When Anxiety Becomes the Third Wheel in a Relationship

By: Emma Johnson, MFTC

Anxiety is one of the terms that is frequently tossed around in everyday language, but what does it actually mean?  Anxiety is an emotion that is often associated with worry, tension, or fear.  Sometimes, being anxious about something leads to intrusive thoughts and avoidance of activities.  Beyond avoidance of activities or people, anxiety can cause significant impairment to an intimate relationship.  Some of the common symptoms that appear in a relationship where one partner struggles with anxiety are as follows.

Acceleration vs. Postponement

In attempts to alleviate one’s feelings of anxiety, people typically respond in one of two ways.  Sometimes the process is accelerated and other times it is postponed.  Acceleration of the process occurs when one’s anxiety tricks them into believing that whatever is causing them worry needs to be addressed immediately.  Opposed to allowing a refractory period, the cues to rush the process result in an overwhelming sense of panic further increasing the desire to speed up the process.  In contrast, due to the discomfort that occurs alongside anxiety, one’s anxiety may trick the individual into delaying the initiation of it.  Postponing whatever it is that is causing significant worry, in turn, causes the anxiety to last even longer. Resorting to a state of panic or procrastination often dismisses the person’s true feelings and ability to express what is going on in a timely manner. 

Lack of Trust

Anxiety often causes people to future trip. Future tripping is when you look to the future and make assumptions about what may happen as opposed to focusing on what is happening.  In a relationship, future tripping is often associated with fear and worry about what one’s partner may be doing, reducing the presence of trust between partners.  

Selfishness

It is not uncommon for someone struggling with anxiety to discount the emotions of others.  One’s own fears and worries take precedence and may cloud the individual’s ability to relate to others.  Therefore, when you are in a relationship with someone who has anxiety, it may begin to feel like your partner is no longer there for you and that they are preoccupied with only their own needs.  This presence of anxiety and tendency to manifest in selfishness often leads to feelings of resentment for one another.  While the person struggling with anxiety resents the other for not feeling the same way or adequately understanding their emotions, their partner may simultaneously resent them for seemingly not caring.  

Rejection or Avoidance

Being in a relationship with someone who suffers from anxiety can oftentimes feel very lonely.  The presence of anxiety can cause negative emotions to foster between the couple like resentment.  Furthermore, those who struggle with anxiety will frequently avoid certain situations or people if they find them to be stress-provoking.  To the partner who does not suffer from anxiety, the act of avoiding activities together may be taken as purposeful avoidance or rejection of themselves and the relationship.

So now that we’ve gone over some of the common impacts a relationship of anxiety may encounter, what can you do if your partner suffers from anxiety?

Education 

First and foremost, educate yourself on your partner’s anxiety.  Educating yourself on your partner’s emotions shows that you care and are motivated to learn how it impacts them regardless of whether you can relate to it directly or not.  Begin to ask yourself and your partner these questions. 

  • Have they been formally diagnosed with an anxiety disorder? If so, which one? 
  • How does their anxiety affect their daily living?
    • Discuss things such as sleep, eating, exercise, work, and home life. 
  • How can you help?

Validate Their Feelings

           Regardless of whether you can understand where your partner is coming from, it is crucial to validate the realness of their fears and worries.  It is okay to feel that what your partner is bringing up is irrational, however, it is not okay to tell them this without first providing compassion.  Trying to talk the person out of the fears and worries will only cause them to feel judged and overlooked, likely increasing their anxiety.  Therefore, instead of providing rationality around the individual’s fears or worries or trying to provide solutions to fix the problem, simply listen to what they are saying and make sure they know they are being heard. 

Encourage & Engage in Treatment 

Encouraging involvement in treatment is a tremendous way to show your partner you care about them.  Instead of telling them how to cope with their anxiety or mitigate the symptoms, allow space and comfort for your partner to receive professional help.  Suggesting therapy helps normalize what your partner may be going through. Furthermore, offering to attend therapy with your partner continues to show your supportive role in the relationship and desire for their health to improve.  

Do Things for Yourself 

Your partner’s anxiety may become overpowering at times and require your own outlet.  For the sake of your own mental health, having a solid support system as well as individual interests or hobbies outside of your relationship to turn to in times of stress is critical.  

Set Limits

While it is important to acknowledge your partner’s struggles, letting the anxiety take the reins and control the relationship is unhealthy.  It is important to recognize what your partner is going through and let them know that, but it is also equally important to set boundaries.  Therefore, while being understanding and accepting of the role anxiety plays within the relationship, there need to be limits on how frequently you entertain your partner’s requests.  Setting these limits can be challenging and feel as if you are turning your back on the support you agreed to provide but satisfying all requests of the anxiety may invite it to further manipulate and control the relationship. 

Maintain vs. Eliminate 

           When considering anxiety, the goal is never to get rid of it, but instead, maintain it in a healthy manner.  Work with your partner regularly to better understand what helps reduce their anxiety and how to support them in their day-to-day life.  Continue to encourage the coping mechanisms necessary and like therapy, engage in these activities as well for additional support.  

Anxiety plays a significant role in an intimate relationship.  While this is not an exhaustive list of how anxiety may manifest in a relationship, it provides insight into some of the more common characteristics that may be overlooked as being attributed to one partner’s anxiety. Oftentimes people who struggle with anxiety feel misunderstood and judged.  Therefore, if you find yourself recognizing any of the above impacts in your relationship and or are aware of your partner’s anxiety and unsure of how to help, implementing some of the above tools into your relationship may be helpful for both yourself, your partner, and the relationship.

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