxiety.¹

Treating anxiety as your partner's problem only goes so far. It can smother your partnership if you let issues fester, Daitch explained.

Understanding how anxiety can manipulate your loved one's thoughts, feelings, and behaviors can help you defuse tense situations. It's important the two of you work as a team to work out anxiety-induced kinks in your relationship.

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 explained. 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 said.

By definition, anxiety is anticipation of a future threat, per the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5).² It's a reaction to our emotions, says the National Alliance on Mental Health

Your Partner May Avoid Certain Places or Situations

Avoidance is a key feature of anxiety.⁴ Unless you're both on the same page, it can cause a rift in your relationship.

Though it may not seem like a big deal to you, certain tasks can be too much to handle for them. Your partner with anxiety may never chip in certain situations because doing so involves the thing that triggers anxiety, Daitch explained.

'I'm Tired' Is Code for 'I'm Afraid'

Yes, anxiety can be exhausting, according to Jeremy Tyler, PsyD, assistant professor of clinical psychiatry at the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety at the University of Pennsylvania's Perelman School of Medicine. But if your loved one is always "too tired" to go out, it might be an excuse. People with social anxiety worry they'll "do something embarrassing," he told Health. To avoid looking foolish, they skip outings that may make them uncomfortable.

Anxiety Has a Physical Component

If your partner seems tense, it may be because that's how they physically feel. "A lot of people feel their anxiety in their gut or their chest or their neck," Daitch said.

Panic attacks can be particularly frightening because the physical sensations sometimes mimic a heart attack, but these symptoms are short-lived. Typically, panic attack symptoms peak within minutes.⁵

If you know your partner's not in any real danger, give them space to acknowledge the thoughts that triggered the anxiety and time to take some deep breaths, said Daitch. Your partner may also want to do some slow breathing, a method for reducing panic symptoms.⁶

You Only See the Tip of the Iceberg

Your partner gets worked up about things. But do you really understand what they're 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 said. "They're trapped with their own anxiety."

Let your partner know you want to hear their thoughts—no matter how scary.

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 explained. Remaining calm and compassionate may help prevent that anxious moment from boiling over.

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 feels, Tyler said.

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

It's OK to Provide Validation and Support

Your partner may feel ashamed of their anxiety. You can help your loved one by "supporting, but not enabling," Daitch said. You can make accommodations, like helping them with tasks they find anxiety-inducing, instead of just doing them yourself.

Navigating when and how to help may be easier said than done. Per the Anxiety & Depression Association of America, knowing when to be patient and what to push your partner may take trial and error.⁷

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 said. Symptoms often resolve with therapy, which is why it's important to seek help instead of trying to tough symptoms out.

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."

Sources:

  1. Kasalova P, Prasko J, Holubova M, et al. Anxiety disorders and marital satisfaction. Neuroendocrinology Letters 2018;38(8):555-564.
  2. American Psychiatric Association, DSM Library. Anxiety Disorders.
  3. National Alliance on Mental Health. Anxiety and Fear: What's the Difference?
  4. American Psychiatric Association. What Are Anxiety Disorders?
  5. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Impact of the DSM-IV to DSM-5 Changes on the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
  6. StatPearls Publishing, National Library of Medicine, Panic Disorder.
  7. Anxiety & Depression Association of America. Spouse or Partner.
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