One of the reasons I love my partner is also the biggest issue in our relationship. I have anxiety, and he doesn’t. I’ve dated anxious people before, and while I felt we really “got” each other, we could provoke each other’s phobias and end up spiraling. My new partner challenges me to face my fears and worries, but how do I help him understand I’m not capable of doing this all the time? I have days where being a person in the world is too hard, and he’s started to say things like, “I don’t want to enable you/ this behavior.” I’m recently in therapy, and we’re both hopeful that it will help. But how do I express that I may never get better, that this is just part of who I am?
Anxiety is a huge asshole sometimes. Relationships can be problematic for people with anxiety, whether you are with someone who "gets it" or not. You being concerned about this dynamic between you and your partner means that you are taking your anxiety seriously and are committed to making progress. It sounds like you are also trying to have some realistic boundaries and that's massively important.
You said that anxiety is a part of who you are. You are actually highlighting the difference between "state" and "trait" anxiety. State anxiety is the type of anxiety that you have as a reaction to something. It's your day-to-day anxiety that may flare up and cause panic attacks, or make you wake up in the middle of the night worried about being tired the next day if you don't get enough sleep. It's a temporary state that comes and goes depending on the situation.
Trait anxiety is more about you and your personality. Anxiety is not just a momentary experience for you, but it's also the lens through which you view the world. It plays a role in how you understand and relate to things in your life. As you may be able to guess, state anxiety is much more readily changed than trait anxiety.
Your partner is willing to support you and challenge you, but it's also important for him to try to understand and educate himself about what you are experiencing. Perhaps he would be willing to check out some blog posts, podcasts, or Youtube videos that you feel capture the experience well. With our loved ones, our ability to communicate exactly what we are feeling can sometimes fall through, so it helps to have some resources on hand that you can point to in those moments. Therapists and psychologists are also often willing to meet with partners or family members of their clients to help provide education and advice. He will never be able fully understand how shitty anxiety makes you feel and how guilty you feel about being anxious in the first place, but with some education, he should be able to recognize that it's not as simple as "turning it off."
That said, being challenged to face your anxiety is a good thing. Anxiety feeds off of avoidance. When our anxiety causes us to avoid a situation, it reinforces our unrealistic thought patterns. Anxiety says, "See? I kept you safe again. That would have been really dangerous, but now you don't have to worry about it because you're safe here with me. You should give me more control so that I can keep protecting you!" Being pushed to directly confront your anxiety can be a great way of calling bullshit on its lies and teaching your body that you are not going to have a heart attack when you show up to a get-together and don't immediately see somebody that you already know.
BUT you need to be reasonable. Anxiety is exhausting and constantly facing your fears can really drain you. Sometimes it is smart to take a break and not fight so hard so that you can recuperate and invest in your future efforts. Clearly you are willing to put in the work, as demonstrated by the fact that you started seeing a therapist. You are far from lazy, but the process is not easy. You can learn how to reduce the impact that anxiety has on you, but you aren't necessarily going to be able to change the fundamental structure of your personality. Anxiety may always be your default mode and that's okay. You can still have meaningful, fulfilling relationships.
Boundaries are healthy and vital in a relationship and this is even truer when there are mental health issues like anxiety thrown into the mix. You can be happy that he is willing to encourage and push you, while still being firm about your limits as a person. Understanding you is not the same thing as enabling you. He needs to learn that and trust that you and your therapist have established a healthy and reasonable level of challenge for you at this moment.
Need more advice? I feel like I'm dying at work functions because of my social anxiety. Do I really have to go?
Dr. Robert Duff is a clinical psychologist who focuses on mental health for real people. He is also the author of the bestselling series Hardcore Self Help.
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