Romantic relationships can be a wonderful part of life—a source of support, a companion to share time with, and someone who helps to encourage their partner through journeys and hardships. However, on the other hand, relationships can also be a stressor; depending on the state of the relationship. Many different factors can negatively impact the state of the relationship, such as financial difficulties, contrasting communication skills, opposing values, and any mental health diagnosis found with one or both partners.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States, with 40 million adults age 18 and older being impacted. More specifically, 6.8 million of these adults are diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, also known as GAD. GAD presents as excessive worry with symptoms such as feeling restless, difficulty sleeping, and muscle tension. Someone with this diagnosis would have difficulty controlling anxiety about a variety of events, activities, and subjects. There are many ways that anxiety can present, but it is important to consider how it impacts relationships. Being overly dependent and avoiding relationships are two opposite but common ways that anxiety can affect relationships.
While one of the wonderful parts of a relationship is for an individual being able to rely on their significant other to an extent, being dependent to an excessive point can harm the relationship and place a level of pressure onto the loved one that can be uncomfortable and frustrating. This dependency on a significant other can lead to the individual dealing with anxiety to overthink, seek out constant reassurance from others, and have difficulty coping. This can cause stress on the relationship, as the significant other may begin to resent their loved one.
An important point to recognize is that while the significant other should not feel guilty for having this resentment, the individual experiencing GAD should also not feel like they are a burden for exhibiting these symptoms. Instead, steps can be taken to help individuals who find themselves in these situations. For those who find they are displaying this overly dependent attachment, finding coping skills that alleviate anxiety can lead to loved ones of those diagnosed with GAD to feel less pressure and the individuals themselves to feel more confidence in themselves and in the relationship. Another way to assist with these issues is to seek out a therapist in order to address where this attachment style comes from.
On the other hand, an individual with GAD may avoid relationships entirely. This could mean not pursuing romantic relationships for fear of the anxiety that may accompany a relationship and unwillingness to put trust in someone else. However, it could also present as still having relationships yet being incredibly distant, non-communicative, and even avoidant of recognition of the relationship altogether. People with this attachment style can come off as cold, uncaring, and can lead to significant other’s feeling neglected. If one is recognizing that this may be an attachment style that they exhibit, something to do is to really challenge themselves to be more communicative. There are many different ways to increase communication, such as by trying exercises with their partner. For example, reflective listening is a technique where one would be listening to what the partner says, repeating it back in their own words, and allowing their partner to correct them if they are misunderstanding. This can build communication among the couple and can ensure that one’s thoughts are not being misconstrued. Another way to help with this attachment is to, again, seek out therapy, where the goal would be to discuss past and current relationships, in order to explore the reason for this avoidance.
For those who are on the side of the significant other in this circumstance, there are things that can be done in order to offer love and support. First and foremost it is important to recognize some central facts about anxiety. Next, it is essential to identify how anxiety can impact the relationship. Then, learn different ways to cope with this anxiety in a productive way, and finally, recognize what can be done in order to positively support the one dealing with GAD.
Facts to Recognize about Anxiety
Anxiety disorders can be thought to be, by those who do not often experience symptoms, something that is made up. However, anxiety symptoms are experienced by everyone at times. Anxiety is a natural stress reaction that initiates the ‘fight-or-flight’ response, both to a life-threatening and to a non-life-threatening issue. It is important to recognize that these symptoms can be helpful, such as to heighten alertness and allow for more cautious footing. This only becomes known as a disorder when symptoms become consistent and severe. Anxiety can make normal day-to-day tasks difficult and symptoms can even be debilitating at times. This disorder is not something that can be cured, however, it is treatable with psychotherapy, coping skills, medication, or a mix between these. Many people who experience GAD began exhibiting symptoms in childhood, oftentimes around age six. Anxiety can cause physical symptoms, such as feeling restless, irritable, weakness, shortness of breath, rapid heart rate, nausea, hot flashes, dizziness, and panic attacks. Another significant fact to consider is that women are twice as likely to be impacted by GAD as men.
How Anxiety Can Impact the Relationship
Many individuals living with anxiety disorders deal with excessive worrying, as well as ruminating on multiple things that could go wrong with daily life, and more specifically, their relationship. Concerns may run through their head regarding the strength of the relationship or their significant other’s commitment to the relationship. Questions that may be contemplated often are questions such as ‘what if they are lying to me’, ‘what if we break up’, ‘what if they cheat on me’, etc. While even those who do not deal with chronic anxiety may ponder these thoughts on occasion, individuals with anxiety disorders may experience this relationship-related distress regularly. These fears can lead to other problems such as the individual with GAD avoiding social situations, which can then cause arguments and distance between the couple.
Ways to Cope with Anxiety in a Relationship
While anxiety symptoms can have negative effects on relationships, multiple things can be done to positively sway the relationship. Some of the things that can be done are encouraging the individual dealing with GAD to try speaking with a therapist or even suggesting couples therapy, learning how to better communicate about anxiety, managing reactions to anxiety, setting boundaries, and shifting mental state to relieve stress.
While it can be helpful to be a listening ear for a loved one, it can also be useful for them to get professional help, rather than placing that emotional toll on their significant other. Not only is it not the responsibility of a significant other to provide therapy, it is more appropriate to carefully guide the one dealing with GAD to work through problems in a therapeutic setting. It can also be beneficial to try couples therapy, as some issues may be more specifically related to the relationship, and a therapist may be able to help with communication skills. This can assist in alleviating pressure to the one dealing with anxiety, as they may feel this is something to handle as a couple, rather than something they must tackle individually. It could also benefit the relationship to each go to individual therapy, in order to develop skills to cope and understand the partner’s anxiety, as well as how to better support their specific needs.
The topic of anxiety can be intimidating and something that may be tempting to avoid talking about. However, having an open dialogue about the topic can be crucial to having a healthy overall communication, as well as helping the subject to be less stigmatized and one that produces less shame. A partner who is more open to hearing about anxiety symptoms may help the individual to feel personal acceptance. It should also be noted that anxiety is not something that should be taken personally, but rather a loved one should attempt to understand the anxiety as a personal hurdle for their loved one. This does not mean that the significant other does not have a right to feel frustrated or offended. However, the reaction can be what worsens the anxiety or helps it. For instance, if one were to go to their partner stating that they are feeling insecure about their relationship and that they are concerned that their loved one will leave them, a partner who validates these feelings and asks what they may be able to do to help with these thoughts may provide comfort to the individual, rather than becoming defensive or angry, which may feel like validation of their anxieties. In reality, the anxiety is not about the partner, but about the one experiencing the symptoms, so there is no need to take these conversations personally.
While part of being in a relationship is being understanding and trying to be receptive to the other person’s needs and concerns, having boundaries in place is also incredibly imperative. Mental illness is not an excuse for hurtful or harmful behavior, so having boundaries in place can help both the individual and the partner to know what lines being crossed should not be tolerated. This could include things like making threats to the partner, insulting them, etc. It is also understandable that a partner of an individual with anxiety may have expectations that their loved one takes initiative to finding coping skills. This can be the difference between going through the same cycles for long periods of time and utilizing skills that will help to improve daily life.
Finally, it can help to change the way that anxiety is looked at. While it can be easy to view anxiety as stressful or a nuisance, it can be more beneficial to inquire about it and become more educated on the topic. By having a better understanding of what the anxiety is about and what it feels like for the individual, it can make the loved one feel more empathetic for their significant others situation.
How to Positively Support a Loved One Dealing with GAD
While it is important to recognize that as a partner it is not the responsibility to be a therapist, a loved one is able to provide support in a way that a therapist cannot. For instance, when an individual is feeling overwhelmed, having an anxiety attack, or is crying, a therapist can assist with breathing or utilizing coping skills, however, they cannot provide the simple support of holding the individual or taking them out in public to provide a distraction from anxiety. A partner is also going to be able to recognize what kind of activities may alleviate some anxiety and therefore may be beneficial to encourage participating in these kinds of activities, especially activities that can be done as a couple.
At times it can feel frustrating recognizing how far an individual still has to go with their journey, however, acknowledging the progress that has already been made can be encouraging and beneficial. It can also help to think of what kind of things personally assist in self-care and share these things with the individual in order to provide new ideas of ways to continue making progress.
Individuals with GAD, or any other anxiety disorder, can lead healthy, happy relationships. Regardless of the presence or lack thereof with Mental Illness, relationships take effort. Growing together as a couple can involve making sure that both individuals are actively working on their own mental well-being and not allowing personal difficulties to interfere with the health of the relationship. For those dealing with GAD, attending therapy, having adequate coping skills, and having positive communication with loved ones can all help towards a happy life and strong relationships. For loved ones of those with GAD, offering support and acceptance, learning more about anxiety, and having an open line of communication can help to benefit the relationship and the individual with GAD. Online-Therapy offers a free program that gives users access to 25 CBT-based worksheets, a personal journal, an activity plan, tests, and yoga and meditation videos. For those needing additional support, our basic program incorporates daily therapists comments Monday-Friday on worksheets, as well as the services offered through the free program. The standard plan incorporates all services offered through the basic plan, plus one session per week. The premium program offers all services included in the standard plan, plus an additional session per week. Here is link to learn more and to get started: Online Therapy
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