Intimate relationships are a mirror, reflecting the best and the worst of all of us. They can inflame our struggles or soothe them. When they’re right, they can feel like magic. Even when they’re completely right, anxiety can steal the magic and loosen the connection between two people who belong together. All relationships require trust, tenderness, patience and vulnerability. People with anxiety often have these by the truckload and will give them generously to the relationship. The problem is that anxiety can sometimes just as quickly erode them.
If you’re someone who struggles with anxiety, there are plenty of things about you that would make loving you easy. All relationships struggle sometimes and when anxiety is at play, the struggles can be quite specific – very normal, and specific.
Anxiety can work in curious ways, and it will impact different relationships differently, so not all of the following will be relevant for every relationship. Here are some ways to strengthen your relationship and protect it from the impact of anxiety:
Top up the emotional resources.
You’re probably super sensitive to the needs of others and give openly and abundantly to your relationship. Sometimes though, anxiety can drain those resources from the relationship just as quickly as you invest them. This is completely okay – there is plenty of good that comes with loving you to make up for this – but it may mean that you have to keep making sure those resources are topped up. Whenever you can, heap your partner with attention, gratitude, affection, touch – lots of touch – and conversation around him or her.
Let your partner see you as a support too.
Your partner might feel reluctant to ‘burden’ you with worries, particularly if those worries don’t seem as big as the ones you’re struggling with. People with anxiety have so much strength – it’s impossible to live with anxiety without it – so make sure your partner knows that it doesn’t matter how big or small their struggles are, you can be the supportive one sometimes too. The tendency can be for partners of anxious people to dismiss their own worries, but this might mean that they do themselves out of the opportunity to feel nurtured and supported by you – which would be a huge loss for both of you. Be deliberate in being the rock sometimes too. Ask, hold, touch. There’s nothing more healing than the warmth of the person you love.
Let your partner in on what you’re thinking.
Anxious thoughts are supremely personal, but let your partner in on them. It’s an important part of intimacy. You will often be thinking about what you need to do to feel safe, what feels bad for you and what could go wrong. You will also have an enormous capacity to think of other people – anxious people do – but make sure that you let you partner in on the thoughts that arrest you. Keeping things too much to yourself has a way of widening the distance between two people.
Asking for reassurance is absolutely okay – but just not too much.
Anxiety has a way of creeping into everything. When it’s left unchecked, it can make you doubt the things that don’t deserve to be doubted – such as your relationship. It’s completely okay and very normal to ask your partner for reassurance. Too much though and it could be felt as neediness. Neediness is the enemy of desire and over time can smother the spark. Make sure your partner has the opportunity to love you spontaneously, without prompting – it’s lovely for them and even better for you.
Anxiety can effect relationships in different ways. In some people, it might stoke the need for constant reassurance. In others, it can cause them to hold back, to lessen their vulnerability to possible heartache. Vulnerability – being open to another – is beautiful and it’s the essence of successful, healthy relationships. The problem with protecting yourself too much is that it can invite the very rejection you’re trying to protect against. Part of intimacy is letting someone in closer than you let the rest of the world. It’s trusting that person with the fragile, messy, untamed parts of you – the parts that are often beautiful, sometimes baffling, and always okay with the person who loves you. It’s understandable to worry about what might happen if someone has open access to these parts of you, but see those worries for what they are – worries, not realities – and trust that whatever happens when you open yourself up to loving and being loved, you’ll be okay. Because you will be.
Be careful of projecting anxiety onto your relationship.
Anxiety can be triggered by nothing in particular – that’s one of the awful things about it – so it will look for a target, an anchor to hold it still and make it make sense. If you’re in an intimate relationship, that’s where the bullseye will sit, drawing your anxiety into its gravitational pull. This can raise feelings of doubt, jealousy, suspicion and insecurity. Anxiety can be a rogue like that. That doesn’t mean your relationship deserves your anxiety – most likely it doesn’t – but your relationship is important, relevant and often in your thoughts, making it a lavishly easy target. Remind yourself that just because you’re worried, that doesn’t mean there’s anything to worry about. Worry if you have to, but then see it for what it is – anxiety, not truth. You are loved and you have anxiety and you are okay. Let that be the truth that holds you.
Analysis leads to paralysis.
There’s a saying – ‘Analysis leads to paralysis,’ – because it does. ‘Is it love? Or lust? Or am I kidding myself? What if my heart gets broken into tiny jagged pieces? How will it ever work if we don’t like the same music/ books/ food/ movies? What if we book the holiday and the airline goes on strike? What if one of us gets sick? What if both of us get sick? What if we can’t get a refund? Or pay the mortgage? What if he gets sick of me?’ Yep. I know you know how it sounds. What you focus on is what becomes important, so if you focus on the possible problems they’ll absorb your energy until they’re big enough to cause trouble on their own. They’ll drain your energy, your sense of fun and your capacity to move. You probably already know this, but what to do about it. Here’s something to try … Set a time frame in which you can act as though things will be fine. So for example, worry from 10-3 each day and after that, breathe, let go and act as though things will be fine. You don’t have to believe it – just ‘act as though’. You’ll have another chance tomorrow to worry if you need to. Be guided by the evidence, not the worries that haunt you at 2am.
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Come closer. No. Go away.
When you focus on every detail, things will get wobbly. You might focus on the things that aren’t right with your partner or your relationship, while at the same time looking for reassurance that your partner loves you and is committed. This can cause you to push your partner away, (‘You’ve disappointed me,”) then pull him or her close, (‘Tell me that you love me. You do love me, don’t you?’). Have a chat with your partner and if it is a familiar process, set up a safe way for your partner to point out when it’s happening. Agree on what that will look like. When it does happen, be careful not to hear it as a criticism – it’s not – it’s your partner asking for some stability with the way you love each other.
The tough conversations can bring you closer.
All relationships have to deal with tough stuff now and then but anxiety can make things more threatening and bigger than they are. The temptation might be to avoid talking about difficult issues with your partner, because of concerns about what it might do the relationship. Difficult issues don’t go away – they fester until they reach boiling point. Trust that your partner – and you – can cope with a hard discussion. Relationships are built on trust, and trusting that your relationship can power through difficult conversations is an important one.
Let your partner in on what it’s like to be you.
We humans are complex creatures and bringing someone in closer to you and your story – even if it is someone who has been with you for a while – is the lifeblood of intimacy. People change, stories change, and even in intimate relationships it’s easy to lose touch with the person who fall asleep next to at night-time. Let your partner in on what your anxiety is like for you. Talk about your thoughts, how anxiety is affecting you, your work, your relationship, your partner, and how grateful you are for the love and support.
Let your partner know what triggers you.
Is there a particular situation that’s tends to set your anxiety alight? Crowds? Strangers? Difficulties of exit? Loud music in the car? Being late? Talk to your partner so that if you find yourself in the situation without warning, he or she will understand what’s happening for you.
Be patient. The quick fix isn’t always the best.
As a way to feel better and ease your anxiety, you might be tempted to press for a quick fix to a problem or issue within your relationship. You might become frustrated with your partner’s desire to wait or put off committing to a course of action, or their resistance to keep talking about the issue, but be open to the fact that your partner might see things differently, sometimes clearer. Breathe, talk, and don’t assume that your partner is taking time or pulling out of the conversation because of a lack of commitment or because the issue isn’t important enough.
Make sure you’re looking after yourself.
Being in love is crazy good but it can take your attention away from looking after yourself and on to looking after your special person. We all tend to do this but for people with anxiety it can be particularly problematic because once you’re off-balance, the ripple can bring other things undone. Taking good care of yourself is so important. Eating well (a healthy diet rich in omega 3, low in processed carbs and sugars), as well as regular exercise and meditation will help to build your brain against anxiety. If looking after yourself feels selfish, think of it this way: it’s not really fair to expect your partner to support you through your anxiety if you’re not doing everything you can do to support yourself. Think of self-care as an investment in you, your relationship and your partner. Remember too that anything that’s good for anxiety is good for everyone, so talk to your partner about chasing a healthy lifestyle together – cooking, exercising and meditating together … nice.
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Understand that your partner will need boundaries
For the relationship to stay close, healthy and connected, boundaries built by your partner can be a great thing. Understand that boundaries aren’t your partner’s way of keeping you out, but as a way to self-protect from ‘catching’ your anxiety. You might be worried and need to talk about something over and over, but that’s not necessarily what will be good for you, your partner or your relationship. Your partner can love you and draw a bold heavy underline between the last time you discuss something and the next time you want to. Talking is healthy, but talking over and over and over about the same thing can be draining and create an issue where there isn’t one. Know that your partner loves you and that boundaries are important to nurture love and grow the relationship, not to push against it. Talk to your partner about what he or she needs to be able to feel okay in the face of your anxiety. Invite the boundaries – it will help to keep your connection strong and loving and will help your partner to feel as though he or she is able to preserve a sense of self without being absorbed by your worries. Worry is contagious so if your partner wants to draw a boundary (eventually) around your worry, let it happen – it will help to preserve the emotional resources of the relationship and will be good for both of you.
This is so important! Laughter is a natural antidote to the stress and tension that comes with anxiety. Laughing together will tighten the connection between you and when there has been a stressful few days (weeks? months?) it will help you both to remember why you fell in love with each other. Anxiety has a way of making you forget that life wasn’t meant to be taken seriously all the time. If it’s been too long since your partner has seen the shape of your face when you laugh (which will be beautiful and probably one of the reasons he or she fell for you in the first place) find a reason – a funny movie, memories, YouTube … anything.
Falling in love is meant to be magical, but getting close to another person isn’t without it’s highs and lows at the best of times. From the ecstasy of realising that someone pretty wonderful is as moved by you as you are by them, to the agony of self-doubt and possible loss, to the security, richness and sometimes stillness of a deeper love, intimacy is a vehicle for every possible emotion. Anxiety does effect relationships, but by being open to its impact, and deliberate in responding to it, you can protect your relationship and make it one that’s strong, close and resilient.