Thankfully, "my anxiety is ruining my relationship" isn't something I've said about my own situation: I have a partner who is supportive and patient with me whenever I trudge through times of high anxiety, even if those instances render me a frustrating and frustrated ball of silence who can't communicate in real time what's happening internally. Still, my condition does certainly get in the way—a lot—and the same is true for many couples, especially those who are very close and spend a whole bunch of their time together. “That’s where anxiety can become a bit tricky, because you’re suddenly letting your partner in on some of your deeper vulnerabilities,” says Chloe Carmichael, PhD, a clinical psychologist based in New York City.
Whether you’re anxious about the relationship itself or matters outside of it (or, let’s be honest, both), the condition can affect your bond with your partner for better or for worse in a number of ways.
To this point, misunderstood anxiety can feel like the third wheel in a relationship—no matter what the strife is about. Whether you’re anxious about the relationship itself or matters outside of it (or, let’s be honest, both), the condition can affect your bond with your partner for better or for worse in a number of ways.
Below, Dr. Carmichael shares ways that anxiety can compromise an otherwise totally healthy romantic relationship—and then strategies anyone can use to make sure that doesn't become their own unhappily ever after.
3 ways anxiety can impact a relationship
1. It can influence how you see your significant other
Ah, finally: You and your beau have reached a comfortable level where being vulnerable with one another no longer feels like pulling a nail from a piece of wood with your fingers. If anxiety gets in the way, though, that very sense of closeness can double as an anxiety trigger that skews negative. “Sometimes we start thinking about our partner as an extension of ourselves,” says Dr. Carmichael. “If your anxiety is about perfectionism, for example, you’ll start extending that standard to your partner and the relationship.” Even if it’s not personal, projecting how your anxiety manifests can make your partner feel alienated or criticized.
Take, for example, the situation of traveling together. Maybe you’re bummed because you meant to take a trip abroad by this time in your life, it hasn't happened for whatever reason, and you—even if jokingly—feel uncultured. If you start to include your partner in that narrative (“What’s wrong with us? We haven’t traveled enough.”), you’re wading right into Projecting City.
2. You think your relationship quality is subpar, but your partner begs to differ
Does he actually love me? Do I actually love her? Snap out of it. Be present in your partnership to quiet the voice of your anxiety that's sometimes guilty of doubting good things. One 2012 study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders examined how anxiety sufferers view the success of their relationship and found those without anxiety rated their relationship as higher quality than partners with anxiety did. The fact is, your anxiety can feed you cutting doubts that aren’t actually reflective of the partnership you're really, actually, truly in. So be aware of that and proceed accordingly.
3. You send mixed signals
Thoughts that default to the worst-case scenario can pull you out of the relationship mentally since you’re so caught up in managing your anxiety over your partner’s needs. This can turn into a confusing, inescapable minefield fraught with miscommunication. “Sometimes people get attached to their anxiety to an almost a superstitious level,” says Dr. Carmichael. “They feel like their anxiety is their way of keeping themselves on their toes.”
If one second you’re voicing how overwhelmed and tired you feel, and the next you’re brushing off your partner’s instinct to help, Dr. Carmichael says this can happen because you're essentially venting. “You’re not ready to actually make changes to the way you’re managing your anxiety,” she says, which builds tension between the two of you.
Now, the good news: Anxiety doesn't have to ruin your relationship—here are 3 strategies that can help:
1. Don’t use your partner as a personal therapist or a complaint box
Of course, it’s a great idea to be open with your S.O. about the anxiety you experience, what triggers it, and how it manifests—but boundaries are key. It's great if you feel some catharsis or personal productivity by talking through anxiety-inducing situations, but Dr. Carmichael says your partner isn't necessarily the best person for you to turn to. Rather than relying on your partner to shoulder all the feelings and stressors you're navigating, which may in turn make them feel uneasy about sharing their own beef, find a therapist to work with.
2. Learn how to talk about it
Anxiety is not a weakness. And it's not always a bad thing or an unhealthy thing, either, says Dr. Carmichael. While neither you nor your partner won’t necessarily ever fully understand how your anxiety operates, you can practice being open about it in the moments when you experience it. From there, work on sharing with your partner how they can help. Maybe it’s a cooling walk around the block, or a cuddle, or some space so you can process things quietly. One thing’s for sure, though: You don’t want your partner to take your anxiety personally.
3. Find comfort in vulnerability, but don’t let anxiety be your only bonding moment as a couple
I find it personally reassuring to know I have a partner who will help me pick up my pieces after a rough bout of anxiety. The caveat here is that this support can’t be the main force or glue that keeps a couple together. “Make sure you don’t start to think your anxiety is the shortcut to getting your partner’s intimate focus or attention,” says Dr. Carmichael. If you’re subconsciously linking the feeling to comfort from your partner, take it as a sign you need some space from leaning heavily on another person for mental-health support. Get out there and make some new memories together—and seek supplemental treatment and assistance for your anxiety.
- Pankiewicz, Piotr et al. “Anxiety disorders in intimate partners and the quality of their relationship.” Journal of affective disorders vol. 140,2 (2012): 176-80. doi:10.1016/j.jad.2012.02.005
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