Anxiety doesn't just affect people internally, it can also create problems in relationships. This isn't the anxious person's fault; nor is it their partner's fault (usually). Once you both understand what's happening, you can be aware of the patterns, why they're occurring, and troubleshoot.
Here are some common occurrences. Not all of them will apply to every anxious person and their relationship. However, if you're anxious, you're likely to recognize at least a couple of these.
1. Your partner introduces a new anxiety into your mind.
Last night, I was giving myself an injection. The pharmacy had supplied me with very short needles, but I accepted what I had been given and didn't question it. My spouse chimed in with, "I would be worried you're not absorbing it with that short a needle."
I felt annoyed. I hadn't been worried about it, but now I was. Even when I thought I'd successfully shunted this new worry out of my brain, I could tell that, physiologically, I was still amped up and concerned about it.
New worries can feel like an item has been added to your to-do list. In my case, I thought, "Great, now I need to investigate this, and I'll feel embarrassed second-guessing the pharmacy. And if they reassure me, can I even trust that?" As you can see, a whole cascade of thoughts and anxious feelings had been set off.
2. You create tension by avoiding certain tasks or situations.
Anxious people avoid and procrastinate about whatever makes them anxious. This creates problems when your partner is waiting for action. For example, your garage is a huge mess. It's mostly your mess and your partner would like it cleaned out, but you feel overwhelmed about where to start with organizing it. Therefore, you avoid starting. Conversations about the topic become a source of tension.
3. Simmering anxiety leads to outbursts.
An anxious person's mind will often feel full with a lot of worries and concerns. They can feel, chronically or periodically, overloaded by mentally preparing for everything that might go wrong.
When someone feels close to the limit of the stress they can handle, even the smallest request or question can cause them to feel overwhelmed suddenly and snap. This can happen even if the request is, "What should we have for dinner tonight?"
Folks with anxiety often suffer from extreme decision fatigue because they're thinking through lots of permutations of decisions about many worries. This can leave them right on the brink of their limits of coping, and a small, unimportant decision can tip them over.
Anxious people often overreact to being given new decisions to think about, because they already have a sense that they're juggling many balls at once, even if those balls are just worries or things that might go wrong.
4. An angry partner uses knowledge of your anxiety to attack you emotionally.
Partners who have been together a while will, over time, learn how to push each other's buttons. This isn't out of the ordinary. It happens. During fights, when one person is very hurt and angry, they may say something that they know will make their anxious loved one experience a big spike of anxiety.
It's a normal response that when we feel hurt, we sometimes react by trying to injure back the person we feel hurt by. However, the long-term consequences of this can be grave because of the way anxious people hold on to worries and anxiety.
For example, in an angry moment, you may imply that your loved one's friend doesn't really like them or finds them irritating. For example, "So and so told me that when you do X, it annoys them too."
Anxious people need supports and undercutting their support systems isn't useful. The anxious person can perhaps learn to take it less personally if they understand their loved one was acting out of anger and feeling hurt themselves. No one's perfect and friends annoy each other in a variety of ways, without it being the end of the friendship. Where possible, when angry, partners should try very hard not to say things deliberately that will create long-term hurts and anxieties.
What to Do?
- If someone isn't anxious-by-nature themselves, they're likely to have little awareness or understanding of what goes on in the mind of their anxious loved one. When both people learn about how anxiety works, it's helpful. You would do that if your partner had diabetes, so do the same if they have anxiety.
- The more skills the anxious person acquires to deal with their anxiety, the fewer problems will occur. For example, if the anxious person learns excellent project management skills, then it will help them feel less overwhelmed by multi-part tasks, and they will avoid them less.
- Partners can help by not firing questions or requests at their anxious loved one at unexpected times. They can also be sensitive to when a slight comment has the potential to set off a big snowball of worry. Sometimes they may reconsider whether it's worth commenting, given the distress it may set off.
- Partners can help each other cope with stress and worries. One effective way that is useful for both people is to learn self-compassion skills for dealing with stress, struggles, and worries.
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