Ha. I did NOT write this post. I would call myself an expert on coping with anxiety, but being a spouse of someone with a disorder? That is ALL Mike. And he’s rill good at it too. So, he is here today with 10 Tips for When Your Spouse Has an Anxiety Disorder. He wrote it from the perspective of a husband, but his thoughts and advice are totally legit for anyone who cares for someone with anxiety. Also, he’s an engineer.
10 TIPS FOR WHEN YOUR SPOUSE HAS AN ANXIETY DISORDER
Jenna and I recently had an argument. The point of the argument is lost to me, but I remember it consisted of me hitting a breaking point over an expectation difference that was derived from something Jenna was worried about. Like any reasonable person, I responded by entering say-mean-things-mode, which quickly escalated into a full blown altercation. Don’t worry though, we worked it out and ended with these highly encouraging words for each other:
Mike: I will try to be less mean when I think you’re being crazy
Jenna: I’ll try to remember you’re a human
Surprisingly, neither of those statements contains even an ounce of sarcasm. The root cause of the escalation was that I was unable to support Jenna during a moment of anxiety, and Jenna was unable to support me when I (very poorly) expressed some emotion. This is why we suck.
Here is another pointed exchange that further highlights some fundamental differences in our thought processes:
Jenna: I am so worried about norovirus because there is nothing I can do about it…
Mike: …which is why you shouldn’t worry about it
Jenna: we see things differently.
Anyway, the reason that I bring these conversations up is because they are both related to something that affects our marriage on a daily basis: anxiety.
REALLY BORING BACKGROUND CONTEXT
This is my 8th year of being with Jenna. That’s almost 30% of my life. If I ever want to achieve my goal of spending over 80% of my life in love with Jenna, I need to do two things:
- Invest in our relationship
- Drink three High Life’s per day
The second thing is very straightforward, so I’ll focus my thoughts on the first. I need to invest in my relationship with my wife. That investment has many different facets such as spending time together, praying for each other, spending time away from each other, understanding each other, and hundreds of other things. One of the most critical aspects of this investment is the understanding and the subsequent actions that should align to said understanding.
My wife suffers from an anxiety disorder, and I need to understand it so that I can support her. Throughout her life, she has weathered many different waves of high and low anxiety. Sometimes it manifests as paralyzing panic attacks. Other times it’s just a subtle tone that I pick up in her voice. Sometimes it’s imperceptible to me, but I know she still feels it on some level. A lot of this anxiety can be assigned to identifiable triggers, but not all of it. It’s difficult to predict. It is self-perpetuating. It has an absurd stigma associated with it. Some waves come weekly. Other waves come monthly or yearly. Some waves barely rock the boat. Other waves capsize us and leave us clinging on to a shred of wood gasping for air and grasping for life. Anxiety is not fun for anyone involved. Despite all that, Jenna does a fantastic job of managing her anxiety. She has sought help from every possible avenue, and made huge strides in combating this affliction. I could not be more proud of her for that. I need to do my part to understand Jenna’s anxiety so that I can react appropriately to it.
SOMETIMES I’M THE WORST PERSON EVER
Let’s talk about how to react inappropriately to anxiety. My frequent crier card is loaded with thousands of points that I continue to rack up when I respond to Jenna’s anxiety poorly.
In any marriage, there will be tiffs, problems, arguments and major crises. Anxiety can not only increase the frequency of those issues, but it also adds a layer of complexity to each of them.
Sometimes, instead of being courageous and approaching these issues with ninja-like tact, I take the lazy road and shut down. I react by shutting off my emotions as opposed to dealing with them. It’s like I’m trying to do the right thing by not exploding with frustration, but I’m doing it without total buy-in. Instead of being happily empathetic, I may just bite my tongue and silently add a weight to the wrong side of the resentment scale. As that scale builds up and starts to become lopsided, my patience evaporates. My kindness disappears. My understanding and forgiveness fade to the level of Ebenezer Scrooge.
I know you’re thinking I’m a model husband at this point, but this isn’t even the best part. The best (read: worst) part is when I finally hit the breaking point and spew all this crap out like Mother Nature when she’s feeling particularly destructive. This is the wrong way to handle anxiety. The great hilarity of an excessively negative emotional response to someone else’s anxiety is that it makes me the same as that person. I can’t handle your emotions so I’m going to react with even more ridiculous emotions. This reaction and any others like it are just plain selfish. Since selfish is the opposite of selfless and selfless is the same as love, that makes my selfish reaction the opposite of love (transitive property, baby). If I truly love my wife, I will not only understand her feelings, but I will feel, think and act selflessly towards her every day.
IT’S NOT A TUMOR! (BUT IT IS A DISEASE)
So, I’m not a doctor, but I do know that anxiety is a disease that affects people both mentally and physically. I have witnessed its work enough to see that it is not simply a lack of effort on an individual’s part. The unfortunate thing about anxiety is that its observable symptoms overlap with many actions that are also related to poor behavior. If someone has cancer, you’re going to cut them all kinds of slack (as you should!!!) and you’re going to sacrifice a lot to make sure you care for them. One of my biggest struggles with anxiety is in trying to find the line where I need to hold my wife accountable for stuff vs. sympathizing with her plight and pouring on the extra care. Part of what makes our marriage successful is that we have high standards for each other. Jenna helps me when I drift astray, and I do the same for her. It’s just a little more complicated when anxiety is part of that equation. When I put a lot of thought into how I should act in these situations, my brain is continually drawn towards a couple simple conclusions:
- Disease or no, it’s never my place to judge my wife. She could write an entire book about my ACTUAL shortcomings that aren’t linked to any disease other than my ineptitude.
- All I need to do is love my wife by striving to selflessly care for her every moment.
These conclusions remind me that while everyone does need a kick in the pants sometimes, if I’m unsure about how to react to something I should err on the side of empathy.
IN SICKNESS AND IN HEALTH
I promise to be true to you in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health. I wonder if people would ever get married if they truly understood that promise. When you’re standing on the altar, the last thing from your mind is the absolute guarantee that you and your wife will have to endure absolutely insane challenges together. During those challenges you tend to think “well THIS is not what I signed up for” or “challenges? Sure, but that certainly doesn’t apply to a situation of this magnitude!” Those colossal issues are exactly what the vow is about. It’s amazing how the words “I DO” flow out so quickly and easily, and with them we seal the entirety of our future life on a sentence that takes six seconds to speak and two seconds to forget. I like to think back on that moment in my life and remember that however difficult a situation is, I most definitely signed up for that and more. You can choose to see big challenges as a way to grow closer to your wife, or as a way to drive you apart.
I mentioned earlier that we need to recognize anxiety as a disease and care for individuals who suffer from it. That is still true, and it is still helpful for me to remind my weak self of that, but I actually believe that there is a deeper, more beautiful, and more profoundly logical way to look at it.
Several years ago I learned an invaluable lesson from my father-in-law. It was during the time when his wife was suffering from cancer. The younger me struggled to see how he could support someone through one of the most frightening and demanding situations in life with such compassion, with such consistency, and with such a positive attitude. Dan’s approach was really quite simple. He told me that he would be perfectly happy to serve his wife every day like this until the day he died if he had to because this was the work that God had given him. His mission was directly in front of him and he knew what to do. It was pure selflessness and it was amazing.
That leads me to the deeper thought, which is tied to the root of Christianity. God sent a piece of himself, his own son, to serve a broken and thankless human race. In doing so he taught us how to love, and freed us from the drudge of selfishness and hate. Each of us has trials in our lives. Our primary mission is to conquer those trials with love every single day. That’s pretty much it.
FINALLY! A LIST OF TEN REASONABLE SUGGESTIONS
It was a struggle for me to not make this whole dissertation one long bulleted list (if you’re wondering, it at least started as one). Here’s a quick summary of things that have worked for me in dealing with my wife’s anxiety:
- Most anxiety swirls around the lack of hope and confidence. Focus on building hope and growing confidence in your wife. I can’t stress this one enough.
- Write down a list of what helps your wife get through an anxious situation. Constantly remind her of this helpful process when she needs it most.
- Put problems into perspective. If something minor is causing the anxiety, talk through the details in a real context to prove that everything is going to be OK.
- Track major improvements and examples of overcoming anxiety. Pay attention to when your wife actually feels good, and recognize those moments emphatically.
- Know when to push and when to comfort. This is so tricky to do but you get better at it with time.
- Lighten the mood. Stay positive. Crack some jokes.
- Help identify anxiety triggers, and help minimize them once you know what they are.
- Be honest about your own feelings with your wife. You have to do this nicely, but it helps to prevent resentment from building up.
- Join a prayer group. Having a wife with anxiety can take a toll on you. My men’s group bolsters my faith, which in turn gives me the strength to support her.
- Be openminded about all kinds of treatments. It’s a difficult choice to take medication or seek therapy for anxiety, but it might be the right choice. Forget about the stigma and focus on what’s best for your wife.