The heart wants what it wants. So what happens when your heart leads you towards someone who struggles with anxiety? It is essential to understand how layered dating someone with anxiety can be and how to navigate the relationship in a way that supports and respects you both, as well as your love for one another.
What is an anxiety disorder?
Anxiety disorders are characterized as mental health disorders that directly impact one’s ability to go about their daily activities. When feelings of fear, stress, and worry are so strong that someone is incapable of doing routine things, that is the manifestation of their anxiety disorder.
As with many other mental health issues, this can occur at varying degrees and be triggered by different things. Hence the definition is somewhat broad. When you are dating someone with anxiety, do not assume that their brand of the disorder is generic. Instead, take the time to learn about how an anxiety disorder functions in their life specifically.
Different types of anxiety disorders
According to experts, there are seven different types of mental disorders that can fall under the anxiety category.
- Generalize anxiety disorder
- Panic disorder
- Social anxiety disorder
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder
- Separation anxiety disorder
Other researchers would argue that there can be upwards of ten different types, so you can see again why it is critical to know that not all mental health disorders are created equal concerning anxiety.
Learning about your partner’s anxiety
It is critical that you understand what this is doing to your partner as an individual before you can conceptualize how it will impact your relationship.
Doubting them makes it worse
Unfortunately, there is still a stigma attached to this brand of mental health, which can lead to a lot of doubt from people who do not experience anxiety. The double-edged sword here is that when you doubt your partner’s anxiety, it can both lead to your own anxiety and simultaneously make their anxiety worse.
This is a real issue, and a real condition, not something that people make up for attention, to get out of things they do not want to do or to cover themselves when they have spoken or behaved in ways they wish they wouldn’t have. When you suggest to your partner that you doubt their illness, you can push them away and force them to build up a wall to protect themselves from intimate relationships.
Normalize the disorder
Anxiety only becomes an official disorder when it reaches a high level. Of course, that level can, and will, vary from person to person, but it is important to understand that everyone experiences this at some point in their day-to-day life.
When you are working to understand how this affects your partner, having empathy and acknowledging that this mental health issue does not have to prevent them from having a healthy relationship with you can be incredibly relieving.
There is no cure
Anxiety can be managed, and you can work to minimize flare-ups, but it is not a curable situation. Even when it goes away, it is never fully gone. Instead of knowing this and having it build up fear in you and/or your partner, use it as motivation to learn about their triggers and develop coping strategies that can tilt the scales in their favor and keep things like anxiety attacks and panic attacks to a minimum.
They did not make it up
“I’m anxious” or “I am too scared to go” and “I am afraid of” are not just catchphrases that people reach for to get out of doing things they do not want to do, and they call it anxiety. Quite the opposite, actually. In many cases, these individuals want to participate, but their mental illness makes them feel held back mentally and emotionally at such a high level it invokes physical symptoms, like an inability to participate.
Work your hardest to accept this and not to challenge your partner when they allow themselves to be vulnerable enough to share these feelings with you. This is a mental health condition, not something that they made up, and when it is treated like make-believe, it only perpetuates the symptoms.
What to expect from dating someone with anxiety
This dynamic can impact your relationship in many ways. Knowing what to expect can help you to be prepared.
When your partner has anxiety issues, it can seep into your social life as a couple. Although they may have said yes a week ago to a double date, when the night comes, they may suddenly feel like attending is putting their own mental health at risk. This can be incredibly frustrating, but part of understanding anxiety is knowing that they are frustrated too.
This is a good example of an area to discuss, and have prepared some coping skills for various social scenarios so that when the heat of the moment comes, you both have some solutions at hand to reach for to help offset a panic attack or worse.
Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for people to self-medicate with drugs and/or alcohol to manage their symptoms. While it is not your job to diagnose your partner, you should be aware of the fact that this can be possible and is quite common. Learn the various warning signs, and have the courage to have open communication on the topic before it becomes a potentially life-threatening situation.
Physical intimacy and a healthy and consensual sex life are two major components of most adult romantic relationships. A great deal of trust is involved with reaching this level of a partnership, and with trust can come vulnerability. For those whose mental health is rooted in anxious behaviors, sex can feel like both a way to bond, relax, and feel safe and an event that can trigger an anxiety episode.
You need to talk honestly with each other about this topic. If you have an intimate experience that is suddenly cut off because your partner feels anxious, that can make you feel unwanted, untrusted, and most of all, confused. Outside of your bedroom, talk about things that set the scene for your partner to enjoy the physical act of love, and respect them. Someone with anxiety will never be comfortable being in their most vulnerable state with you if you cannot show them that it is a safe space, mentally, emotionally, and physically.
Some people seek to stave off panic attacks with impulsive choices, most commonly, impulsive spending. Money is a huge element of any relationship. Even if your finances are entirely separate and one person’s financial state is chaotic, it will undoubtedly affect the relationship.
Try not to criticize your partner’s behavior since it is likely that they already have some form of shame about their lack of self-control. Instead, create an environment where they feel that they can come to you openly and honestly when and if they have made some financial errors in judgment so you two can work towards a solution as a team. From here, you will eventually get to a place where proactive suggestions can be made and followed so that this symptom of their mental illness can lessen.
Managing your reactions
Being in a relationship with someone who suffers from this situation can be emotionally draining on you. It is important that you know how to manage your reactions in a way that supports them but also allows you some room to breathe.
Do not take it personally
This is way easier said than done since when a person has an anxiety flare-up, they usually take it out on the person or people closest to them. It is your responsibility to arm yourself with tools to deescalate their anxiety attacks and detach yourself from whatever may have triggered them.
As soon as you make their problem about you, the whole thing can blow up. Instead of helping them through their own issue or episode, you have now created a new problem. It is very common that this ultimately leads to shame and guilt for both parties, and those are two of the strongest and deepest negative emotions to bounce back from.
Stay in your lane
At the same time that you are trying to help, you also need to know with conviction that you can only control yourself. You can be there for your partner without putting the pressure of a solution on them. Especially when someone is in the throes of a hefty panic attack or deep hole of anxious behavior, saying things to them in the tone of ‘well why don’t you just do this’ is the opposite of helpful.
You have surely heard the phrase, “you can’t fight fire with fire,” that applies here. Even if your partner is calmly expressing anxious feelings, know that what is happening inside their minds is anything but. Keep your cool, and manage your reaction in a way that does not add more fuel to the fire. A calm tone of voice, breathing exercises, and even suggesting that you take a few moments of physical space from each other are all great ways to show support while keeping your cool.
Reach out to mental health professionals
Therapy can be incredible, and having a third person help you both objectively navigate this situation, whether separate or together, is a mature and healthy response to the situation.
While communication with your partner is essential for a healthy relationship, sometimes our partners should not be the first people that we go to, to flesh out certain thoughts. Therapy provides a safe space for you each to talk candidly about what is going on with you mentally and emotionally and with your relationship. Here you can learn how to share your feelings with your partner in ways that you may not have been able to come up with on your own and in ways that are not full of blame or threat.
Using a mental health professional and an objective third party for your relationship is something that should be encouraged for couples both dealing with and not dealing with specific challenges. This can help develop proactive ways to support your partner as they work to manage their anxiety and serve as an arena for conflict resolution when anxiety has put a wedge in between you too.
Often, couples therapy is seen as a last-ditch effort to save a fleeting relationship, and while that is true in some cases, it is not the only reason to attend. Sometimes couples recognize that what they have between them is so good that they want to make sure that they are doing everything they can to sustain that level of satisfaction; therapy can help.
Loving someone with anxiety takes patience, acceptance, and setting boundaries. The most important thing to remind yourself of is that you both want to be together. So long as the foundation of love is there, it is almost always possible to work things out.
Doing the work individually to understand this illness and then coming together as a couple to discuss how it plays a role in your relationship is a sign of mutual effort and respect. Often, a clearly defined support system is so important for many people with anxiety. When your partner recognizes that you are that support, it provides motivation and encouragement to manage their symptoms better.