Anxiety is sometimes a curse. But those who suffer often don't suffer alone, especially if they have healthy relationships. Even in healthy relationships, though, anxiety can cause problems. No matter how well-educated, patient, and supportive of a partner you are, there are times when having a partner with anxiety just sucks. And it sucks just as much (probably more) for the partner with anxiety.
But anxiety doesn't have to be a deal breaker, and no matter how much it may feel like it, it doesn't define the person who has it, or the relationship. There are some common problems that anxiety can cause, and there are some solutions that sometimes work. The important thing to remember is that there is no one-size-fits-all solution for anxiety or the problems it can cause.
As a former Domestic Violence Victim Advocate, Planned Parenthood Certified Responsible Sexuality Educator, and married anxiety suffer, I'm more than qualified to tell you, from both perspectives, the havoc anxiety can wreak on even great relationships. I can also tell you what works for me, and what I've seen work for others. Hopefully it will make those rough patches a little smoother, because everyone deserves happiness, even if it takes a little more effort that usual.
1. When You're Invited To A Group Outing
Group outings are such a crap shoot. On the one hand, heck yeah, I want to go have fun with awesome people. On the other hand: anxiety. Sigh. This is really frustrating for people with anxiety, because no matter how good they felt when they made the plans, it's really hard to predict how they'll feel when the time comes. And it's especially frustrating for partner without anxiety, because they often have to cancel, or make excuses for why they're flying solo. Plus there's disappointment on both ends.
What to do: People with anxiety need to tell their friends about their anxiety. Otherwise their friends will feel like they're always blowing them off. Explain to your friends that you'll try your best, and that you really do want to come. Ask them to please keep inviting you to things. Tell your partner that all you can do is try your best, and let them decide for themselves if they want to go without you. Your partner should know up front that canceling is always a possibility. Because anxiety is unpredictable. But they don't have to apologize or make excuses for you.
2. When You Want To Throw A Surprise Party
One time, my mom and the person I was dating thought throwing me a surprise party would be a really sweet, fun, thoughtful idea. It was a nightmare. Granted, I was able to keep it together and give off the illusion that I was grateful and having a good time, but when I got home, I nearly died of exhaustion from the work it takes to be forcibly social, and to not cry, and to not hide in the bathroom. It was miserable.
What to do: People with anxiety can sometimes control it and sometimes keep it together (or create the illusion that they are), but it can be a tiring act. It can be so stressing that it makes their bodies physically hurt, or it makes them sick. If you know you're dating someone with anxiety, you need to be sure that a surprise party is something they'd enjoy. And if you insist, err on the side of a small party with just a few close family and friends. Don't take it personally that your romantic party ideas were dashed. It's not personal.
3. When You're Trying To Go On A Date
You bought a new shirt. You got a haircut. You smell nice. You made reservations. You got flowers. Then date night comes and your partner can't do it. Anxiety wins. Dang it. All you wanted to do was show your partner a nice time, and to do normal couple activities. And now everything is ruined.
What to do: Well, since I'm assuming the point of the date was to be romantic and do something nice for your partner, all hope isn't lost because of anxiety. If your partner is up to it, you can get that fancy meal as take-out, and have a romantic dinner at home. Plus, you'll be able to hear each other talk better, and it will be slightly more acceptable to unbutton your pants if you eat too much.
4. When You're In The Middle Of An Important Event
Picture it: You're in the middle of your cousin's wedding. They're just about to say their vows. And out of the corner of your eye, you see your partner taking deep breaths and struggling through some serious anxiety. Your family expects you to be present, plus you don't want to miss anything. But it's clear your partner needs an escape.
What to do: Ask your partner if you think they can hang in there until the vows are over. If not, make as quiet an exit as you can. Your partner might not need to leave. They might just need a few quiet moments in the car or the bathroom. And they're probably fine being left alone to try to get through the anxiety and won't mind if you want to return to the wedding. You just have to make sure you're clearly communicating your needs to each other. And if they have to go, and you're not able to leave, don't get angry if they grab an Uber.
5. When You're Doing The Same Thing You Did Last Week
Maybe last week you both went to couple's board game night at your friend's house and it was one of the best times you've had in a long time. Now it's time for this week's game night, and your partner can't do it. They're not lying. There's often no way to know when anxiety will strike. Unfortunately sometimes that looks like flakiness or like an excuse to ditch. It's not.
What to do: Believe your partner. Whether you go without them or not will depend on what your partner needs, what you want, and how your friends feel about it. But no matter the outcome, it's important that you believe your partner when they tell you they can't go somewhere or do something.
6. When You Ask For An Explanation And Can't Get One
Communication, communication, communication. Right? It's the heart of any healthy, successful relationship. So what happens when your partner can't communicate? Sometimes anxiety makes speaking difficult. Sometimes it makes thinking clearly and forming sentences that mean what you want them to mean impossible. And sometimes you need some time for the anxiety to die down before you even know what you think or feel.
What to do: Give your partner space. Don't demand explanations, yell, or talk at them. When your partner is ready to talk, they'll let you know, and then you can have a real, meaningful, productive conversation.
7. When You Accidentally Make Things Worse
Anxiety is frustrating. It's frustrating for you and it's frustrating for your partner. Sometimes when anxiety rears it frustrating head, you might do the wrong thing, or say the wrong thing. You might not anticipate when your partner needs you, or you might over-anticipate. It happens. And it sucks. But it doesn't have to mean the end of the world.
What to do: Make anxiety plans in advance. Make sure you know what your partner needs, how they need you to respond, when they need space, and how they best deal with conflict. Most importantly, make sure you know what they need when they're sad, upset, disappointed, or feeling like they ruin everything. Then just do your best, and communicate, and be forgiving. Don't keep things inside because you don't want to upset your partner. Just talk about them at the right time, and in the right way.
8. When Holidays Happen
Inescapable social occasions are often the most super stressful times in an anxiety sufferer's life. There's stress about being social. There's gift anxiety. There's the anxiety of seeing old family and friends that they haven't seen in a while. There's guilt about not wanting to go. There's excitement about the holiday. It's really a mixed bag. There will be happy times, and bad times. There might be events they have to sit out, or ones they're suspiciously quiet during. It's not easy, by any stretch of the imagination.
What to do: If you and your partner are celebrating with their family, follow their lead. If you're celebrating with your family, make sure not to overwhelm your partner with too much at one time. Rescue them from aggressive talkers. Plan little breaks where you go outside, go for drives or otherwise have a few minutes to yourselves. Let your partner know that you're there to help them enjoy the holiday in whatever way you can.
9. When You Need Support, Too
Dating someone with anxiety means you're giving a lot of support, leeway, and understanding. So what happens when you have something going on in your life, and you need your partner's support, but they can't give it?
What to do: This is your partner's nightmare. They want to be there for you. They want to be the person you can lean on, depend on, and go to for strength. When your partner can't be this person, it's not just hard for you. It's important for you to have a support system that includes family and friends for when these times arise. Plus anxiety often comes in waves, so it's likely your partner will be able to be there for you soon. And once you can get together to talk about things, make sure to let your partner know what you need and how you feel so they can do their best for you. Like you do for them.
10. When They're Pushed Too Far
When your partner has anxiety, but forces themselves to go with you to do something they's difficult for them, it might not go perfectly. They might get stressed or anxious or foggy or detached to medicated to the point where they say something inappropriate, snap, or just withdrawal. This might make things difficult for you and awkward for your family and friends.
What to do: Abort mission. It's not your true partner talking, it's the anxiety. If you can't leave, just usher them away from the awkward situation. But don't patronize. Your partner might be expressing their true feelings, just not in the most elegant way. Even if they're not, they don't need you to treat them like a child. But a little interference might be just what they need.
11. When They Hate Themselves
Anxiety brings with it a lot of regret, shame, and general unpleasantness. Sometimes your partner will feel guilty for not being able to do certain things or be a certain type of partner. Sometimes this will lead to depression or bouts of cripplingly low self-esteem.
What to do: Be reassuring, but don't lie. Your partner knows the ways anxiety affects you, and will appreciate the truth more than a lie. Say something like, "there are times when it's tough, but I wouldn't trade it for the world." Make sure your partner knows that you don't feel like your life is worse off because you're with them.
It's no walk in the park, but it can be just as beautiful a journey with enough communication, patience, and love.
Images: Pexels (11); Isla Murray/Bustle