I'm Still Learning How to Help My Partner With Her Anxiety
This story has been published with permission from the author’s partner.
I’ve seen it before, in her eyes. The anxiety takes over, and her face shows fear and defeat. The challenge she is facing is monumental – if only in her mind. And the fact that she can’t overcome it will haunt her for days. The disorganized mess that she feels she can’t resolve will creep into every facet of her day. And this is just one of many things that are piling on to the uncontrollable downward spiral.
I sit watching it. The truth is, there is a part of me that thinks to myself, “I have problems, too!” I look at the situation and immediately begin comparing her problems to mine. Justification begins to set in, and then, if I am honest, I have talked myself to a point that I don’t want to do anything at all.
“The sun will shine tomorrow,” or “This will be over and you won’t even remember why you were upset.”
So I give her space. And she fears allowing her illness to concern me, so that is the way things remain for hours, sometimes days.
But when we come together again, all is well. She has dealt with her demons, and by giving her space I made sure I didn’t say anything that would make it worse. Right?
But is that enough?
Let’s replay this situation from her side now. Her anxiety is spiraling out of control and she doesn’t know how to stop it. She desperately looks around for something, or someone, to steady her. She sees you. Not only does she feel guilty that she is bothering you with her “irrational” anxiety; she starts to see that look on your face. The look she interprets as you thinking that she is just “faking it.” She thinks you view her as just playing it up for attention. So she doesn’t turn to you. She holds it in and goes her own way. Two days of hell follow for her. You see, when you were giving her space to deal with her demons, you left her feeling alone and abandoned — dealing with her overwhelming emotions and with no partner to bond with to help her feel that it will be OK.
Bait and Switch?
Is that how you wanted her to feel when you first dated her? How did you react on that first or second date when you saw her start to fight back tears of anxiety? This beautiful woman you were courting… did you give her space? I suspect not. I can see you holding her, sweet terms of endearment, asking, “What can I do, tell me what’s wrong!” And when you leaned in, made sure she knew you were there and you cared, I can even see this eliciting a change in her, a knowing look in her eyes. Seeing you expressing support and concern, she gained a realization that this reaction she brought out of you scared you. It scared you way more than it should have – and with this realization, her anxiety gets a chink in its armor and starts to fall away. Following were the giggles and the hugs of support and reassurance that allow you both to take a breath and move forward with the night… together.
After years with our partners, we have seen this over and over. Sometimes we jump in and it backfires, sometimes we give space and it seems to work (see above). But are we doing it “right?”
Another Chance to Do It Right – FAIL
Yesterday she sat crying with a tooth that needed an urgent trip to the dentist. Not only was the pain affecting her, but also the idea that she is mortally terrified of root canals, and she is blaming herself because the whole thing could have been avoided by going in sooner. The cost was going to be astronomical. So she sat and cried.
Personal admission: I did not do a good job. I went with the “give her space” method, so I sat and watched her cry as I have only seen on a few occasions. She and I have both written about some of those times, and I don’t like thinking about them.
His New Perspective
Then something changed. Trust me, I am no hero, so understand that I am learning as I go. But suddenly at this moment, I saw things with a new light. Here is a girl who has had to spend every waking moment of her life, starting with her first memories and continuing until just a couple of years ago, fighting for mere survival. She didn’t have time to cry about things. There was no one there who would offer to help. Her motto practically became: “Suck it up, buttercup!” What other choice did she have?
Suddenly, I was able to see a scared girl who only recently left an abusive relationship that had taken almost every financial means of survival away, and every desire to live along with it.
Seeing this more clearly for what it was, there is no way I could just sit back and give this girl space at that moment. In fact, there is nothing that would have been able to keep me from her side. I was compelled to offer her the only thing I had.
And guess what she saw. Here was a man who didn’t have to take her in when he did. He was sitting there while she cried, not realizing the simple role she hoped he would play. She thinks to herself, “He doesn’t deserve this. He didn’t ask for this. He didn’t realize he was going to have to deal with this. If he only knew, all I need is…”
A Simple Gift
No pretty words, no magic solutions, I couldn’t take it away. But I could give her me. Knowing my role was simple, I looked again. I could feel her cry now, but it no longer seemed like a scared little girl. She buried her face in my chest and wept tears of peace and comfort which overwhelmed her, as she was once again reassured that she would not have to face this alone.
A lot of things went through my mind that I could have said… selfish things that were not helpful or constructive. For example, one thing that really permeated my selfish thoughts was, “You know, you wouldn’t be facing a root canal if you had made the appointment a month ago. We wouldn’t have to pay for this expensive procedure. None of this would be happening now. This is really all your fault.” But what is the goal here? Am I just trying to add another point on my side of the “Lose-Lose Scoreboard” of our life, where no matter how many points you score or how big you win, you still lose?
Have you been in this situation before while caring for someone struggling with anxiety and depression? What could your simple contribution have been in your scenario? Maybe you could have offered to make that phone call to the pharmacist for her. The one she has been putting off due to her phone anxiety? Something that would take less than five minutes for us and we wouldn’t think anything of it… yet it might mean the world to them.
Maybe you could have just brought a glass of water to her while she was crying. Then just sat with your hand on her leg in silence. Something so simple. And she would feel that reassuring touch letting her know she was not alone. The same touch of reassurance she felt on that first date when you were eager to win her love by little gestures that let her know you were there with her. The reality is: Yes, you will have to bite your tongue more. It will have to be you swallowing your pride more. It will be you who must prevent the “I told you so” from coming out of your mouth. The more you go for that zinger comment and score three points off the backboard, the more you will realize you every point puts you further from a win.
The reality is, she has an illness. You knew this very early in your relationship, and still, you wanted her – all of her – in your life. And in doing so, you committed to giving her all of you as well.
Don’t take the sole lighthouse in the storm away from her. Supporting the ones you love typically requires only a small effort. You are that lighthouse. You are the guiding light letting her know that she is not alone and she has a protector in the storm.
Getty Images photo via “Image Source.”