Having a partner who struggles with anxiety or has an anxiety disorder can be difficult.
“Partners may find themselves in roles they do not want, such as the compromiser, the protector, or the comforter,” says Kate Thieda, MS, LPCA, NCC, a therapist and author of the excellent book Loving Someone with Anxiety.
They might have to bear the brunt of extra responsibilities and avoid certain places or activities that trigger their partner’s anxiety, she said. This can be very stressful for partners and their relationship.
“Partners of loved ones with anxiety may find themselves angry, frustrated, sad, or disappointed that their dreams for what the relationship was going to be have been limited by anxiety.”
Thieda’s book helps partners better understand anxiety and implement strategies that truly support their spouses, without feeding into or enabling their fears.
Below, she shared five ways to do just that, along with what to do when your partner refuses treatment.
1. Educate yourself about anxiety.
It’s important to learn as much as you can about anxiety, such as the different types of anxiety disorders and their treatment. This will help you better understand what your partner is going through.
Keep in mind that your partner might not fit any of these categories. As Thieda writes in Loving Someone with Anxiety, “The truth is, it doesn’t matter whether your partner’s anxiety is ‘diagnosable.’ If it’s impairing your relationship or diminishing your partner’s quality of life or your own quality of life, it will be worthwhile to make changes.”
2. Avoid accommodating your partner’s anxiety.
“Partners often end up making accommodations for their partner’s anxiety, whether it is intentional [such as] playing the part of the superhero, or because it just makes life easier, as in, doing all the errands because their partner is anxious about driving,” said Thieda, who also created the popular blog “Partners in Wellness” on Psych Central.
However, making accommodations actually exacerbates your partner’s anxiety. For one, she said, it gives your partner zero incentive to overcome their anxiety. And, secondly, it sends the message that there really is something to fear, which only fuels their anxiety.
3. Set boundaries.
Your partner might continue asking for accommodations, such as having you drive everywhere or regularly stay home with them, Thieda said. “You have the right to have a life, too, and this may mean telling your partner on occasion, and in a loving way, that you are going to do what you want and need to do.”
In her book Thieda devotes an entire chapter to effectively communicating this to your partner. Essentially, she suggests being empathetic, using “I” statements and giving specific requests.
For instance, she gives the following examples: Instead of saying, “You worry too much about what other people think of you,” you might say, “I’m concerned that your fears about what others think of you are holding you back at work.”
Instead of saying, “Don’t call me at work so much,” you might say, “It would be helpful if you would try some of the techniques you’ve learned for calming yourself down before calling me at the office.”
Also, “always consider whether a compromise is possible, but also recognize that you have the right to do things independently,” she said.
4. Relax together.
There are many techniques you can try together to alleviate anxiety. According to Thieda, “The body scan is a great couples mindfulness technique because one person can guide the other through the process.”
This promotes mindfulness for both partners. The partner giving instructions needs to pay attention to timing and the specific directions, she said. And the partner receiving the instructions needs to pay attention to each body part and releasing its tension, she said. (Here’s a sample body scan.)
5. Focus on your own care.
According to Thieda in her book, “When you live with an anxious partner, there can be a lot of tension in your relationship and in your home. Having self-care routines and plans in place can help you neutralize the static.”
Consider what you’re already “doing to promote physical, spiritual, mental, emotional, professional, and relationship health,” Thieda said. Assessing where you are helps you better understand where you need to go. For instance, you might want to set goals about improving your health or seek support from others, she said. You might want to work with a therapist or attend support groups.
What to Do When Your Partner Refuses Treatment
Anxiety is highly treatable. But your partner might not want to seek professional help. Thieda suggested considering the reasons behind their refusal.
For instance, they might’ve tried treatment before but it didn’t work. One reason treatment “fails” is because it’s not the right treatment for the person’s anxiety. According to Thieda, “It is best to work with a professional who uses cognitive-behavioral therapy techniques and is specifically trained in working with people who struggle with anxiety.”
They might’ve tried medication or psychotherapy alone, but they’d do better with a combination of treatments, she said. It’s also possible that your partner tried to take on too much, and ended up feeling even more anxious. “Maybe they need to approach their treatment in a different way, breaking down the challenges into smaller, more manageable pieces.”
Ultimately, the decision to seek treatment rests with your partner, Thieda said. “No amount of begging, pleading, or threatening is going to be effective, and will likely make things worse.”
The best thing you can do is to be supportive, encouraging and loving when they do decide to seek help, she said.
Having a spouse who’s struggling with anxiety can naturally become stressful for partners. But while this can be challenging, by educating yourself, setting healthy boundaries and practicing self-care, you can truly help your spouse and your relationship.