Category: Couples Therapy

6 Things Anxious Partners Can Do To Improve Their Relationships

Anxiety has a way of invading all aspects of life and can have a significant impact of romantic relationships. Those with anxiety feel misunderstood, invalidated and fearful of rejection while their partners feel alone, impatient and unsupported. If you struggle with anxiety, here are few things you can do to help lessen the impact.

Reality Checks. You might think you can read your partner’s mind; you can’t. Anxiety is great for creating a narrative but that narrative is rarely based in reality. So the next time you are making up a story about what your partner must be thinking, check it out. I’m a fan of something like, “Hey dear, I know this might sound weird but I’m worried you are _____________. Should I be worried?”

Be Vulnerable. I don’t know who first used the saying “name it to tame it” but Dr. Dan Siegel has popularized the idea that by naming our emotions we can reduce the degree to which they overwhelm us. It also helps put things in context for our partners. Knowing that you're upset about something at work and not at your partner will help them to respond with compassion rather than defensiveness.

Make Sacrifices. If you want to be in a relationship and you have anxiety, sometimes you're just going to have to do the thing that makes you anxious. If your partner is always the one doing the accommodating or altering plans they're going to eventually become bitter and resentful. Acknowledge your anxiety and then do it anyway.

Ask for Help. The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that up to 18% of adults in the United States suffer from some type of anxiety disorder. And while anxiety disorders are highly treatable, less than a third of those suffering seek out help. It’s important for your partner to see that you’re trying; so try.

Seek Reassurance (sometimes). “Are you ok?” “Is anything wrong?” “Do you love me?” “Are you sure you’re ok… How about now?” Get it? Dial it back a few notches. If you can't, it will only lead to your partner distancing from you which is exactly what you're trying to avoid. It’s not your partner’s job to relieve you of your anxious thoughts. That’s your work; most of the time.

Find Ways to be a Support. Relationships like balance. If your needs are taking up too much space in the relationship it doesn’t leave much room for the needs of your partner. Anxiety has a way of keeping you focused inward, making it easy to miss what’s going on with the person right next to you. Sit down and make a list of things you can do to make your partner’s life easier. If you need to, set reminders in your phone to ensure follow through.


If Anxiety is Impacting Your Relationship, Let's Talk

Differentiation: separate but connected

Do you struggle with feeling like you have lost your identity to you relationship? Do you have a long list of hobbies, interests or activities that you used to do before your relationship? Is resentment creeping in between you and your partner? If you can answer yes to any of these questions, keep reading.

To the best of my knowledge, Murray Bowen, M.D., the father of Family Systems Theory, was the first clinician to describe the concept of differentiation as it pertains to family systems. Bowen maintained that people with a poorly differentiated “self” depend so heavily on the acceptance and approval of others that either they quickly adjust what they think, say, and do to please others or they dogmatically proclaim what others should be like and pressure them to conform. In contrast, a person with a well-differentiated “self” recognizes his realistic dependence on others, but he can stay calm and clear headed enough in the face of conflict, criticism, and rejection to distinguish thinking rooted in a careful assessment of the facts from thinking clouded by emotionality.

David Schnarch, Ph.D. has focused Bowen’s concept of differentiation more specifically to sex and intimacy in his book Constructing the Sexual Crucible: An Integration of Sexual and Marital Therapy. Schnarch believes that learning how to be differentiated in romantic relationships leads to becoming more differentiated in the rest of your life. “ ‘It’s not that hard to be independent when you’re alone’, Schnarch observes. ‘But pursuing your own goals and standing up for your own beliefs, your personal likes and dislikes, in the midst of a relationship is a far tougher feat. Once achieved in the context of a relationship, differentiation becomes possible outside as well. If you can stand your ground with your partner, who means so much to you, you can defend your turf at the office and maintain your principles when pressured.’ ” In this way, making the decision to value differentiation in your relationship can have life-altering impacts.

So how can we create relationships that have a healthy level of differentiation? Here are the four steps, according to Schnarch:

1. Maintain your own values and goals, even if your partner is pressuring you to do otherwise.

2. Learn how to soothe yourself when you’re feeling emotional or anxious. Don’t rely on your partner to calm you down.

3. Don’t shy away from confrontation. Stay calm in the face of difficult people or situations.

4. Keep going, even if you make mistakes. Don’t let one little setback prevent you from trying to grow.

One thing to keep in mind is that differentiation is a dynamic rather than a static concept. You never check the differentiated box and move on. Some times you will be able to hold onto yourself better than at other times. If you would like to learn more about differentiation and how to grow towards being separate but connected in your relationships contact me here.

What’s On My Bookshelf

austin-counseling-bookshelfI have my parents to thank for instilling a love of reading in me from a young age. I read a lot; print, preferably hard cover. Allowing for the fact that books mean different things to different people and even different things to the same people depending on where they are at in life, this list contains no “must reads.” It’s simply a catalogue of a few of the books I have read over the years that taught me something about myself or others or touched me in ways for which I am thankful.

Passionate Marriage: Keeping Love and Intimacy Alive in Committed Relationships

I was first introduced to this book in 1995 during grad school. It is a dense, heady piece that is work to get through. That being said, chapter 2 is some of the best writing on the concept of differentiation that I know of. This is definitely a book that will take on new meaning with each reading.

Allies in Healing: When the Person You Love Was Sexually Abused as a Child 

Laura Davis has done an exceptional job in creating this resource for partners of victims of sexual abuse. Super tough subject that can be an extremely challenging dynamic to navigate. If you are faced with this issue, I highly recommend this book and also encourage you to reach out for help from a professional.

I Thought It Was Just Me: Telling The Truth About Perfectionism, Inadequacy and Power

If you haven’t read any of Brené Brown’s work start here; then go buy the rest. Brené is one of the leading experts on vulnerability and shame and her work has begun a movement of people striving to live more authentic lives. Her writing style is personal and engaging and I have yet to talk to anyone who has read the book and not benefitted from it.

Cinderella Ate My Daughter

This is a thought provoking piece from Peggy Orenstein for anyone parenting a girl. You may or may not agree with some of her conclusions but it is a good read for those concerned with the health, development and future of today’s girls.

Too Good To Leave, Too Bad To Stay

If you are struggling with ambivalence about a relationship this book is a great resource for sorting through conflicting feelings and hopefully gaining some clarity. It offers practical steps and is a relatively quick and easy read.

Seven Principles For Making Marriage Work

John Gottman, Ph.D. is one of the leading experts in long term relationship research. He’s got a lot of stuff out there – books, card games, weekend workshops – but his Seven Principles book is a good place to start. It is a pretty easy read and most chapters include specific tasks and exercises for you and your partner to complete.

Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear

Elizabeth Gilbert, of Eat, Pray, Love fame, offers a unique perspective about creativity and the fears and insecurities that prevent folks from connecting with and pursuing the things that bring them joy. This is a practical easy read full of good stuff.

Wired For Love

Stan Tatkin, Psy.D. is currently one of the leading experts in integrating neuroscience and psychology. He’s a pretty big deal. If you want to dive into attachment theory, emotional regulation and understanding your dynamics with your partner this is a great resource.

Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow

I can’t count the times I have pulled this book out and read from it aloud to a client who was struggling with grief and heart ache. If you are struggling with how to emerge from suffering I think you will find this book helpful.