Welcome to It’s Complicated, a week of stories on the sometimes frustrating, sometimes confusing, always engrossing subject of modern relationships.
The first time I had a panic attack around my girlfriend, we were in the so-called Happiest Place on Earth: Disneyland. We’d gone to California, where she’s from, for a ten-day trip over the Thanksgiving holiday — ambitious for a couple just four months into their relationship. We were most of the way through the trip by the time we got to Disneyland, and I was physically and emotionally exhausted from having met about a thousand of my girlfriend’s relatives and partaken in the kind of holiday traditions that are particular to every family but are soon draining when they’re not yours. (Let’s just say I wasn’t prepared for her grandfather to ask me, and everyone else at the table, to review the three most important events of my life.) And, for good measure, I’d had a birthday halfway into the trip, turning 29.
These are factors which may help explain how it is that I ended up dramatically telling my girlfriend, Lydia, to “leave me behind” in fake New Orleans in Disneyland and then crying on the phone to my mother, wearing an “It’s My Birthday!” button the size of my hand, as a sympathetic park employee silently handed me a complimentary Mickey Mouse–shaped waffle dunked in powdered sugar.
This sort of thing happens to me a lot; I have anxiety. And, for better and for worse, my girlfriend does not.
When I was single, my anxiety only ruined my life. It kept me off planes and at home, and I disappointed myself, but I got through it alone, unwatched. In a relationship, there is someone always around as a witness, and she often notices my anxiety spiking before I do. The first time Lydia pointed out the weird, frantic way I was clutching my hands together (a nervous tic of mine), I realized my anxiety was no longer mine alone — it affects not only me, but Lydia, and us as a couple, too. See, for example, our first Halloween together, when my stress over going to a near stranger’s party led to her decide we should skip it, which resulted in us spending the night on the couch watching Hocus Pocus, in our Scully and Mulder costumes, seething. Being in a loving, romantic relationship means sharing most things, if not everything, with your partner. But what happens when one of those things is anxiety?
In some cases, unevenly distributed anxiety can be a relationship’s death knell. Before Andrea Petersen, the author of On Edge: A Journey Through Anxiety, met her husband, her anxiety (directly and indirectly) led her to end a number of relationships. “I had a couple relationships with people who really couldn’t handle my anxiety,” she tells me. Because anxiety, like any feeling, is contagious, people who are ordinarily non-anxious may “catch” it from their anxious partners, and (understandably) might not be thrilled about it. “For a couple people in my life, my anxiety was too uncomfortable for them to deal with,” says Petersen. “In one person’s case, I think he was very afraid of his own world becoming sort of as constrained and small as sometimes mine felt.” Anxiety can create a vicious cycle in which symptoms are passed back and forth indefinitely, with the non-anxious partner feeling frustrated by their newfound anxiety, and the anxious partner feeling guilty for sharing it.
Nowhere does this cycle play out more acutely, in my relationship, than at the airport: Lydia gets agitated, I get nervous, we both feel bad, and neither of us is able to soothe the other. Lydia swears she never got anxious about flying before dating me, but if that’s true, and it is my fault, that means she’s picking up on my fear of flying well before I ever feel it. In any given trip’s preparatory stages (making reservations, packing, getting a cab, even going through security), I am the calm one, and she is the nervous wreck. We only swap once we’re on the plane. Just when she’s ready to relax, I need the most moral support.
People without anxiety may be inclined to problem-solve their partner’s anxiety, which can feel frustrating and invalidating for people who know their illness can’t simply be fixed — but equally frustrating for someone who can’t (through no fault of their own) sympathize with chronic anxiety. “It can be incredibly baffling for someone who doesn’t deal with that level of anxiety to feel very impotent,” says Petersen. It isn’t abnormal or even unfair for the non-anxious partner to feel sad or disappointed about the effect their partner’s anxiety has on the relationship, says Craig Travis, director of behavioral sciences at OhioHealth. The key is remembering that disappointment over someone’s anxiety — or the desire to change it — won’t solve it, and may, in fact, exacerbate it.
“If you’re trying to solve the problem, that anxious person, whether they’re consciously thinking it or not, is going to think they’re a problem that needs to be solved,” he says. “It’s not a problem to be solved, but more of a problem to be managed in terms of a partnership with both people.” In earlier anxious episodes, Lydia often suggested I take a Xanax, which I’ve been prescribed for flying and other acute episodes. I always interpreted it as a cop-out, a way of saying she could not and did not want to deal with me. I knew it wasn’t rational to defend my anxiety’s right to exist as a legitimate part of my personality, and I didn’t want to feel that way either. But I couldn’t help it. It took ages for her to understand that I don’t always want a solution, just as it took ages for me to accept that sometimes, actually, taking Xanax really is the best thing to do.
Given this delicate dynamic, it’s no wonder that anxiety can torpedo a relationship. (“Can” being the operative word — Lydia and I are still going strong.) In her book, Petersen cites a 2012 study of heterosexual couples in which one or both partners suffered from anxiety, which found that the partners with anxiety rated their relationships as being lower in quality than did those partners without it. (Petersen aptly describes this effect as a “glass-half-empty view of relationships.”) Partnered anxious people will very often be preoccupied by doubt about their relationships, even if those relationships are — as objectively as it is possible to be — good ones. Anxiety may be provoked by a disagreement, but may also act as instigator, contributing directly to discord.
“When [my anxiety] is really at its height, I call it an isolation chamber,” says Petersen. “The worry and the visions of catastrophe and the unending monologue of doom can really block out the experience of being with another person, and that I find incredibly heartbreaking, honestly.” As an anxious single person, I found my anxiety directed mostly toward my own health, spending ages self-diagnosing myself with unlikely conditions on WebMD. As a partnered anxious person, I direct most of my nervous energy toward my relationship, maybe only because it is now the least known variable closest to my mind. I am still worried I am going to suddenly die. But now, I also worry I will suddenly have to break up with my girlfriend — not because I don’t love her, but because anxiety is, as Petersen calls it, a “disease of doubt.”
“Something I had to come to terms with at some point is that I’m never going to be a laid-back person, and I’m never going to be a totally certain person,” says Petersen. What helped ease Petersen’s anxiety was her husband’s corresponding certainty about their relationship, and a panic-attack game plan. Jan Mohlman, professor of psychology at William Paterson University, advises couples to think of coping strategies that work for them — preferably before the peak anxiety sets in. “Collectively decide upon specific things that the non-anxious partner can either do or not do to facilitate the treatment,” says Mohlman. “The anxious partner’s needs have to line up with the non-anxious partner’s behavior in participating in the therapy.” For Petersen, what this looks like is having her husband sit next to her, hold her hand, and “not talk.”
In my case, I find it soothing when my girlfriend rubs my back, or walks me through some deep-breathing exercises. But the best thing she can do for my anxiety, hands down, is to simply accept it — for us, the biggest revelation has been that she is okay with me leaving a social gathering before her if I need to, and that I am okay with her staying. My anxiety has been hovering around me for ages, and it’s probably not going away anytime soon. All I can do is treat it with Prozac and therapy, communicate it as clearly as I can, and hope that what’s left can be managed by both of us, together.