Dating someone with anxiety issues or an anxiety disorder can be horribly stressful. Sometimes it can feel like the anxiety is a third person in the relationship, someone who wriggles in between you and your partner. This person constantly sews doubt and confusion.
No one prepared you for this, and you can’t choose who you fall for. There’s no high school class on dating, much less dating someone with a mental health condition.
Nonetheless, anxiety doesn’t have to break your relationship or put a strain on it to the point where it’s hard to enjoy. By understanding anxiety in general and how it affects both your partner and your relationship, you can love each other more deeply and connect in a new way. Educating yourself can also relieve a lot of the stress.
This article breaks down everything you need to know and do when dating someone with anxiety: how to support your partner, understanding how the anxiety can impact your relationship, looking out for your own mental health and more. Keep reading if you want to make sure anxiety doesn’t become a third person in your relationship.
Understanding Anxiety and What It Is Doing to Your Partner
Learning some basic facts about anxiety will help you better understand and support your partner. Psychologist Dave Carbonell, Ph.D. and therapist Dr. Helen Odessky, among other mental health professionals, recommended you keep these ones in mind:
- Anxiety is a real problem, not something made up. It is a mental health issue.
- Anxiety is normal. Everyone has it. It only becomes an issue or disorder if it is severe.
- Anxiety can be a debilitating illness that prevents people from functioning and living a normal life.
- Anxiety makes people experience fight-or-flight reactions and stress to issues that are not life-threatening, including worrying about whether a partner will cheat or leave.
- You cannot “fix” or “cure” anxiety.
- Most people who have anxiety wish they didn’t have it. They worry about their anxiety being a burden to others.
- There are millions of people who, despite dealing with anxiety, have great relationships and are happy.
- Symptoms of anxiety can occur in waves, consistently or both. People with anxiety disorders or issues can have periods of time when they don’t experience symptoms.
- Anxiety is not logical or rational. It causes people to worry about something despite there being no evidence to suggest it is worth worrying about. It also causes them to sometimes act irrationally. Your partner most likely knows this.
- Anxiety is not a weakness.
- Anxiety is treatable. Psychotherapy can relieve symptoms and teach people how to better cope with it.
How Anxiety Can Impact Your Relationship
If you are dating someone with anxiety, it is likely your partner spends a lot of time worrying and ruminating on everything that could go wrong or already be wrong with the relationship. Here are some examples of thoughts and questions that might be running through their brain:
- What if he doesn’t love me as much as I love him?
- What if he’s lying to me?
- What if he’s hiding something from me?
- What if he’s cheating on me?
- What if he wants to cheat on me?
- What if he likes someone else better?
- What if my anxiety ruins our relationship? (anxiety about the anxiety)
- What if we break up?
- What if he doesn’t text me back?
- What if I’m always the first one to reach out?
- What if he ghosts on me?
Most people have at least a few of these anxious thoughts. They are a normal part of being in a relationship, especially a new one.
People with anxiety issues or an anxiety disorder, however, tend to have these anxious thoughts more frequently and more intensely.
“Our minds take over and go directly to the worst-case-scenario,” said Michelene Wasil, a therapist who is familiar with anxiety on both a personal and clinical level.
The anxious thoughts cause physiological symptoms, including shortness of breath, insomnia and anxiety attacks. Someone with anxiety can react to relationship stress with a fight-or-flight response, as if the stress were a physical attack.
Sometimes anxious thoughts motivate your partner to act in ways that stress you out and strain the relationship. For example, people with anxiety sometimes test their partner’s commitment by using insecure strategies, said psychologist Jennifer B. Rhodes. These strategies usually address one of the anxious beliefs they have.
Let’s say your partner is fraught with anxiety about being the first one to initiate communication. He starts to worry you don’t like him as much as he likes you because you don’t send the first text as often as he does. The anxiety intensifies and he begins to believe you might never chat with him if he didn’t reach out first.
To address this anxiety, he decides it’s a good idea to ghost on you for a while. This forces you to be the first one to communicate. Maybe you’ll reach out to him a few times until he feels good knowing you would make the effort. The evidence allows him to challenge his anxious, irrational belief that you will not reach out first. But obviously it is not a healthy strategy.
Unfortunately there are many anxiety-motivated behaviors people encounter in relationships. Here are a few more examples to look out for:
- Being angry, irritable
- Being controlling
- Being distracted and having trouble focusing
- Coming across as overly critical
- Avoidant or passive aggressive behavior
Dating Someone with Social Anxiety
If you are dating someone with social anxiety, the anxiety will most likely affect your social life. You might not be able to take your partner to all of the social events or gatherings you want to go to. Like with other forms of anxiety, this could lead to arguments or cause the two of you to grow apart.
How to Cope With It
Anxiety doesn’t have to put your relationship in jeopardy. By using the right coping strategies, you can have a healthy relationship and stop anxiety from causing too much stress.
Encouraging Your Partner to Work With a Therapist or Try Couples Therapy
When you care for someone, it’s tempting to support them by trying to act as a surrogate therapist. The problem is you’re not a therapist. Trying to play that role will be emotionally draining. It could make you resent your partner.
You are not responsible for providing therapy to your partner. This is why you should gently guide your partner toward working with a therapist. A therapist can help them improve how they deal with anxiety, in and outside a relationship.
If you’re in a serious, long-term relationship, consider couples counseling. Some of the anxiety issues might be based in your relationship.
Working with a couples counselor can take the pressure off your partner. Rather than encouraging them to do something on their own, you are inviting them to join you in therapy.
Whether your partner accepts or resists your suggestion to go to therapy, you should do it yourself. It will help you develop the skills necessary to understand and cope with your partner’s anxiety. A therapist can also teach you how to more effectively support your anxious partner.
When you are dating someone with anxiety, it’s easy to forget about taking care of yourself. By going to therapy, you can ensure you are still focusing on your own mental health.
Learning How to Better Communicate About the Anxiety
Anxiety can be scary. It can make you want to avoid talking about it.
Nonetheless, one of the most effective ways to cope with anxiety in a relationship is to talk about it openly, honestly and directly with your partner.
“Having candid talks together on what they are feeling and validating those feelings is paramount,” said therapist Daryl Cioffi.
To show your partner you accept their anxiety, you need to encourage them to open up about it. Try to listen without judging, becoming defensive or taking their anxiety personally.
Managing Your Reactions to the Anxiety
When your partner talks about his or her anxiety in the context of your relationship, it’s easy to take it personally and become upset. It’s easy to interpret the anxiety as selfishness, rejection or an attempt to create distance, said therapist Michael Hilgers.
“You will want them to just get over it,” Hilgers said. “You will want them to just not worry about it.”
By practicing your coping skills, you can override this counterproductive default response into something more compassionate. Here is a scenario to help you practice:
Imagine your partner says she has anxiety about you cheating. If you take it personally, you might think she has this anxiety because she judges you or thinks you are the kind of person who is likely to cheat.
The moment you make it about you, you’ll start to feel upset. You might react defensively and say something mean.
“If you can’t bend without shaming, you will only make the problem worse,” Hilgers added.
Then you partner will strike back. Flash forward to an hour later and you’re fighting. The argument has snowballed. You might not even remember why you are fighting.
Instead of allowing the anxiety to rile you up, take a moment to calm down. Remind yourself that the anxiety most likely isn’t about you. You’re not the source of it. It’s about your partner.
Calmly address what your partner is feeling. You can say something like, “I’m really sorry you feel that way. That must be hard. Is there anything we can do to help you feel better about that?”
Managing your reactions is more important than managing your partner’s reactions, said Talkspace therapist Marci Payne. It can help you be there for your partner and set boundaries. If your partner’s anxiety causes you to flip out every time they bring it up, it will be impossible to support them.
When you are dating someone with anxiety, you need to strike a balance between being patient and setting boundaries. Once you recognize how their anxiety influences their behavior, you can cut them slack for behaviors you might not normally have much patience for.
Nonetheless, there should be limits to this. Even severe mental illnesses do not give people a license to be cruel or hurtful.
“Don’t always be the one who bends,” Hilgers said. “If you always yield to your partner’s anxiety, you will become resentful and bitter, not towards the anxiety but toward your partner.”
Here are some examples of boundaries you can set. You can tell your partner these behaviors are not acceptable, even during anxiety attacks and stressful times that cause intense anxiety:
Tell your partner you expect them to take steps to improve how they cope with their anxiety. This is another part of establishing boundaries.
Shifting Your Mental State to Relieve Stress
Anxiety causes stress because we instinctively perceive it as a problem, nothing more. This evokes anger and fear.
Clinical psychologist Dr. Carol Kershaw recommended couples try to shift their mindset regarding anxiety. Rather than seeing it only as a source of stress, they can develop a curiosity about it. Trying to understand the anxiety makes it more difficult to become angry about it.
“Curiosity can turn off worry and anxiety,” Kershaw said. “You can’t feel two [mental states] at once.”
How to Support Your Partner
There’s a difference between providing support and becoming your partner’s unpaid, unofficial therapist. A therapist isn’t going to hold your partner while they cry or take them out for something to help relieve the anxiety.
Author Janet Ruth Heller, Ph.D., has been with her husband, who has anxiety issues, for many years. When his anxiety flares up, she calmly reminds him of what is happening. She also takes him on walks with her, out to dinner or to a movie.
“These activities make him feel loved and secure, and that helps with his anxiety,” she said.
Her story shows it is possible to have a loving and long-term relationship when dating someone with anxiety. Here are some other ways you can support your partner:
Acknowledge Their Progress on Anxiety Issues
If your partner is taking steps to work on anxiety, remember to acknowledge that. Mental health advocate and speaker Alicia Raimundo, who was in a relationship with someone with anxiety, recommended partners “celebrate their strength” when possible.
Even if you are tired or feel like your partner is saying something you have already heard, try to listen carefully. It helps them know you care.
Include Your Partner in Self-Care/Mental Health Rituals
Do you have any rituals or hobbies you use to take care of your mental health? Maybe you meditate, run or listen to relaxing music. If so, try to include your partner.
“I’ve done breathing exercises with boyfriends and it’s very intimate,” said life coach Nina Rubin. “We’ve sat across from each other and breathed at the same slow rate.”
Including your partner in rituals like this can help both of you reduce anxiety in the relationship.
What NOT To Do
To avoid making the anxiety worse, hurting your partner and creating more stress in the relationship, DO NOT:
- Criticize them for having anxiety
- Dismiss their anxiety
- Enable maladaptive anxious behaviors by coddling them too much
- Try to be their therapist
- Take everything personally
- Lose your temper or patience every time the anxiety flares up
- Try to “fix” your partner
- Recommend drugs for their anxiety (you are not a psychiatrist)
Anxiety Can Actually Deepen Your Relationship
Anxiety isn’t only a source of stress in a relationship. It’s also an opportunity to understand and love your partner more deeply. The beliefs behind their anxiety is a part of who they are.
By learning about anxiety or seeking help from a mental health professional, you can support your partner and look out for your own mental health. Then your relationship can become stronger and more full of joy.