Experts explain how to help and how the condition can affect your relationship.

Raven Ishak
Jan 29, 2021 @ 6:02 pm
Advertisement
Credit: Getty Images

Having anxiety is no joke—trust me, I know. As someone who has anxiety, oftentimes, I find myself worrying about things that other people might not even bat an eye about, feeling mentally drained, or having irrational fears that are hard to control. But while I've been learning to manage my anxiety over the past few years, I've only recently realized that not everyone knows what dating someone with anxiety or an anxiety disorder is like.

The truth is, while everyone deals with some form of anxiety every now and then, some people have more debilitating or heightened forms of anxiety that can impact their lives on a daily basis. And this, in turn, can require more understanding and compassion from their S.O.s if they are in a relationship. According to Dr. Gary W. Lewandowski, Jr., professor and former chair in the Department of Psychology at Monmouth University and relationship expert, dating someone with anxiety can "present additional challenges, stresses, and strains to the relationship." "For example, for cohabitating couples, an anxious partner's difficulties with sleeping can negatively impact both partners' sleep quality," he tells HelloGiggles. "There may also be an adjustment in terms of an anxious partner's difficulties concentrating, nervousness, or restless nature."

But just because someone with anxiety might need extra support, empathy, and patience from their partner doesn't mean the relationship is doomed from the start—it will just require a lot of communication, which is important to have as a couple anyways. For instance, anytime my anxious thoughts take over, I let my partner know how I'm feeling, why I believe it's happening, and what I need (or don't need) in that moment. Then, usually, my partner will jump in with support, suggestions, or simply a listening ear. Of course, there are some days where none of those things will work or when my partner can't help me because he may be dealing with his own version of anxiety at the same time. Still, it's helpful to know that we have tools and strategies to lean on and help each another out.

If you're dating someone with anxiety or an anxiety disorder, but don't know exactly how to help them, don't fret. Below is a complete guide on dating someone with anxiety, from ways to support your partner to an understanding of how anxiety can affect your relationship.

How to date someone with anxiety:

Ask them what they need.

Being in a relationship with someone who has anxiety requires a bit more communication on your end. According to licensed clinical psychologist and author of Understanding Bipolar Disorder, Aimee Daramus, Psy.D., when a partner's anxiety is high, it's important to be mindful of their needs and inquire what they may require at the moment if they are able to tell you so. "For example, if they want to be held or if touch feels too overstimulating at the moment, you can just ask them what they need," she says.

However, if they're unable to articulate what they need in the moment, Dr. Daramus suggests keeping things low key. "Try playing some soft music; playing with pets; or focusing on any calming, pleasant physical sensation that they need. Get a meditation app and offer to meditate with them for a few minutes, or do something artistic and creative together," she says. "Games that take a lot of attention and concentration can be good, too, because they steal attention from the anxiety. Puzzles or simple video games like Tetris or solitaire can be good at distracting them."

Don't tell them to "calm down" or "relax."

While you might think it's productive to tell your partner to "relax," the truth is, you're telling them something that could make their anxiety worse. During high moments of anxiety, your partner is most likely already battling within themselves about how to navigate their anxiety, and when an outside person says this, it can sound more like a directive than a supportive act of kindness.

Instead, help them re-focus on calming activities, like meditation or taking a bath, suggests Dr. Daramus. While it might be hard not to tell them what to do, Dr. Daramus says to trust that your partner will let you know if they actually need your help. "Sometimes they need silence and alone time, so don't take it personally. Your relationship will be better because you respect them," she says.

Learn more about their type of anxiety.

Whether your partner has generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), social anxiety, separation anxiety, and/or panic attacks, it's important to learn as much as you can about their kind of anxiety to help them as best you can. Dr. Lewandowski says even though you won't be able to know exactly how your partner feels, making the effort to learn will help not only them but the relationship, too.

One of the ways you can do this is is by reading articles or books on the topic, following social media accounts, or asking your partner directly about what it's like to live with anxiety. The more you learn about their condition, the better you will be able to support them.

Credit: Getty Images

Don't dismiss their emotions.

While you may not fully understand what your partner is going through when it comes to their anxiety, that doesn't mean that their feelings are not valid and true to them. When you dismiss them by saying, "You're overreacting" or "It's not that big of a deal," you can be gaslighting them, making them believe that what they're experiencing isn't truly happening.

That said, you don't want to enable them to run the gamut with their emotions, which can cause them to spiral. You do, however, want to create a safe space for your partner to have the bandwidth to navigate their anxiety—which can be hard to do if you're ignoring or dismissing their needs. "Research shows that in relationships, we seek out partners who see us as we see ourselves and that doing so helps the relationship," says Dr. Lewandowski. "We want to feel comfortable and be ourselves when we're with our partner, instead of feeling like we need to pretend we're someone we aren't."

Be aware of the subtle signs of anxiety, too.

While some of the most common signs of anxiety (i.e. excessive worrying, restlessness, trouble falling and staying asleep) might be easier to spot, it's important to be aware of less common signs, too, so you don't end up supporting behaviors that are actually hurting your partner the most. For instance, Dr. Daramus says that perfectionism is often a sign of an anxiety disorder. "They never relax, never stop trying, or need constant feedback that things are right. They might be feeling more anxiety than they let on," she says. "People with anxiety might ask for frequent reassurance that they're doing things 'right.' If they never seem to get enough reassurance or validation, they might be concealing anxiety."

How anxiety affects relationships:

They might have set ways of doing things.

If your partner has anxiety, they may have go-to ways of approaching tasks so that everything feels familiar and safe. "They might be perfectionistic, rigid in their thinking, or want to control things that may not need to be controlled," explains Dr. Daramus. "One thing to know is that they're even harder on themselves than they are on anyone else."

One of the ways you can help, says Dr. Daramus, is by setting boundaries about their need to control things. "Talk with them about what it's like for them to feel this way so that they feel understood, but also feel free to let them know how it's affecting you," she suggests.

For instance, if you and your partner disagree about how to clean the house because their standards are much stricter than yours, Dr. Daramus says to focus on a "good enough" standard and let them know that anything beyond that is on them. Additionally, "You might feel that you never really get to relax, so carve out some relaxation time that's non-negotiable except in emergencies," she says.

They may have fears about the relationship.

"For example, a person may have anxiety over whether their partner is going to leave them, or truly loves and cares about them," says Dr. Lewandowski. "Often, many of these worries will be unfounded and contrary to objective reality."

To help cope with this fear, Dr. Lewandowski says your partner may choose to become extra close, so much so that you may feel smothered. "Ironically, this may lead [you] to create some distance or 'breathing room,' which only confirms the anxious partner's fears about abandonment," he says. Understand this so you can navigate the situation with a clear head and have a real, honest conversation.

How to set boundaries:

While you may love your partner, it's completely natural to need to set boundaries with them on certain behaviors; what might be considered a healthy coping mechanism for them might impact you in a negative way. Dr. Daramus suggest talking with your partner about the specific behaviors that bother you, listen to their perspective, and encourage them to talk about their experience.

Once you find a common ground with your loved one on what works for the both of you, you can "encourage them to visit a therapist or psychiatrist, and continue to set boundaries when their behavior becomes intrusive," Dr. Daramus says. Remember: Setting boundaries doesn't mean that you should belittle, dismiss, or criticize your partner. Instead, you want to "empathize with them about how difficult it is to feel like that and remind them that there might be ways to improve it," says Dr. Daramus, adding, "Don't take full responsibility for handling their anxiety yourself, and don't put more effort into it than they're willing to, or you'll burn yourself out."

At the end of the day, being in a relationship with someone who has anxiety can be a really nurturing and healthy experience. By being supportive, thoughtful, and empathetic about your partner's anxiety, you'll be able to build a foundation that will work for the both of you.