Anxiety is a common but very complex disorder that can pose significant challenges within a relationship. Severe anxiety can affect not only a couple’s communication, but also the way they feel about one another.
Some tend to dismiss anxiety, viewing it as a form of manipulation by their spouse to get what they want. However, for the person who is experiencing anxiety, the thoughts and feelings are real, and can’t be ignored simply because it irritates their partner.
Samantha has been diagnosed with a generalized anxiety disorder. Stressful situations with her husband
, Tom, trigger her anxiety. She feels tightness and pressure building up in her chest. Once she feels this intense sensation, it is impossible to stop. In order to relieve the pressure, Samantha tries to fix or solve the problem immediately.
Tom, on the other hand, is more of the silent type. He prefers to have a time out in order to consider the problem before discussing it. He likes to think a while then talk when he’s had time to form some opinions or come up with solutions. His style of dealing with their challenges simply increases Samantha’s level of anxiety.
Recently the couple decided to take a road trip to visit Samantha’s sister in Wisconsin. The journey was 240 miles, and the weather was unseasonably hot. After a few hours, Samantha was feeling a bit queasy and car sick. She remembered a small, clean rest stop from a previous trip and suggested to Tom that they could stop at the restaurant.
Without taking his eyes from the road, Tom asked her to find the directions on her cell phone. Instead of being happy that Tom was willing to stop, Samantha became angry, because she perceived Tom’s response as insensitive. Didn’t he understand that she was feeling sick to her stomach, and that focusing on finding directions was probably going to make her vomit? “You don’t even care that I’m about to throw up! You can’t even be bothered to find the directions yourself!”
Tom rolled his eyes and sighed. He’d heard this type of accusation a thousand times before. “I don’t even know why we’re on this trip. You know I can’t stand your sister.”
Samantha couldn’t control her anxious outburst. She was compelled to accuse Tom of inconsiderate behavior. Tom was tired of hearing it, and was determined not to be manipulated by Samantha’s needs. Within moments the conversation was out of control. This type of situation happens within every relationship, but when one partner has anxiety, it is much more difficult to defuse the situation.
Once Tom mentioned his dislike of her sister, Samantha began to worry. Her thoughts moved with lightning speed from her car sickness to believing Tom was blaming her for making him go on the trip, wondering how he would behave when they got to their destination, and finally being certain that the weekend was ruined. Her demeanor rapidly transformed from worry and fear into anger. Was it too much to ask for a nice weekend on the lake with family? It’s not as though Tom ever went out of his way to plan a trip for them. She was doing her best, and he was just an ingrate. Samantha felt the familiar pressure in her chest, and she had to let it out by telling him exactly how she felt. From prior experience she knew it would not go well, but she powerless to stop.
An Alternate Ending
Trying to control anxiety in the moment is extremely difficult. However, there is one effective tool to help calm the anxiety – focus on the emotional needs of each participant in the conversation.
In the case of our road trip couple, the burden was on Samantha to quell her rising anxiety. As soon as she felt the familiar tightness in her chest, she could have begun focusing on addressing both her concerns and Tom’s. For example, instead of becoming offended and angry, she could have responded, “Tom, I know you are driving and need to concentrate on the road and keep us safe. But I have some motion sickness, and I really don’t feel well. I can’t search for the rest stop right now.”
Notice that Samantha addresses both her emotional needs and his. Tom wants help to search for the rest stop. If she finds the directions, that is helpful to him, and meets his emotional need. Instead of blurting out her feelings first, she slowed down and met Tom emotionally by showing that she understood his request, then explained her own situation and why she couldn’t help him in that moment. The tone and content of the conversation did not escalate Samantha’s anxiety, nor did it cause Tom to react with anger or defensiveness. He understood that she wanted to help him, but couldn’t.
This simple tool is very powerful when applied in the correct context, and can even defuse rising anxiety. Instead of blurting out needs or feelings, it addresses the needs of the other person, which makes them open to hearing the other side of the conversation. Communication with a partner who suffers from anxiety can be difficult, but knowing how to structure a conversation can be an ally in managing this complex disorder, and can help to improve the relationship.