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Almost all couples have their share of challenges. However, when half of a couple has an anxiety disorder, both partners face a new set of challenges, and other challenges may be exacerbated.
An ADAA study found that generalized anxiety disorder, or GAD, sufferers were significantly less likely to consider themselves in a “healthy and supportive” relationship with their partner or spouse than people without GAD; two times more likely to experience at least one relationship problem (i.e., getting into arguments on a regular basis, avoiding participation in social activities); and three times more likely to avoid being intimate with their partner. Although the study looked specifically at GAD, many of these findings would likely be true for other anxiety disorders, too.
Having an anxiety disorder is usually associated with a great deal of personal distress, but it can be equally difficult for significant others. Partners of those suffering with anxiety problems often take on more than the normal share of domestic, economic, parenting, and other responsibilities such as the following:
- Family activities — Household routines are often disrupted, and special plans or allowances are often made for the anxiety sufferer. A partner often must take on family responsibilities such as bills, shopping, and driving children to activities. Partners may feel overwhelmed and burned out.
- Finances and employment — For some, anxiety disorder symptoms make it difficult to get or keep a job, which can have serious financial repercussions. The spouse or partner may become the sole breadwinner at times — often a stressful role and one the partner may not wish to have.
- Social life — People with anxiety disorders often avoid routine social activities. Unfortunately, the partner’s social life can suffer as well, making both feel isolated.
- Emotional well-being — Spouses and partners may feel sad, depressed, or scared (for themselves or for their spouse), or angry, resentful, and bitter toward their loved one. They may also feel guilty for feeling this way.
These challenges can be daunting. It is important to note that with treatment, people with anxiety disorders can go on to lead productive lives that include successful careers, thriving social lives, and busy schedules. Appropriate treatment can often help alleviate many issues that contribute to the stress of the significant other.
Supporting Your Partner
You can facilitate improvement and recovery by providing support and encouragement. Here are some tips that might help:
- Learn about the anxiety disorder.
- Encourage treatment.
- Show positive reinforcement of healthy behavior, rather than criticizing irrational fear, avoidance, or rituals.
- Measure progress on the basis of individual improvement, not against some absolute standard.
- Help set specific goals that are realistic and can be approached one step at a time.
- Don’t assume you know what your partner needs. Ask how you can help. Listen carefully to the response.
- Acknowledge that you don’t understand the experience of a panic attack or other form of irrational anxiety.
- Understand that knowing when to be patient and when to push can be challenging. Achieving a proper balance often requires trial and error.
Recovery requires hard work on the part of the person with an anxiety disorder and patience on the part of the partner and family. It may seem like a slow process, but the rewards are well worth it.
Your Role in Treatment
Although ultimate responsibility lies with the patient, you can play an active role in the treatment of your partner’s anxiety disorder.
Mental health professionals are increasingly recommending couple- and family-based treatment programs. In one approach, a mental health professional enlists the partner as a co-therapist. With training, the partner can assist the patient with homework assigned by the therapist. This might involve accompanying the patient into anxiety-producing situations and providing encouragement to stay in the situation by using anxiety-reduction techniques.
This might also include helping a partner adhere to a behavior contract developed with the therapist to control anxiety responses in situations when the therapist is not present. For someone with OCD, a behavior contact might limit how often the patient may indulge in a ritual. The partner helps discourage the patient from repeatedly performing the ritual and positively reinforces ritual-free periods of time.
Find a therapist in your area who treats anxiety disorders.
It is extremely important (and not selfish) for partners of those with an anxiety disorder to take care of themselves. These tips will help you cope:
- Don’t give up your own life and interests. Engage in your outside interests and hobbies for a break from the stresses of your daily life. You’ll be energized, happier, healthier, and better prepared to face challenges. Don’t become consumed with your partner’s disorder.
- Maintain a support system. Having friends and family to confide in — as well as assist you emotionally, financially, and in other ways when your spouse or partner cannot — is vital.
- Set boundaries. Decide where your limits lie and inform your partner. These might be emotional, financial, or physical. For instance, if your partner is not working and is not seeking treatment, participating in support groups, or doing anything to try to become well, you may need to discuss your expectations and how to improve the situation. Couples therapy can often help.
- Seek professional help for yourself, if necessary. The recovery process can be stressful for partners of anxiety sufferers. Your well-being is just as important as your partner’s. If you need someone to talk to, or if you think you may be suffering from symptoms of anxiety or depression, contact your doctor or consider visiting a mental health professional.