How can socially anxious me be a better partner to totally awesome her?
May 27, 2006 10:54 PM   Subscribe

I could use some insight/support from those who suffer from generalized or social anxiety disorder and their loved ones. Despite being medicated to the hilt - which works only to the extent that it deflects and masks total public meltdowns - I am increasingly unable to tolerate social functions or recover from "weird" encounters or awkward conversations. The problem is that I am feeling tremendous amounts of guilt for essentially ditching my awesome, beautiful, incredibly supportive wife by leaving her to fend for herself at parties or any kind of large gatherings.

It is a testament to her awesomeness that she understands and accepts my plight. She's not the problem; I am. My question to you all is what I can do, within the limits of my emotional ability, to be a more supportive partner to her. She wants me around; that's such a simple and normal request, and I am racked with guilt for not being able to deliver.

(As I type this, I have just raced home from our college reunion as heat, dehydration, nerves and exhaustion took its toll on me. She's still there; more stuff to go to, more events planned. I barely lasted five hours out of a three-day reunion party. I'm alone, devastated, and feel that I have failed her and our friends. Everyone asks about me. "Why wasn't anonymous able to come?" I got home a little while ago, turned off the lights, logged onto Metafilter, and find myself calm for the first time all day.)
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (18 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I can't give you any advice on your wife but if it's any comfort one of my good friends has social anxiety and avoids large gatherings or leaves within an hour and none of us think badly of him because of it or resent it at all. It's just him, in the same way that other friends don't go dancing or hate karaoke or skiing or whatever.
posted by fshgrl at 11:38 PM on May 27, 2006

Anonymous, the first thing you must do is stop beating yourself up so badly. I'm not blowing smoke when I say that five hours of heavy-duty socializing for someone with your problem is a true achievement. You should be proud of yourself right now, not kicking your own ass so hard.

I think the most important practical thing you can do in situations like these is to schedule in breaks for yourself -- planned ones, so you have more control over the situation. That way, you can tell your wife and friends when you'll be going, an estimate of when you'll return, and treat it like no big thing. (However, make allowances for yourself. Someone with your problem is completely within rights to make an unplanned exit as needed. When that happens, again, don't beat yourself up.)

Another thing you must do is place this in perspective. You are so focused on your problem that you think everyone is wondering where you are or thinking you're a weirdo, when actually, most parties and gatherings are this way by nature; people disappear for a while, reemerge, leave early when they need to, and don't think twice about it. When you have to leave, you don't have to turn it into a production or explain to anyone but your wife a damn thing about it. Also, a lot more people than you suspect share your feelings. They may not have a social anxiety disorder, but there have been lots of discussions of introversion around here, so know that there are plenty of people who have limits on the time they can spend with others, especially in crowds. At any rate, people are generally a lot more understanding than you'd imagine -- especially your friends.

Finally, in partnerships where one person is more naturally social than another, even sans the anxiety disorder, there has to be some flexibility. Your wife may want you there, but she can survive without you for a while -- especially if you start taking breaks, so she knows you're coming back. Maybe it'll get frustrating for her at certain times, and for you, but you can both deal with that. Deal with this like any other marital conflict: making the compromises you can, talking to her openly and honestly, and accepting your own limitations.
posted by melissa may at 12:05 AM on May 28, 2006

I'd like to second melissa may and tell you to stop beating yourself up. The fact that people are asking where you are proves that you're good company. If they thought you were weird, they wouldn't bother to inquire about you.

I'm socially anxious and used to date someone who was supersocial. I hated going to large parties, so I'd often do as melissa suggested and take breaks by walking around outside by myself or volunteering to go to the store to get ice. Also, I'd concentrate on what I could do...maybe I'd be a wreck at a party, but the next day I could cook a meal for two or three of his friends, or take a few of us out for dinner. Smaller gatherings were easier for me to handle, so it wasn't hell for me and it gave him time with his friends.

Good luck, and good for your wife for understanding!
posted by christinetheslp at 5:09 AM on May 28, 2006

You have an illness. I have Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, I only have energy for a few hours of activity a day. These sorts of social engagements often provide nowhere to go lie down and rest for a while, and nowhere for people to get a break and collect themselves. So if it's worth it to me, I go for as long as I can handle, and I'm often the first to leave. Have compassion for yourself- you are sick, you don't have a character flaw.

Do you feel like you are backsliding? That you used to be able to handle 8 hours of socializing in a day and now can only handle 5? Or you could handle several days in a row, and now only one? Can I just stop here to express my exasperation with parties and get-togethers that last several days? It seems even weddings have become 3-day affairs. Could the newlyweds just go on their honeymoon already- we all have our own lives to get back to. If you are getting worse, discuss it with your doctor, this is a medical problem not a personal flaw!

Were you in a dorm-style setting or did you have your own hotel room? When you know your limitations, you can plan to accomodate yourself better. I already know if I wanted to spend several days somewhere, I would need a hotel room nearby where I could go lie down whenever I needed to and be sure to get a full uninterrupted night's sleep every night. If I agreed to go stay on campus or share a room and participate in all the activities all day and evening long, I'd be setting myself up for failure. Those of us with limitations have to prioritize. We can't have it all. What are the two things you most want to do today? Pick them, try to do them, and then go take it easy. I have some inkling of how hard this is for you because I have become more sensitive to what causes more fatigue. And boy, does socializing wipe me out.

As for your wife, it is hard to be the spouse of someone who is ill or disabled in some way. It would be nice to have you around yes, but it is not reasonable for her to expect it, and you did not say she did expect it. It is normal that you would want to return her supportiveness by being supportive as well. But you can't expect yourself to be supportive in the way you seem to want to be. Socializing is not your strong suit, it is your vulnerability. It would be like me expecting to be supportive to my spouse by accompanying him on hiking and camping trips, when I'm bedridden a lot of the time. There are many other ways to be supportive. Most women love to talk about the people in their lives and their feelings, are you a good listener? They love courteous and thoughtful gestures, of which you can provide an infinite supply. If you do want to accompany your wife to some things, and I can totally understand why you would want to, ask her which things are most important, and set a limit - how many hours you can handle, etc.
posted by overanxious ducksqueezer at 5:42 AM on May 28, 2006

Ways you can be supportive: make her dinner, or if you can't cook, get take-out or learn to make some of the things she really likes, pick up that movie she said she wanted to see, tell her how great she is more often, do more things around the house that she wants done, remember her interests in things so when you see an article or learn something about it you can pass it on to her, try to always be there when she has a problem.
posted by overanxious ducksqueezer at 6:10 AM on May 28, 2006

I had a similar problem, although perhaps not to the extent that you describe.

I got a new job which involved a lot of interaction with people. I went from being terrified to talking of strangers to having to meet at least two to three new people a day. And most of the time it was just making chit-chat and "nice weather we're having" type conversations to make it worse.

Its made a big difference to my confidence

I'm still not a party animal, and "Just not going" is still an option, but when I do go to functions I am at least a bit more comfortable.

My biggest fear is still that I won't have anyone to talk to. At least you have a partner!

I also have to do presentations to groups of about 10-20 people. If five years ago you'd told me I was going to be *paid* to be a public speaker I'd have thought you were mad.

Maybe starting small - night classes or toastmasters, or a public service organisation (rotary?) might be a good place to start 'practicing' being social?
posted by cornflake at 6:10 AM on May 28, 2006

If she's like me -- and I am in a similar situation in my relationship -- she's probably just happy that you're not staying someplace that is making you anxious and unhappy. It took me and my partner a while to determine that some of his borderline strange behavior was social anxiety related and not just him acting weird towards me and/or our friends. Part of the issue was him being realistic about his own abilities and not signing on for huge complicated events that he had no ability to realistically follow through on. Part of it was us having arrangements for the relationship along the lines of "If you feel that you need to leave, let's you and I touch base and check in and have a drink or something so that it's clear you're just taking care of yourself but still have the wherewithall to be decent to me"

We had a bad incident at one point in which we had gone swimming and he (already a bit nervous about locker rooms etc) had gotten snapped at my some person in the pool and instead of removing himself to somewhere where he didn't have to deal with her and wait for me to be finished, he left and drove home without telling me he was leaving. Our resultant discussion/fight had more to do with establishing guidelines for us (don't leave without telling me you're leaving, explain what went wrong), not trying to make him act differently. It sounds as if you and your partner have a pretty okay balance worked out, and my guess is that she's comfortable "fending for herself" at parties and the like. I know that I am. Showing up and saying hi and walking around is generally what I'm looking for -- I don't want people to think I have a phantom boyfriend -- but after that, I understand that we're different and approach social situations differently.

One thing we did, besides the touch base before leaving thing, was to do more low key socializing at home. We'd invite people over, have fairly set ideas about what we were planning (dinner, drinks, folks heading home by 11) and my partner could be around for part of it and go hide out upstairs for part of it. He'd also handle more of the set-up and take down/dishes which is what I always hated so it was a real team effort, just now always synchronous. If you're home now and she's still at her event, think about what you could get done that would lighten her load when she does get home -- laundry, food ready, take care of some other projects -- so that even though you've begged off of social situations, you're still being relationship-minded.
posted by jessamyn at 6:24 AM on May 28, 2006

About two years ago I would routinely go a month without leaving the apartment. I had no real life friends, I avoided all social engagements like the plague. Like you, I had an extremely supportive partner, and like you I was medicated to the hilt. I wouldn't say that I'm entirely social now, but I'm up to the point where I go out every two-three days for at least a few hours, I have a few real life friends here in Boston, and there isn't a weekend I'm not out and about. Here's what has worked for me:

a) I dropped into it gradually - real slowly. There are no magic words that are going to enable you to just snap your fingers and be comfortable. For people with anxiety social situations are an acquired taste at best. As others have noted you have to revel in your successes and be patient with your limitations. People seem to enjoy your company so it's purely an internal thing - the only thing you need to do is redefine your comfort level and because you have a supportive partner you can take as much time as you need to do that.

b) In my case, changing my meds worked miracles. Dropping Trileptal for Lamictal was the best thing I ever did for my social life. I don't know to what degree this is an option for you, but it sounds like your medication isn't truly working for you and you should talk to your psychiatrist about this. It took me seven years to find the right combination, so this is not likely to be an overnight thing.

c) Know where you're going, who you're going with, and prep yourself accordingly. I make sure I know what I'm doing on Friday nights and Saturdays, and starting around Weds-Thurs I begin to psyche myself up for it. I spend time thinking up funny one-liners, patches of small talk for covering gaps, some humorous self-effacing admissions, a couple of snappy insults both gentle and nasty. Do it with the specific people you'll be meeting in mind, but make some general ones for unforseen circumstances. Do this often enough and you'll develop a sizeable mental backlog from which to not only draw upon but remix from. Example from last night: I mentioned in passing I had the perfect name for a noise rock band, briefly explained the basic construction of a claymore landmine, and then announced that the name for the band would be "The Misznay-Schardin Effect." I'd thought it up on Thursday and it went over extremely well (obviously you need the right sort of friends for that).

d) Develop an understanding for your tastes and don't be afraid to stick to them where at all possible. I refuse any and all ceremonies unless my obligation is at sister's-wedding level. I hate the chaos and noise level of live shows and concerts, so I avoid those where possible (given my set of friends I can't avoid them nearly as much as I'd like).

Hope some of this helps.
posted by Ryvar at 7:10 AM on May 28, 2006

Everyone has said good things, and I'll especially second Ryvar about planning and knowing your limits. If my husband and I were in a situation like a 3-day college reunion, we would have plotted out his comings and goings ahead of time. One positive side effect of this kind of planning seems to be that, once he's got the comfort of a plan, he can be a little spontaneous and do a little bit more than he planned.

I'm used to him needing to take off, and we handle it quietly and he doesn't run off so I think he's fallen down a well, and that's all that's really important. I certainly don't take it personally.
posted by Lyn Never at 7:32 AM on May 28, 2006

It can be hard always being "the sick one" in a relationship, so I generally get happy when my spouse gets a cold / the flu. I jump at the chance to tuck him into bed, bring drinks / soups, make sure he's had his medicine, put on a movie for him, etc. You could try that.
posted by overanxious ducksqueezer at 7:46 AM on May 28, 2006

Yeah, skip the guilt. You will never be happy trying to be what someone else wants you to be, or worse yet, to be what you think someone else wants you to be.

If your wife enjoys parties and you don't, she's not "fending for herself" when you leave. It's not the ordeal for her that it is for you, obviously, so projecting how you'd feel if someone abandoned you onto your wife is an error. To be blunt, she may actually be able to enjoy the party more if she doesn't have to worry about whether you're having a good time, or avoid getting involved too deeply in a conversation for fear that you'll suddenly want to leave and she'll have to interrupt it. She may have brought you along in the first place because she loves you and doesn't want you to feel left out, but feeling as though you have to stay to support her is probably an error.

The fact that you are married doesn't mean that the two of you have to do everything together. If my significant other tried to drag me to a three-day social occasion I would probably beg off for most of it too, and I'm not even socially "phobic" per se, just somewhat introverted -- and easily bored sitting in a corner and watching other people socialize.
posted by kindall at 8:24 AM on May 28, 2006

I've always been uncomfortable in social situations, although I can adapt... it's a little like what you describe, but not quite that overwhelming. I just have this mental hitch about a big group of people that makes me nervous, even when I know and like all the individual people on their own.

One thing I've found is very helpful to me is to volunteer to DO something.... if I'm cleaning dishes or taking out the garbage, or tending bar, or what have you.... the job becomes the important thing, and the social stuff is just ancillary to that. This usually reduces my anxiety to completely tolerable levels, often to the point that I'm not really aware of being anxious anymore.

I also found that perfectionism and insecurity are strongly linked for me, and I've read that this is pretty common. Attacking the insecurity directly doesn't work, because that whole "I need to be fixed" thing comes from the perfectionism... so the harder I attack on that front, the worse it gets. Rather, addressing the deeper cause, perfectionism, helps reduce the symptom, social insecurity.

Perfectionism is also really hard for me to deal with, because I'm once again trying to 'fix' it, which makes it worse. It's a tough mental loop to break out of, and I've never completely succeeded. At this point, I strongly doubt that I ever will.

Perfectionism can be an extremely good trait to have, as long you can manage the side-effects. It's fundamentally confusing one's imagination of what SHOULD be with what IS. When it's pointed at me, it amounts to holding myself responsible for not being an imaginary person. It's a fantasy, something I made up, and yet somehow I'm responsible to be that thing.

I remind myself that it's trying to make imaginary things real that drives all progress, and that ultimately it's probably a good trait to have, but it sure has some nasty knock-on effects.

I honestly don't know if this is related to your social phobia, but maybe it might help a bit.
posted by Malor at 12:14 PM on May 28, 2006

More echo about no guilt.

CBT and EMDR, along with medication, completely has destroyed my anxiety. I'm still medicated, BTW, and hoping to wean off it, but I can engage anyone in just about any social situation, and can politely and gracefully extract myself from them. No feeling weird, no guilt, no self-recrimination.

It's not really very satisfying to socialize, but it's what people do, and I can now do it without the sweats or second-guessing or 'get me out of here' blind terror.

A supportive spouse will kvell when she sees you get better, and I'd say that's the fundamental thing. 'Course, treating her like a goddess is a good idea too...
posted by nj_subgenius at 12:29 PM on May 28, 2006

Echoing what everyone else said about not beating yourself up about this. Just learn to manage it. Leave before you reach the panic stage, so you can say goodby sociably to the host and your wife. Maybe take breaks — duck out for a walk around the block, then return. Possibly if you manage to avoid overwhelming yourself you'll gradually become less anxious, but who knows.

I think for most people it's socially more significant that you show up than that you stay for some particular length of time. Nobody expects every party guest to stay for the whole duration.
posted by hattifattener at 1:53 PM on May 28, 2006

My husband and I both have varying degrees of social anxiety. He is better than I am in some situations and I am better than him in others. Much like Jessamyn suggested, we check in with each other during an event, and if one of us needs to bolt we talk it out and either bolt separately or together.

It's also important to talk about events/outings together before you flat-out RSVP for them. It took a while to figure that one out. Since I'm often the one with the worse anxiety, I would say yes to stuff that I was comfortable with without checking with him if he'd be comfortable to go (if I can go, surely he can go!) and that's not always the case. Establishing what will happen (he will meet me there and stay for a drink and leave, or I will show up later for dessert) makes it easier on both of us.
posted by macadamiaranch at 4:16 PM on May 28, 2006

I am going to avoid the question you asked because I do not know the answer. There has been some excellent and sensitive advice regarding how to best handle this with your wife. I am going to recommend that you reexamine your medication and pursue professional CBT therapy. It is very good that the medication makes it tolerable but I have a hunch that the right medication and therapy might help to the extent that it is not just "masking the melt down". You know, I am not sure if I really think that. I can not imagine being at any social event for more than several hours. If you did five you are a hero in my book. Really, I would look at experimenting with some other medications and Tx regimes just for your own peace of mind. Five hours--wow. I went to a class reunion with my wife( 2 day affair) and was in and out constantly, back to the motel to get on the internet, finding quiet places to read and I do not have social anxiety.. I have plenty of anxiety but no one would ever describe me as having social anxiety--I just do not like being around groups of people. I consider two a crowd and three a mass gathering. Work is different--I am required to be social. Small groups of good friends where there is no expectation to entertain or be entertained--fine.
posted by rmhsinc at 5:07 PM on May 28, 2006

Have you considered the possibility that you might be an introvert? I always thought I had social anxiety, but after reading The Introvert Advantage I discovered I was an introvert. The book explains why social situations exhaust an introvert and offers ways to deal with it.
posted by Serena at 6:56 AM on May 29, 2006

This is me and my significant other. I have to say: it doesn't bother me to leave him home while I got out and have a good time. I have a lot more fun socializing and just enjoying myself than socializing and worrying about how he's doing, too.

There are occasional weird situations where people on the periphery of my social group assume I'm single because I'm never with a guy, but I can handle getting through the awkwardness and explaining myself.

I'd rather have the time I spend with my guy be fun and enjoyable for both of us. So we regularly make plans to do only-us stuff that goes beyond just hanging out at home. And I'm his date whenever he has a family-related social event.

I worry that he might sometimes wish I didn't need as much of a social life -- maybe he's jealous of the time I spend having fun without him -- but I think that's mostly my own paranoia. Overall, I'm happy with the arrangement.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 6:34 AM on June 2, 2006

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