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When a Spouse Has Anxiety.

If your spouse has anxiety disorder, it can place a large strain on the relationship. In any relationship, couples must work through any number of hurdles. They may face differences on raising children, finances, and intimacy. Each of these can be enough to drive a wedge into the relationship, adding anxiety to this mix makes it all the more difficult. The normal challenges can become exaggerated and additional challenges and problems are added.

A survey by the Anxiety Disorder Association of America (ADAA) the impact of anxiety on relationships is high. The survey was specific to Generalized Anxiety Disorder, however, the results may be similar in all types of anxiety. Some of the findings of the survey include:

People with GAD are two times more likely to have at least one relationship problem than those without anxiety.

Seven out of ten respondents indicated that their anxiety had a negative effect on their relationship with their spouse or significant other.

People with GAD were three times more likely to avoid intimacy with their spouse or significant other than those without anxiety disorder.

Anxiety in Relationships

The survey completed by the ADAA provides a glimpse of how the partner with anxiety views their relationship.  Many did not consider themselves to be in a healthy or supportive relationship and felt their anxiety stopped them from engaging in normal activities with their spouse. Overall, the anxiety seemed to permeate many different aspects of a person’s relationship and have a negative impact. Some of the specific ways anxiety can interfere with relationships are:

Financial

Finances are also considered to be one of the major reasons for problems within a relationship. Arguments about money are listed as one of the major factors impacting the divorce rate. In relationships where one partner suffers from anxiety, finances can be a major source of problems. Anxiety disorder can interfere with someone’s ability to either get a job or keep a job. When the entire financial burden is placed upon one person, especially if this is from necessity rather than choice, arguments and resentment can build.

Emotional Support

In every relationship, both partners look to the other for emotional support. Relationships, in which one suffers from anxiety, or another mental illness, can become lopsided. The person dealing with anxiety may require more support and their anxiety may interfere with their ability to offer support. The partner without anxiety may end up feeling angry or bitter, needing emotional support for their role within the relationship, but not receiving it. They may resent the other partner; resent the amount of attention they need, the amount of time and effort they require. At the same time, they may feel guilty about these emotions, intellectually knowing their partner is not purposely acting in this way, but emotionally deprived of their own needs. Depression, anger and fear are common and normal reactions in the partner without anxiety disorder.

Communication

Communication is an essential part of any relationship. Without it, couples cannot resolve conflict or deal with problems within the family unit. When anxiety disorder is a part of the relationship, communication may break down. Emotional needs within the family may not be met and resentment and anger may be part of everyday life. When this happens, communication is all but impossible.

Family and Social Activities

Routine household chores include shopping, running errands, vehicle maintenance and, when there are children, making sure children get to activities on time and attending sports events or recitals. These family activities can take up an enormous amount of time and energy. Keeping the events coordinated requires attention to details. When one partner is not able to participate in completing these routines, the entire responsibility falls on the other partner. This can leave one person feeling overburdened and burned out.

In addition to caring for the children and the household, the partner without anxiety may need to also care for the partner with anxiety, taking their anxiety into account and modifying family activities to be sure the needs of the person suffering from anxiety are met.

People suffering from anxiety commonly avoid social situations. Their anxiety may interfere with their ability to get together with friends and maintain a healthy social life. When this happens, the partner without anxiety is often left without a network of support. They may feel isolated and alone.

Incorporating Spouses into Treatment

Since anxiety impacts relationships and family units, it makes sense that in any comprehensive treatment plan, spouses are included. This is not to say that the main responsibility for treatment does not fall on the individual with anxiety, it does and should. However, some mental illness professionals are beginning to see the necessity of incorporating partners into treatment plans. They may offer family or couples therapy as a part of the treatment, understanding the importance of addressing the relationship and the ways in which it suffers as well as treating the individual.

Some treatment providers will have the partner become part of the treatment program and enlist their assistance. Partners can learn relaxation and anti-stress techniques and help to incorporate these into everyday family life. In addition, most anxiety treatment includes “exposure” therapy whereby a patient is slowly exposed to anxiety producing situations or events until they become desensitized and less afraid. Partners can help by accompanying their spouse to events they may be afraid to attend on their own and offering support in addition to the exposure therapy offered by the therapist.

It is important, however, do offer this type of support in conjunction with therapy. It is easy for a spouse to participate in the anxiety, rather than helping a person within their treatment. It is also not the spouse’s place to take responsibility for the treatment. The therapist can help to determine a spouse’s role.

How a Spouse Can Help

Learn about anxiety disorder. It is important to understand anxiety and how it may impact your spouse, their life, your life, your relationship and your family. The more you understand about anxiety, the more support you are able to offer.

Encourage your spouse to go for treatment. However, it is important for you to understand treatment must be their responsibility, not yours. Be sure your spouse is receiving the right type of treatment. If your spouse is not interested in receiving treatment, you may need to set boundaries and be specific on what behaviors you are willing to accept.

Create an atmosphere of positive reinforcement. Encourage and praise healthy reactions and healthy behaviors rather than criticizing anxiety symptoms and fears.

Accept where your spouse is at the present time and measure improvement from there, rather than setting goals of behaviors based on where you believe they should be. Make goals specific and realistic.

Keep communication open. Talk with your spouse about their anxiety and how they feel during a panic or anxiety attack. Rather than assuming you know how they feel and what they need, discuss it with them so the support you are offering is welcome.

Talk with the therapist about your role in treatment and what you can do to help. Know when it is appropriate to push and when it is appropriate to let go.

Be patient, a person will not recover from anxiety overnight. Although recovery can be a long road, it is worth it in the end.

Helping Yourself

Find support for yourself. Look for a local support group or find an online support group or forum. Being the spouse of someone with mental illness can be exhausting and emotionally draining. Maintaining a network of people offering you support can give you the strength you need.

Maintain friendships and social activities. There may be times when your spouse is not able to participate in social events or get together with friends. It is easy for a spouse to fall into a routine of making their spouse and family their only source of social interaction. It is important, however, for you to maintain your friendships and activities you enjoy. Taking time away from your relationship can give you a much-needed break and reinvigorate yourself to keep going.

Expect setbacks in recovery. Setting goals is an important part of recovery. However, there will be times your spouse will experience a setback or not make the progress you are expecting. This is normal. If you expect this to happen, it will not seem as devastating when it does. Make sure goals are realistic.

Attend therapy for yourself or as a couple, if needed. Sometimes, your emotional health suffers or the stress of living with a mental illness is more than you can deal with. Your emotional health and well-being is important too. In order to maintain this, you may need to seek therapy for yourself or you may need to incorporate couples therapy into treatment so that your relationship has the chance to improve and succeed.

References:

“Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Its Impact on Relationships – National Survey Key Findings”, 2004, Anxiety Disorder Association of America

“What Are the Most Common Causes of Divorce?”, 2005, DivorceReform.com

“Non Verbal Communication”, 2006, Dr. Allan N. Schwartz, MentalHelp.net

“When Your Partner Has an Anxiety Disorder”, 2005, Anxiety Disorders Association of America

“When Your Spouse Has a Mental Illness: Coping Strategies”, 1998, California Alliance for the Mentally Ill

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