What is going on in my partner's head? An Ode to Anxiety in Relationships.
By Fiorella Bianchi, LCSW
So you find yourself dating this amazing person, and you really like this person, but you are having serious doubts about the relationship. You start noticing that it's beginning to feel like there's a third party involved- Anxiety. However, when you read about anxiety all the online forums describe the "anxious person" to be nervous all the time and fidgets or rambles a lot- but not your person? Well, not everyone who struggles with anxiety portrays them physically. Think of Anxiety as that one individual you don't want to invite to your party, because they really drag the vibe down. Now imagine that "person" living inside of your brain 24/7.
When a person who struggles with an anxiety issue or disorder is confronted with a challenge, it may be exceptionally difficult for them to overcome this challenge without proper tools or coping skills. Common symptoms of someone who struggles with anxiety may look like; jumping to worst-case scenarios, overanalyzing actions or interactions, panicking for any small change or misinterpretation and racing thoughts of everything that could go wrong. There are emotional and physical responses that can take a toll on the person's day to day life. It's living on the edge without wanting to do so and dating while having an anxiety issue or disorder is a whole 'nother monster.
This article will help break down what you need to know and how to respond when presented with a person who struggles with anxiety. It will include how to be a supportive partner, how anxiety may impact your relationship, counter-transference, and tips for maintaining your own mental health.
How anxiety may be showing up in your relationship
First off, it might be good to know that about 31% of US adults will or have experienced an anxiety disorder in their life time (NCS, 2007). If you find yourself dating someone with in that percentile, congratulations! You found someone that most likely deeply cares about you and everything you think.
The truth is that they are probably doing their best to not put their anxiety on you. However, they're also probably spending ample amount of time ruminating on all the things that can go wrong, or may have already come up in the relationship. Some of those negative thought patterns may look like:
What if I'm not good enough?
What if I scare them away with my anxiety? (anxiety/guilt about having anxiety)
What if I'm too rough?
Who are they talking to - am I boring them?
What if they're lying to me?
What if they cheat on me?
Why are they taking so long to answer?
Maybe, I'm not interesting enough.
It is normal to have these thoughts, especially a new relationship! However, someone dealing with anxiety can ruminate on these thoughts, and have a much harder time letting go of this thought process. Sometimes these moments may incite a physiological response which we call anxiety or panic attacks. Manifestation of these physiological responses can result in many different ways. This can include:
Trouble breathing or catching breath
Nausea or Upset Stomach
Feeling of Panic
Inability to stay still
Obsessive Behaviors or Compulsions
Flashbacks or Disassociations
Sometimes anxious thinking may motivate your partner to make choices they believe will benefit your relationship, only causing stress and friction.
Example; you had a disagreement on something you believe to be minimal. Your partner who has anxiety may blow the discussion out of proportion in their mind and convince themselves you may not like them any more. Not communicating this distress, their thoughts may increase the intensity of the anxiety, which causes them to "ghost" you.
In this example, the person with anxiety may have other underlying motifs that can validate their thought process, or simply is afraid of the outcome of this discourse. It's important in these situations to not take their behavior personally, and to recognize that this person may be experiencing a trigger or anxiety attack. Other anxiety-motivated behaviors in intimate relationships can look like:
Avoidant or Passive Behavior
Coming across Overly Critical
Controlling Behavior | Co-dependency
Perfectionism or People Pleasing
Irritable or Bothered all the time
Regardless of their symptom, the important concept to keep in mind is that these responses typically will subside within a few minutes or hours. Although they may be reacting to a trigger, it does not mean that having anxiety makes you "weak" or completely consumes the persons identity. Learning to identify these triggers or responses can make all the difference when in a relationship with someone who struggles with anxiety.
How to support your partner
I get it, this may be a lot. You may be feeling conflicted on how you can help, especially understanding that this is an interpersonal problem. It is important to understand from both parties that you are not in this relationship to "fix" or "change" anything. If your partner is expecting you to be their superhero, it is time to put that cape down and have a discussion about your roles in this relationship. However, just because the person you care about struggles with anxiety it does not mean you have to give up on your potential person!
It's okay to be curious!
Approach the topic of anxiety with curiosity rather than discourse. Don't be afraid to open-up and have a conversation about their anxiety. Ask questions that may come up or how they'd appreciate your help. You can always start by focusing on their experience, rather than "why" it happens. What I've observed in my field is that most people with anxiety don't always know where it stems from. This may bring up more feelings of inadequacy or frustration. Ultimately, know that it's okay to do your own research, and bring more awareness into your life.
Learn to identify triggers
Recognizing an incoming panic attack or anxiety episode is going to make all the difference in how you approach your partner. Typically, someone experienced in coping with anxiety can already tell you what triggers them. Anxiety has genetic, biomedical, and environmental components, so your partner is not choosing to experience this. Just know that you cannot stop every single trigger, nor is it your responsibility to absolve their anxiety from their life. Nonetheless, it can help navigate situations, and understand why your partner may be "acting different" in certain situations.
Communicate & Compromise
Anxiety can be scary, and sometimes it's easier to avoid the conversation. However, the best way to confront and cope with having an anxious partner is by communicating and listening to one another. This can promote validation and reassurance towards situations that require empathy. Using your active listening skills is a great way to start. Below are things you can say and things we should refrain from saying.
Things you can say to support partner
Things you should refrain from saying
"I am here, you are not alone"
"how can I help right now?"
"It's not that big of a deal"
"would you like for me to sit here?"
"You're being irrational"
If you notice that your partner is not handling their anxiety and is beginning to affect their day to day life, encourage them to seek professional help and guidance. That way they can learn to manage their anxiety in a healthy way.
& Last, but never least - How do I cope?
It's easy to get wrapped up in someone's distress, especially those you care about. We never want to see those we love hurting, and it may be tempting to want to solve all their issues. The problem is you're not a therapist and you are not responsible for your partners ability to cope with their anxiety. This is why encouraging your partner, and gently guiding them to receive professional help can be huge- therapy from non-biased third party mental health professional can take the pressure off of you. You could even consider couples counseling and work through anxieties that may be arising within the relationship itself.
When you're dating someone with anxiety, it's easy for the line between patience and healthy boundaries to be blurred. There should always be limits to how emotional episodes are handled. Simply having a mental health disorder or issue does not warrant abuse or cruelty. Know that it's okay to step away from a situation when a boundary has been crossed over - and you are allowed to reset if need be.
It is important to know that your relationship with your partner is only a part of your life. Continue to cultivate your friendships and family orientation. Your partner can play a large role in your life, but our positive friendships are a significant part of our mental health.
Seek Professional Help
Dating someone with an anxiety disorder can be challenging and it may not always be easy to maneuver. You may find yourself having more intense reactions, or becoming more irritable than usual. This is normal and understandable. It's dire to take care of yourself, and provide some self-care and empathy for yourself. If you find that you're struggling to handle your own emotions, know when to ask for help.
Final Thoughts on Dating Someone with Anxiety
Some of the most interesting, creative, kind, empathetic people I've ever met struggled with an anxiety disorder. They've provided an immense amount of insight and expressed awareness through their experiences. Anxiety can be a chronic disorder, but typically when treated, anxiety can go away. It is very likely that you have crossed someone in your life that struggles with Anxiety, and never noticed. While it can be difficult to navigate a relationship with someone who present with Anxiety, it can also be ultimately rewarding and can allow for exploration of depth to your relationship. Anxiety does not define a person - don't let it define your relationship either.
— Fiorella Bianchi, LCSW works as a lead therapist for children, adolescents and adults in Live Life Unlimited Counseling. Her focus includes working with Anxiety Disorders & Depressive Disorders in adolescents and adults, and has extensive experience in several fields, including academia, behavioral, and clinical. She has recently joined Live Life Unlimited Counseling where she will focus on providing a holistic therapeutic approach & specializing in Ketamine Assisted Psychotherapy.