We seem to live in a world in which anxiety is never far away. A glance at social media or news channels can quickly be unnerving. And in couple therapy, different versions of anxiety are often central to the difficulties couples face, even though that might not be obvious to the couple initially.
Before I talk about how couples can help each other with their respective anxieties, it’s helpful to think about the types of anxieties we face as humans. At one level, anxiety is simply part of what makes us who we are. Some of it is purposeful and constructive, and has an important role in our daily lives. Without a measure of anxiety, it’s likely that we wouldn’t be able to perform well. While it can be a horrible feeling, a degree of anxiety about work tasks for example, especially tasks which are new or stretching, provides us with the focus and motivation to apply ourselves.
Most of us, however, have at some point experienced a much more overwhelming sense of multiple anxieties, when everything seems to be going wrong at once and start to mount up. The worry becomes disabling, and the to-do list gets ever longer. A break is often needed, to allow some perspective to regroup, prioritise and find support and resources to lighten the load. While phases like this are a real challenge, many if not most people can remember a phase in life like this. And can come out the other side.
There are some who experience anxiety about specific issues, such as social situations, phobias or obsessions. Others can experience a more general day-to-day anxiety about everyday tasks and situations. The worry might be constant and long term, and feels out of control. While psychotherapists don’t make diagnoses for their clients, some people find a diagnosis from a GP helpful and may decide to take medication.
Within a couple relationship, in an ideal world respective partners can offer each other reciprocated support to help manage one another’s worries. However this doesn’t always go well, and can sometimes make things feel worse.
Keith has a busy demanding career in finance. The business isn’t going especially well, he feels pressure from colleagues to work longer hours to turn things around. And the business, as businesses often do, unknowingly colludes to find a scapegoat for the problems they are collectively facing. Keith is worried about failing and losing his job, and worried about his ability to provide for the family. Rather than being able to turn to his wife and share his worries, he can so easily turn away, distance himself and withdraw, physically as well as emotionally. Lauren doesn’t what’s going on, and has suspicions about what he’s late into the night. She feels neglected, and reacts angrily, and makes demands and comes across as nagging. This only adds to Keith’s feelings of failure, and he turns away more.
Ideally, the anxieties faced by this couple should be seen as something they can share. Couple therapy can start this process. Even though the difficulties are ‘located’ in Keith’s world, they have the potential to affect the whole family. With the help of a couple therapist, perhaps Keith can overcome his shame in the way he’s feeling and trust Lauren to be kind. Lauren can listen openly without jumping straight to action and quick fixes. Together can start to think more creatively together about how they might get through this phase, based on rediscovering their underlying love and trust.