Lest you think I’m out here sharing family secrets in a negative way, let me say off the bat that I talked about writing this post with my wife and she vetted the concept entirely (partially in hope that it might benefit someone else).
As you can probably tell from the title here, my wife is an anxious person. She’s prone to bouts of intense anxiety, often about things that don’t seem at all a big deal. (A recent example would be staying up most of the night concerned over the logistics of transferring our car registration to Texas.) When we had been together about eight months and she was in a much-worse place anxiety-wise than she is presently, I had a couple of moments riding the NYC subway where I briefly considered breaking up over it. I went through a checklist in my head at that time and it seemed superficial and silly, so I didn’t move forward with it. A person can have a much greater value than the stuff you deal with related to the person, and everyone should remember that. (I feel like I sound preachy and I don’t mean to, so I apologize for that.) For example, I drink too much IMHO. My wife has dealt with tons of crap related to that from me. Why would I bail over anxiety?
I’ve been dealing with a significant other/spouse with anxiety for a couple of years now, so I thought I’d offer a couple of thoughts on how to handle/deal with the situation. It’s actually very challenging and I don’t often do it very well, but perhaps these few thoughts can help out another person out there — and that’s most of the reason why I have this blog anyway. First Things First
There are a lot of good articles already published on this topic, including these:
- Psychology Today
- Nitty Gritty Love (this is a “Letter to Husbands” and is pretty interesting)
- Mind Body Green
- World of Psychology
- 12 Tips For Friends and Family Of Those With Anxiety
In any basic human interaction situation, especially with a loved one, I feel like the first place to start is always with attempting to understand the background and context. If you say “seek to understand” in a business meeting, it sounds buzz-word-y. When you say it with your wife, it’s very tangible. (One in a long line of major differences between “life” and “work.”) You can read some of those links above or search on Amazon for a book about anxiety. There are different schools of thought on anxiety and depression, but you can get a good bird’s-eye view of origin points and what it’s like to actually feel anxious if you put in some research. Talk to your spouse about some of the roots of their anxiety, although don’t necessarily do it when they’re feeling anxious. I’ve made that mistake about four dozen times; it doesn’t typically end well.
Throw Logic Out The Window
In most cases, your spouse is going to be a pretty intelligent person (you married them, no?). They probably understand that aspects of their anxiety aren’t totally logical. It’s not the best route to go when discussing it with them, though, because anxiety often trumps the idea of “This isn’t logical.” I’ve made this mistake in numerous discussions too. At a base psychological level, “anxiety” is a type of fear about your safety or ability to interact with the world. It’s better to try and make a person feel like their environment is safe as opposed to proving to them that their fears aren’t realistic. They probably understand their fears aren’t realistic, but they can’t necessarily roll with that in front of you.
Don’t Get Mad
Not going to help.
Don’t Offer To Do Everything For Them
This often seems counterintuitive because when you love a person and the person is emotionally suffering, you want to help them, right? In many cases, that leads to a spouse (typically a husband, but often a wife) doing everything for the anxious person: if they don’t want to go outside, you end up doing all the errands, groceries, etc. If they want to cancel appointments, you end up doing it for them. This is OK in limited doses, and I mean very limited. If you do this too much, you’re basically removing any necessity or desire of the anxious person to do stuff themselves. You need to call your spouse on their issues once in a while — and again, not while they’re feeling anxious, but at some point a real conversation needs to happen. Without that, you’re just taking another person’s problems and heaping them on yours. You know what that leads to? Anger.
If your spouse doesn’t want to deal with the outside world or go to appointments or whatever it is, you need to set achievable limits for them. “You can cancel these two appointments, but you have to do it yourself, and then you need to go to this third appointment.” That sounds like you’re talking to a child or something, but it’s a managed way to handle stress and anxiety. You’re not letting them quit on everything, but you’re not creating an overwhelming situation where they have to achieve all their commitments. It’s a middle-ground.
Ties in with the above.
Everyone, whether they suffer from anxiety or not, has acute triggers in their lives that will probably set them off on a depressive path. Obviously this varies by person; for me it’s things like “alcohol + stress” and/or “thinking about my high school years.” For my wife, it’s often work. Everyone has a trigger, even if you’re the most functionally-sound and well-adjusted person in the world, you know? Figure out what the triggers are and avoid them.
Care For Yourself
It’s hard to watch someone you love be anxious or depressed, but ultimately you have your own life too. That sounds selfish on face, and I’m not advocating for leaving your significant other in a shriveled ball of emotional mess on a bed. I’m saying that your life matters too, and if you spend all your time trying to fix the problems of your significant other (it works vice versa too), that leads to an amount of resentment, anger, and confusion which isn’t ultimately healthy for your dynamic. So go out and take a walk. Go work out. Read a book. Call a non-mutual friend. Go find some fish tacos and eat them. Go to a political rally. Whatever it is, do things for yourself. The balance helps.
This is something we almost never do, even though opening ourselves up as vulnerable makes us more fulfilled human beings. Do it with your spouse. Talk about failures: ones you’ve had, how they feel they’ve had them, etc. Encourage them to not think of anxiety as failure, but rather to think of it as a biological condition (often pre-disposed) that they need to work together with you and other supportive people to manage. But open yourself up and say, “Here’s a time I’ve felt scared or felt like I failed, and here’s how I tried to rebound from it.” I have a shit-ton of stories like that in my own life, including this one. I also regularly think about things I should be getting better at. So maybe this isn’t so hard for me (although it often is), but it might be even harder for you. Just try it. Open yourself up.
I probably missed a few things (many?) above, so if you stumble across this post — there are 37.5 million results on Google for “dealing with an anxious spouse,” so you may never — either leave a comment or send me a message via the comment form. I’d love to talk more about it.