I hear this a lot in therapy. “She is so uptight! She just needs to chill out. But when I tell her to calm down, she just gets mad. I don’t know what to do when she gets like this!” Typically at this point, the frustrated husband turns to me for help. Through his weary eyes, he is saying “please do something!”
I can’t. Well, okay, actually I can. I can help her learn some strategies, ways to regulate her emotions, ways to help her self esteem so she feels good about herself and doesn’t strive so much for perfection. But, there is this other amazingly powerful tool that you have in your toolbelt that will, at times, work better than anything I can teach her. And it’s You. Your presence.
I love to compare anxiety to a bum leg. For some people, it just is. They just have it. It may ebb and flow, it may not be such a burden today, it may feel overwhelming tomorrow. But it’s always there. It’s nothing they are doing wrong, nothing they are choosing. If you don’t have anxiety, then congratulations. You probably have something else, like bleeding gums or tennis elbow or frequent over-indulgences with sugar or beer. Good for you that you don’t have anxiety, but guess what? Your spouse does.
My goal when anxiety shows up in a marriage is this: to join the two of you together, against this thing. This bum leg. This thing that just is. That when mishandled, divides two people and pits them against each other. But, when it is handled well, it is two people who love each other, with their arms linked together, ready to tackle this thing called anxiety. And these two people feel together, like partners, ready to tackle anything. Oh and guess what else, when an anxious person feels the power of her partner, she feels less anxious! Aha! What do you know? See how this works?!
If anxiety were a bum leg, picture a limping wife with her husband slowing down to lift her over a mud puddle. He sees the puddle up ahead and knows she may have a hard time, so he stops to help. Or she sees the puddle up ahead and knows she may have a hard time, so she snuggles up against him and says, “hey do you mind slowing down and helping me over this?”
Here is what she didn’t do. She didn’t say “You are so self-absorbed, you knew that was going to be hard for me and you didn’t even slow down. This is why I’m so alone in this marriage!!” Here is what he didn’t do, “Gosh, her bum leg is such a drag, I’m so sick of slowing down, we could have gotten there so much faster by now.” Yes, you could have my friend, but you would be alone. Quicker is not always better. But connected is. Always.
Anxiety plus connection equals less anxiety. Got it? Anxiety + Connection = less anxiety.
For the anxious partner:
If you are the one with anxiety, consider your partner as a tool. You may have to really open up and show the vulnerability of your anxiety to get this tool, called your partner, to work most effectively for you. By letting him know what your anxiety feels like, sounds like in your brain, how it manifests in your body, you help create compassion in him to help you. All of a sudden, you aren’t this uptight, controlling spouse, but rather, an eager, loving, and passionate person who wants to make a nice life for your family. But you can get scared sometimes, and overwhelmed with all the pressures of life.
For the partner of an anxious spouse:
If you are married to someone with anxiety, consider yourself as a tool. You may have been using the same faulty screwdriver in your toolbox thus far, “You just need to calm down and chill out! It’s not a big deal!” Consider that you likely have more effective tools in your toolbox. The touch of your hand, a compassionate look in your eyes, the soft tone of your voice, telling her you are here. That she is not alone. You are here for her (even if you don’t know what the heck that means!). And finally, one of your most effective tools, validating her that YES! Life can get overwhelming, and it’s okay to feel anxious. She juggles so much. Tries to do so much to make things better for your family. Of course that can get to her at times. It makes so much sense she may be anxious, even overwhelmed with all of this!
I recently took my two girls to Monkey Joe’s on a rainy afternoon. My two-year-old stood anxiously at the bottom of a big slide. One part of her wanted to be one of those kids squealing with joy as they slid down, but she was hesitant. Tentative. Anxious about the climb up. I watched as my five-year-old took her hand and stood behind her as she climbed up the ladder. Just to make sure she could catch her if she slipped. I watched them scoot hand in hand to the top of the slide. I watched her encourage her little sister and say “It’s okay, you can do it, I’ve got you.” Just the presence of her sister gave her the courage to slide. And she loved it! She just needed the presence and reassurance of someone she loved to calm her fears and encourage her to take the risk.
My children proved what research has revealed for years and years: Secure relationships with people we love give us the courage to take risks. Which means the opposite is also true, feeling insecure in the relationship with people we love can exacerbate our fear and anxiety. (This is why, as marriage counselors, we spend a majority of sessions focusing on creating security in relationships. You wouldn’t believe how “problems” get solved when two people feel securely attached).
Consider the presence of your partner. Consider their impact. Consider your own. Consider that there is a better way to use each other as tools to help. And seek to learn those ways, to use your partner to calm your anxiety or to use yourself as a way to calm your partner. You may be amazed at how it works.
- Sometimes, anxiety just is.
- Your presence (or your spouse’s presence) is one of the most effective tools a couple can use for anxiety.
- Anxiety plus connection equals less anxiety.
- An anxious partner may need to open up to their spouse in a vulnerable way to help them understand their anxiety.
- The partner of an anxious spouse has so many options to help: validation, compassion and presence.
- Secure relationships with people we love give us the courage to take risks.