Only kind of put your load right on me.
September 25, 2017 2:59 AM   Subscribe

How to be empathic about anxiety without giving myself anxiety at the same time?

My spouse has anxiety problems. Little things like our toddler crying in public sometimes (you know, like every toddler ever) or the toddler waking up once in the middle of the night gives them fairly intense anxiety, which causes them to nearly shut down and/or need to discuss their anxiety with me at great length. All sorts of things set them off - deciding to cut down 2 dying saplings in our yard required many, many discussion because it's a change and change triggers their anxiety.

I'm on the opposite end of the spectrum. After years of dealing with my anxiety in therapy, I tend to remain functional in situations where I used to shut down. If I think our child will wake up in the middle of the night, I shrug and assume while it sucks it's a normal part of parenting, so it's not worth worrying about. Changes to schedule and routine roll off my back. I can get worked up like anyone can, but it's rare and friends, my spouse, and coworkers have told me as much.

My spouse absolutely thinks they don't need therapy. I once mentioned "your anxiety problem" which was met with "I don't have an anxiety problem." Um, which one of us was just yelling and slamming cabinet doors because they couldn't find the right lid for a pot? Yes it was frustrating but the reaction was completely disproportionate. My spouse occasionally mentions that they're an anxious person but treats it as a personality quirk rather than a substantial drain on both of us.

We run into problems when my spouse wants support for their anxiety. If I really try to empathize, I get anxious myself - not about the issue at hand but because I wish I could fix my spouse's worrying. But there's no fixing it, it's ever-present in our lives. If I admit it's making me anxious, them I'm being unsupportive because I'm basically saying "don't discuss your genuinely-felt emotions with me," which isn't okay. And if I disengage so I don't worry myself, it's immediately obvious to them that I'm not taking their concerns seriously and not being supportive. I know when they're catastrophizing because I dealt with my own catastrophizing in therapy, but "it's all in your head" is an incredibly dismissive thing to say, so there don't seem to be a way for me to help them out of it.

How can I find a middle ground, where my spouse can lean on me a bit for support, but I don't feel like an anxiety dump or emotional punching bag? My spouse gets tired of me asking for their opinion all the time about little thing, but it's because I have no idea what's going to set off their anxiety and become a major issue (c.f. removing 2 dying saplings from a remote corner of the yard). I want to be helpful and supportive - they deserve a supportive and empathetic spouse - but I don't think I can pretend for the rest of my life that I'm unaffected by this and put on a happy face to confront every tempest in a teapot.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (15 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
I say this as kindly as possible, but I've been in your situation, and there's no middle ground without your spouse's cooperation. This isn't a thing that you can find on your own, or a space that you can somehow create, unless it's something that they're willing to work towards, as well.

Have you talked to them about this? Does your spouse understand that you have an anxiety problem, well managed though it is, and their breakdowns affect you? If this isn't a conversation that you've had, I would start there. Maybe suggest that you both seek therapy, if you think that would make them feel less like you're somehow passing judgment on them. At a minimum, though, they should be willing to listen to the boundaries that you set--a 30 minute limit on any anxiety discussion, no talking about it just before bed, whatever. Figure out ahead of time what would help you--when I was in your shoes, I suggested that we put a time limit on anxiety conversations, and also a deadline of a few days for decisions so that there wasn't as much time for my partner to spin themselves up as much.

If they're not receptive to this conversation, or if they insist that neither of you have a problem, or that you have a problem and their behavior isn't a contributing factor, or if they get angry and defensive, I would sincerely suggest asking yourself if this is something that you can do for the rest of your life. You can't change the way that your spouse reacts to things, and if their reaction is to have a meltdown and bang about the house, I think that not only would you be hard pressed to change your reactions, but it would also be actively unhealthy for you to do so. You say that your spouse is an anxious person, but, honestly, what I see in the description is an abusive person.

Abuse doesn't have to be intentional. The feeling that you have to walk on eggshells so that you don't trigger your spouse's anxiety isn't a great sign for your relationship. Their reaction to a misplaced lid being yelling and slamming cupboards is a form of violent intimidation, and it's not how adults in healthy relationships treat each other. Anxiety doesn't make it ok to treat your partner like this.
posted by mishafletch at 3:56 AM on September 25, 2017 [30 favorites]

Unfortunately, you can't make this better for you individually or for your family without your spouse's input.

I'm a very anxious person, so I do understand your spouse's perspective. But anxiety isn't a free ticket to treat others like shit. There's a big difference between "Sorry for what I said when I forgot to bring my Xanax with me" and "My anxiety makes it okay for me to be difficult and unkind."

I think you need to tell your spouse that she MUST seek help, both from a therapist and a psychiatrist or GP who will prescribe meds. But I know that's easier said than done, especially with a child in the picture. :/
posted by schroedingersgirl at 4:03 AM on September 25, 2017 [6 favorites]

I once mentioned "your anxiety problem" which was met with "I don't have an anxiety problem." Um, which one of us was just yelling and slamming cabinet doors because they couldn't find the right lid for a pot?

This is where you can say it's not acceptable. They get to feel however they want, but they don't get to throw tantrums like that-- especially not with a child in the house!-- and then turn around and tell you they don't have a problem.

As an anxious person myself, I have resisted mentioning my anxiety to doctors, and I think that may be part of the syndrome that anxiety is. There's a loss of control involved in admitting to professionals that you have this problem. But the act of getting help is somewhat freeing in itself. I finally did it when I caught myself flipping out over having to go to jury duty. Sitting in a jury room all day feeling (possibly) more nervous than any party to the actual case is no way to live. When I brought this to the doctor, they suggested trying beta blockers first since my blood pressure was a bit elevated anyway. So, not the drug interventions I'd been worried about them prescribing, although it may come to that. But no one is going to ram drugs down my throat like I'd imagined. In the way anxious people do.

But your spouse really needs to do this. They have a kid now; the gig's up.
posted by BibiRose at 5:25 AM on September 25, 2017 [5 favorites]

You say that your spouse is an anxious person, but, honestly, what I see in the description is an abusive person.

This right here. Anxiety is simply not an excuse for the behavior you're describing. Impulses like this need to be managed by the sufferer. They don't get to give into every terrible mood and act this way without consequences.

Also I think you need to resist your spouse's pressure to deny reality. The thing where one spouse needs to deny the existence of an obvious elephant in the room is a common pathology with frequently terrible effects on the children of the marriage. Get some sunlight on it. It's fine to say "the kid will wake up because that's what they do and it's not a big deal" and "if we decide we miss having the saplings we can replant them, I'm not worried about it" and "I think you're making this much bigger than it actually is." In fact I think you owe it to everyone, particularly your kid, to keep a reality anchor in the house and help your spouse not slide down the rabbit hole.

"Support for their anxiety" should be a hug and a "I love you, it'll be ok, this too shall pass" not a pact to be delusional together.
posted by fingersandtoes at 6:22 AM on September 25, 2017 [13 favorites]

You and your spouse are using different vocabulary to describe his anxiety. For you to come to agreement can you have a discussion on how they describe their agitated reactions to change. I wouldn't try to convince the that anxiety is the the most accurate one, which it likely is, but encourage them to come up with a label you can move forward with in order to communicate with each other in a more productive way. Other words that may be easier for your spouse to identify with could that they are feeling frustrated, confused, overwhelmed, tired, angry, distracted, etc. Once a word choice is made you could talk about what lead up to that feeling. It might be easier to get cooperation if you use your spouse's words rather than yours so that they feel validated in their self-assessment rather than automatic defensiveness and denial. Of course, this should be done during relaxed times so that it can be calmly and intelligently discussed to prep for discussion when anxiety is very high. I have been in your spouse's shoes and developed a pretty poor coping mechanism to stress or feeling overwhelmed. It seemed soothing to fight back and express anger and defensiveness, which would take the discussion away from the event and an appropriate response to it to focusing on my negative reaction, and that always made me feel terrible and guilty and way worse than the situation warranted. My response became the problem every time and we got nowhere. A therapist helped me figure out how to label my feelings more appropriately so that I wasn't always reacting the same way, blanketing all negative feelings as angry, and instead labeling my feelings as sad, tired, frustrated and then using more compassionate ways of getting back on track. Labeling your spouse's behavior as anxiety may be a trigger word for your spouse and it would be more helpful to parse that label out into actual feelings using mindfulness. It's a seriously empowering method to dealing with "bad" feelings and subsequent responses.
posted by waving at 6:37 AM on September 25, 2017 [2 favorites]

I am an anxious person and I only got it sort of under control after several fights during which my partner told me that my anxiety was literally destroying their health and after a friend told me that they would not be my anxiety sounding-board any more.

I think that it's important to have healthy boundaries around this stuff if you have an anxious partner. Like, my partner is willing to do the "Partner, I have [minor ailment] but it's not cancer, right?" thing with me as long as it stops there, but is no longer willing to sit there for long periods listening to me spin my wheels. My partner's boundary is pretty clear about the reassurance they're willing to provide. I think it's healthy to tell your partner that you just cannot, for your own health, spend extended periods of time listening to and reassuring them. It sucks to cut them off and it may feel bad, but it really does help.

For instance, I don't get into nearly as much anxiety now that I can't talk and talk and talk about it with my partner. I still get anxious, I still have problems, but I am so much better that you just would not believe it, and the emotional drain on my partner is reduced to more of the "it's reasonable to expect support" level.
posted by Frowner at 6:41 AM on September 25, 2017 [7 favorites]

because I'm basically saying "don't discuss your genuinely-felt emotions with me," which isn't okay.

Well no, that actually is totally okay. You can't fix this any more than you could if they lost a leg and wanted you to cut off your own leg and stick it onto their body. This isn't helping either of you and it's actively harming you.

Does your spouse realise that when they want support for their anxiety by talking about it, what they actually need is a therapist and not for their partner to act as an unpaid, untrained one? You could try framing it as 'you could find someone to talk to, to support you when you're anxious' and not 'you're broken and you need therapy' but you really do need their buy-in before things are going to change here.
posted by corvine at 6:51 AM on September 25, 2017 [8 favorites]

Mod note: A couple deleted. A) don't debate with other answerers, B) don't weirdly misrepresent what people are saying to make them sound like insane monsters. Also, see "A."
posted by taz (staff) at 6:58 AM on September 25, 2017 [3 favorites]

In re "genuinely felt emotions": Anxiety is a process, not the uncovering of real emotions. That's why, for instance, when I'm stressed my anxiety skyrockets - it's not because I am more likely to develop hair cancer or accidentally break the cat.

When my partner says, "Sorry, I am not able to listen to you game out the likelihood that your sore throat is really advanced carcinoma and how horrible the treatment will be", that isn't about refusing to listen to my real feelings. It's about refusing to take part in a process which generates anxious feelings.

What makes you ill with anxiety is the pervasive, powerful feelings that anxiety causes, which are paralyzing. When I am really anxious, I can't do the things that would, perversely, shake me out of the anxiety spiral - I can't get myself to the gym or an event, for instance, even though the distraction provided by those things would help stop the generation of anxious feelings. There are a lot of treatments for anxiety, but they all seek to break the cycle of feelings-generation.

Up to a point, it's supportive to help people process their anxieties. But when I am in the grip of anxiety disorder, processing is not the cure. Processing is the cure when I'm all "OMG, tomorrow I have to do this Difficult Thing, I am worried about it" or "The doctor says I have this condition, I am worried about how I need to treat it". It's not the cure when I'm all "What if I accidentally offended someone and they complain about me on tumblr and my boss sees it and fires me because I am a terrible person, and then we lose the house and, OMG, what will we do with the cat?"
posted by Frowner at 7:04 AM on September 25, 2017 [23 favorites]

I'm a big proponent of couple's therapy. In a situation like this, the spouse isn't aware of their impact on you and has no desire to reduce their anxiety, so why should they go to therapy? What would they talk about? There's no problem according to them. You're the one who is aware that you're experiencing discomfort and wishing for change, so you need to be in the room. Step two very, very likely will be for your spouse to do a bunch of stuff to work on their anxiety, but talking together about the impact this has on you and the family might be step one.

Another possible step one is to shift the anxiety burden more to them by setting limits and/or naming it more consistently. "I'm sorry you're feeling so stressed out about the trees. I know changes make you anxious. But I'm tired of discussing this and the trees really do need to be cut down according to a lot of people." When they're slamming doors, maybe a disapproving or alarmed look with a sentence like "can you please stop? That's not okay with me." But without knowing how they'll react, I'm not sure if this is a good idea. It may well manifest as them feeling like you're not supportive or in some other relationship-focused way, so you might end up in couple's counseling anyway.
posted by salvia at 7:05 AM on September 25, 2017 [1 favorite]

As pointed out above, anxiety is not a license to mistreat others. Your spouse has to realize that this is hurting your relationship, and might be damaging your child. You have the right to tell them that, even if they don’t want to hear it. After all, if your family breaks up, you will all have real problems to worry about.

Beyond that, I think this is a question of boundaries. They might not think they need therapy, but if you stop listening for longer than five minutes per “concern,” they might start to see things differently. It is ok to figure out precisely how much emotional energy you can devote without triggering your own anxiety and draw the line there. You count, too.

At the end of the day, we are all responsible for ourselves (and any minor children).
posted by rpfields at 7:29 AM on September 25, 2017

I'm being unsupportive because I'm basically saying "don't discuss your genuinely-felt emotions with me," which isn't okay.

Also here to say "No, this is okay" And it's tough, right, because if your spouse was genuinely neurotypical (or more normative) then yes, you should be there to discuss their emotions with them. However, they are not. And they are taking up a disproportionate amount of emotional energy of TEAM US because of their inability to manage their own emotions and, and this is important, behavior. Because really it's mostly a behavior thing. If they want to dwell and be anxious in their own head (realizing also that this is not a choice they are making necessarily, I have anxiety, it sucks) that is one thing. Banging cabinets? It's fine to say "Do not do this. I do not want this sort of anger displayed in a house I live in with my family"

And if solving that problem means they work on their anxiety, great. If they have some other way to manage it, great. The big thing however is that it's their problem to solve and it's okay to be supportive of them solving the problem while not actually being on their problem solving team. So, you say you're in therapy, I'd just maybe work on boundaries a little. Pull back on your spouse-anxiety-management work and be more clear that if your spouse is going to freak out about gardening, that is ON THEM and not on you for not being a mindreader. Anxious people suck, but if they're grownups you don't need to coddle them as much as say "I'm sorry this was an issue for you, but you need to manage your disappointment better" Part of being good at this is having ideas of what normative behavior and expectations are. Therapy and talking to friends will help with this somewhat. I wish you the best.
posted by jessamyn at 7:59 AM on September 25, 2017 [5 favorites]

I'm sorry you're going through this. My husband and I are both anxious people and going to couples therapy has really helped. He also thought there wasn't a problem. For us, it helped that I left out anxiety altogether when I talked about going to therapy. It was tough because it was so obvious to me that I just wanted to shake him, but that wouldn't have gotten me anywhere. Talking about anxiety was such a flashpoint it was just a nonstarter. So instead I was like hey I love you to pieces. I've been feeling pretty worn out lately. Would you do me a favor and go to therapy with me? I'm hoping it will make things run more smoothly. It's asking for a favor and focusing on "us" and not him. If they balk, focus on how they're doing it for you and not because you think they're in the wrong. It took several sessions of us going through arguments we had had and breaking down why we had them before he was able to be like oh, in each of these situations my feelings are really escalating the situation unnecessarily. Sometimes you need to hear these things from someone that isn't your partner. And it has taken work for me too, admitting my part in not creating good boundaries and not adding fuel to the fire when things are getting tense. Good luck.
posted by Bistyfrass at 8:08 AM on September 25, 2017 [6 favorites]

I spent nearly 7 years in a relationship with a profoundly anxious partner who would escalate his anxiety to anger - not at me, but around me in general. And, like you, I spent a lot of time walking on eggshells and trying to manage his feelings and manage the environment so that nothing would set him off. I suggested he seek counseling or a therapist A LOT after a family health crisis set things off in a serious way and I didn't feel like I could help him or cope with how he was expressing his feelings - I just didn't have the energy or emotional bandwidth after shepherding him from crisis to crisis to normal life situation that was catastrophized into a crisis. He refused, consistently. I wish I had made a more effective demand that he seek help to manage things in a way that did not involve me managing them for him, or been willing to leave earlier, because it made my life much more stressful and unhappy and nerve-wracking than necessary.

I think it is reasonable to say something like, "Hey! We're going to be in a lot of situations with a lot of stress and uncertainty as our kid grows up. I would feel supported if you would come to family therapy with me and we can work out some strategies for managing upheaval and stressors in our lives together so we can be the best parent team possible" or something along those lines.
posted by ChuraChura at 8:35 AM on September 25, 2017 [6 favorites]

Having a parent yelling and slamming cabinet doors is terrifying for a child. I want you specifically to understand that specific fact. I want you to know that your child hearing that yelling is going to fear that he or she is going to be next, is going to understand that he or she can't count on their parent to be a safe person in control of themselves. I want you to realize that being around such displays is very likely to teach your child terrible ways of dealing with their own emotions and with conflict generally.

It's okay to be anxious. It's not okay to take it out on your family. This behavior has to stop. Anxiety is not a license for mistreating your family. He can keep the anxiety untreated or he can keep you. Not both.
posted by praemunire at 9:32 AM on September 25, 2017 [18 favorites]

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