Dating Someone with Anxiety: Building Boundaries and Support
One of the most important things, when you’re dating someone with anxiety, is clear and honest communication. In this way, you can both gain greater awareness of your personal and interpersonal challenges and develop the boundaries necessary for healthy relationship dynamics. Professional treatment support is the other critical piece of the puzzle on the path of recovery.
When Ariel started dating Paul, it was all warmth and excitement for the first few weeks. But then things started to get a little tense. It was as if their dynamic was completely different when they were together compared with when they were apart. They still were in constant communication by phone and text when they weren’t together, but, in a lot of ways, it felt to Ariel that she was dating a different person from a distance. Paul would check in often but repeatedly want to know where she was or who she was with. He was self-disparaging, especially if she was busy and unable to respond to his messages for a while. The negativity seemed to get heavier and heavier; eventually, Ariel brought it up with Paul when they were together. Fortunately, he was aware of the complications she was referring to, and he was able to share that he’d been diagnosed with anxiety disorder a few years before.
Paul was nervous that telling Ariel the truth about his anxiety might mean an end to their relationship. But Ariel was grateful that they’d been able to break the ice, and she showed Paul that she was interested in how they could work together to navigate the challenges and deepen the connection they’d been starting. As Ariel came to discover, dating someone with anxiety is a lot like any other relationship: honest and open communication is critical, you need to learn how to be apart as well as how to be together, there will always be difficulties, and it’s best to get help sooner rather than later.
The Value of Open Communication When Dating Someone with Anxiety
Communication is challenging enough when you’re first getting to know someone romantically, when you’re still figuring out where you stand and wondering where they stand. When you’re dating someone with anxiety, communication may be even more unsteady and unpredictable. The relationship itself can be a trigger for their anxious perceptions. You might encounter an anger or irritability in this person that doesn’t seem to be grounded in the reality of your experiences. They may appear controlling and critical, they may be distracted and unfocused, or they may be withdrawn and passive-aggressive. All of these tendencies can wear on you both and on your relationship.
One of the most effective measures to building a supportive relationship with anxiety in tow is to foster space for honest communication and to practice it regularly. You can learn only so much about anxiety by reading and thinking about it. You need to learn about your partner’s particular experience of anxiety from them. Don’t be shy about asking questions. It will nurture this open, honest channel of communication between you and encourage them to ask questions and air some of their worries too. When doubts and questions and anxieties lie low, under the surface of your interactions, they are more likely to intensify. And passive aggression is more likely to manifest in one or both directions between you.
Here are some tips for cultivating progressive communication:
- Be careful of a relationship that takes place largely virtually. In other words, when a lot of your conversations happen through text, there is a lot more room for reading between the lines in mistaken ways and misunderstanding the other’s intentions and tones.
- Take advantage of the calmer times, when the person is in a more neutral space between waves of anxiety, to have important conversations and build trust.
- Be a patient listener. Try to withhold judgment and the tendency to take things personally.
- Encourage your partner in the positive steps they are taking, and acknowledge their strengths.
- Don’t avoid talking about their anxiety. Invite them to share, and show them that you accept them unconditionally, even as you commit to working on the challenges together.
- Be aware of how shame arises on either or both sides of the communication equation. Have compassion for yourselves and for each other.
Remember that relationship is rewarding because it challenges us to see ourselves and each other more clearly and to grow despite the stumbling blocks. The more you can embrace enlightening communication, the more you can reframe resentment as gratitude for the opportunities to grow.
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Having Patience and Setting Boundaries
You cannot be your partner’s therapist, but you can be a thoughtful listener and support system. You can’t control them, but you can take responsibility for your actions and reactions in the relationship. Patience will be a very important practice for your sake and your partner’s because it will take time and understanding to build trust and consistent communication. And you will likely run into frustrating challenges. Try to understand the difference between feeling angry and resentful about the anxiety versus at your partner. The anxiety can serve to create a rift between you, or it can inspire a cooperative partnership as you both work together to compassionately bring healing understanding, positive perspective, and progressive action moving forward.
It is true that you might allow some slack for certain actions and reactions in your partner that you wouldn’t allow with someone else, but it’s important to set significant boundaries and not enable their suffering through anxiety. They need to learn to bend too. It’s important to draw a line when your partner acts with aggression, insults you, or delivers threats and unjustified criticism or accusations. When you shine a light on this behavior that crosses an inappropriate line, you are showing them an opportunity to be more aware and focus instead on the positive mindset and direction they can take.
The recovery journey will be one of them returning to their resilience. You can help, but they need to embrace their journey, and they will eventually thrive under the growth potential and confidence and empowerment. Ask them about their boundaries as well. Let them show you what you can do that is helpful or unhelpful. Show that you can make space. And, in having these conversations, help to spark their recognition that it’s important for you both to have boundaries. When you need space, take it, and take responsibility for your own needs. Be honest about what you need and when and why you need it through open, honest communication.
Getting Help Along the Relationship Path
Anxiety disorders can be truly debilitating, but with the right help, someone living with anxiety can take part in bright and loving relationships. You are a big piece of the support picture, but it’s critical that someone with anxiety disorder gets professional treatment in order to heal the whole self. Treatment won’t be about fixing the disorder or curing it but about improving and reshaping a client’s relationship with it. The sooner they get help, the less of a chance their anxiety may result in real physical suffering, and the sooner they can start on the path toward the life they really want.
Individual psychotherapy will be the most important aspect of the treatment journey for anxiety disorders. Cognitive behavioral therapy is a common and effective approach to bring awareness to negative thought patterns and redirect them in truly positive and grounded ways. Triggers will never be altogether absent, and therapy will help a client to coexist and manage their triggers, including relationship. Medications can also be helpful to manage symptoms, but it’s best for medications to be carefully monitored and integrated with comprehensive treatment. Lifestyle changes and holistic therapies, such as relaxation techniques, yoga and meditation, music and art therapy, and recreation therapy can be woven into a complete recovery path through a residential treatment program. A comprehensive treatment program also involves peer support work in a welcoming community and a relationship dynamics program, so clients can navigate and practice interpersonal relationships in a safe and stress-free environment.
As you learn more about your partner’s anxiety and the nuances of their experiences and worries, you can encourage them to be a curious witness to their experiences too—rather than simply an unwitting passenger along for the ride of anxiety. As you talk honestly about the challenges together, you can both begin to feel empowered about the road ahead that includes personal and interpersonal growth and healing.
Bridges to Recovery offers comprehensive treatment for mental health disorders as well as process addictions and phase of life issues. Contact us to learn more about our renowned Los Angeles and San Diego-based programs and how we can help you or your loved one start on the path to healing.