Living with anxiety, and living with someone who has anxiety, isn’t easy. In fact, it almost ruined my marriage.
When my husband and I first met, we were powerfully drawn to one another. Our mental and physical attraction created an instant connection, and we were both certain we’d found The One. This, in hindsight, was clearly the “honeymoon period,” and the intensity of it made us crash and burn even harder once we started dealing with our issues.
My husband and I have been together for 10 years, but he wasn’t diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder until a couple years in. I pushed him to get diagnosed and get help when I realized something was wrong, and I knew I couldn’t be the only person helping him. I didn’t know how to help him, until a clearer picture evolved of what we were really dealing with.
The Depression and Anxiety Association of America defines Generalized Anxiety Disorder, which affects approximately 3.1 percent of the population, as:
“Persistent and excessive worry about a number of different things. Individuals with GAD find it difficult to control their worry. They may worry more than seems warranted about actual events or may expect the worst even when there is no apparent reason for concern.”
- Restlessness or feeling keyed up or on edge
- Being easily fatigued
- Difficulty concentrating or mind going blank
- Muscle tension
- Sleep disturbance (difficulty falling or staying asleep, or restless, unsatisfying sleep)
The definition of Generalized Anxiety Disorder [GAD] seems to trivialize the severity of the issue. We all worry, right? Who doesn’t worry? Especially moms. We worry about our kids and their health, their sleep, their education, our mothering skills, our bodies, our own health, and more.
But GAD is much more than just worrying. It’s comparable to living in a perpetual state of PTSD. Your body and mind cannot relax, no matter how desperately you need rest. You have a sense of impending doom, even on a good day. You feel down and worried and irritable, even if you can’t identify why. GAD can keep you up at night, which further perpetuates the exhaustion which frequently accompanies anxiety.
It is normal to experience some anxiety. But people who have GAD have a high level of anxiety that affects them daily, some to the extent that they cannot maintain jobs or relationships.
I knew none of this when my husband and I first started dating. I knew he was a loving, quirky, funny, brilliant man. It became clear fairly quickly that he was also a troubled man.
At this point in our story, I feel the need to justify my love for him and his goodness. I imagine a lot of people with mental illness, and those of us who love people with mental illness, can relate.
My husband is a phenomenal man, a loving husband, and an excellent father to our three children. The effort that goes into loving someone with anxiety is absolutely outweighed by the wonderful person he is.
I believe attachment parenting helped him cope with the anxiety that fatherhood intensifies. He got plenty of skin-to-skin contact with our babies, and it promoted a secure attachment between them. He has always believed as firmly as I have in meeting our children’s needs, never leaving them to cry it out, and using gentle discipline.
Our children never need more than a brief, compassionate conversation with daddy to get them back on track. He baby-wears and has wholeheartedly supported me in breastfeeding. He has earnestly looked to me to guide him in parenting, and has respected me as the “expert” in our family.
I never need to pester him about carseat safety — he is on board 100%. He wants our children to be safe, and it may be influenced by his anxiety, but in this way it’s a positive thing. He doesn’t belittle me for being overprotective, wanting to co-sleep, wanting to keep my children near. He’s not the type of dad to tell our kids to toughen up or shake it off — he is tender and loving whenever they need him.
He’s also not the type of husband who lets his wife take on all the housework. He cleans, does laundry, takes the kids on adventures, and puts them to bed at night.
He doesn’t cook much, in part because anxiety affects executive functioning. This means it is difficult for him to manage the mental task of creating a shopping list, picking up everything needed, and following a recipe, all while the children come in and out of the kitchen with questions and jokes aplenty.
I used to send him to the store after giving him a fairly vague description of the product I needed (“look for the one with the yellow label”), only to have him return with the wrong item. It was frustrating. I thought he wasn’t listening to me. How hard is it to listen and pick up the right stuff? Especially when it’s just a couple of things?
But for him, it is hard. As I quickly and distractedly explained what I needed, he was internally panicking and shutting down. It was too much information. He knew he wasn’t absorbing it. And he knew I’d be mad at him for not listening. I’d describe what I needed and watch his eyes glaze over as he tuned out; me unaware that the information I was firing off at him was unmanageable.
As we learned more, we compromised. I am able to take our children to the store, complete my shopping while they talk incessantly, get exactly what I need, not forget a thing, head home and make dinner while surrounded by noise and distractions. He can’t. He just can’t. But he washes the dishes every time.
When he is feeling impatient or irritated, he uses his words to let us know, and he advocates for himself whenever he needs space. But it hasn’t always been that way. He previously didn’t have the words to explain how he was feeling, before his diagnosis.
At the beginning of our relationship, when he had a bad day, he would isolate. He would shut down completely. This often took a toll on me because I could feel it, but I couldn’t figure out what was going on.
I internalized his silence, decided he probably didn’t love me, and began to withdraw myself. This would frequently spiral into panic attacks for my husband, as he could feel me pulling away and it triggered his fear of abandonment.
We both had poor communication skills. Before his diagnosis, neither of us had the language to describe what was going on, and we were both too self-conscious to be brutally honest about our feelings and flaws. We kept our feelings to ourselves, and it almost destroyed us.
When things got tough early on, my husband would often say, “I don’t think I can do this.”
I, of course, took it really hard. I took it to mean he didn’t want to do this, that his love for me had somehow died. But that was not the case. Eventually, when I learned more about anxiety and its impact on self-esteem, I understood what he really meant: “I don’t think I’m good enough for this, I am not good enough to love you, I don’t deserve love.”
We tried counseling a couple times, but it triggered his fight-or-flight response so strongly that he shut down entirely. It was frustrating for us, and our counselor. When he was put on the spot and expected to open up and talk, it sent him into a panic. It was unbelievably upsetting because we had agreed to go together, heal, and work on our issues. And yet, whenever we would try, he’d shut down.
As soon as we got home, it was like the fog lifted; he’d apologize and ask if we could try again. It was like he had no consciousness or control of what he was doing, how he was reacting.
A fight-or-flight response is something that we all have, and it keeps us alive. It is a normal anxiety response, different from an anxiety disorder. Anxiety is a biological process that helps keep us safe. When a person has an anxiety disorder, their fight-or-flight response is present even when no discernible danger is.
The fight-or-flight response floods us with a rush of hormones and adrenaline, telling us to be aware, move, or run if there is danger. Yet people with anxiety experience this response frequently, and for no reason except that their body and brain are wired to do so. There is no danger, but their mind and body is operating from a place of danger, in some cases 24/7.
Before we were married, my husband’s primary way of dealing with stress or overstimulation was to withdraw and isolate. His friends wouldn’t hear from him, he’d quit a job he enjoyed, or he’d end a relationship for seemingly no reason.
He had always lived alone, and he concluded that he was just a grumpy, curmudgeonly guy. But it’s not true. He’s warm, loving, generous, and kind. He would isolate because after a long day of living with anxiety, being further surrounded by people was not ideal.
It might be easier for people to understand if they imagine how they feel while driving on a busy interstate, being stuck in traffic while running late, or some other stressful, potentially dangerous situation. How does it feel to have people talking to you, interrupting your thoughts which are consumed by keeping everyone safe? How does it feel to hear repetitive noises, like gum-smacking, loud chewing, or honking?
Depending on the day, a person with an anxiety disorder can feel like they’ve been in a high-speed car chase all day, and the last thing they want to do is come home to a busy household. Sensory overload is real, and sadly, people who experience it often think they’re just jerks for being intolerant of noise.
My husband is hard on himself. He gets exhausted from a fairly simple day, and I have to remind him that he’s not exhausted for “no reason.” He’s not weak or overly sensitive. He’s fatigued because getting through a day with GAD can be incredibly taxing.
In his worst moments, I saw how desperately our healthcare system fails people with mental health issues. As a veteran, it unfortunately took him weeks to get into the VA, and they cancelled his appointments a couple times. He was initially brushed off when he asked to get a neuropsych consult in order to get an official diagnosis. I can’t imagine what it would be like for someone who was feeling suicidal.
Before his diagnosis, neither of us knew why he was this way. Why was this nice, loving guy so overwhelmed by simple tasks? Why did repetitive noises bother him so much? Why did he retreat and go silent every time we had an issue? We couldn’t talk through anything without him feeling like a total failure; feeling like he’d never be a good husband, and wanting to flee.
It became too much, and I’m grateful, because it led to his diagnosis. He finally found the right therapist, who diagnosed him with Generalized Anxiety Disorder.
It was an emotional time — I think he thought he might be able to continue pretending nothing was wrong. It was also a huge relief because we finally had a name for it.
I am blissfully, gleefully happy to say that our relationship has experienced some major repairs, our communication skills have leveled up tremendously, and we are now in a wonderful place.
It took a lot of effort, a lot of growth, and a lot of forgiveness.
One of the best things my husband has ever done was learn how to apologize. Sometimes he felt such deep shame and sadness for “failing” me in any way that he was unable to apologize. He’d internalize his failure, decide he wasn’t good enough, and think to himself that he’d never be a good husband. At the same time, I was expecting him to address his mistake and make it better, but it wouldn’t happen, because he was too consumed with feelings of failure, which made him want to run away.
Now, if either of us screw up, we apologize. We confront the issue head-on. We admit our mistakes. We make time for it instead of avoiding it. The last time a fairly trivial thing hurt my feelings, I woke up to an array of sticky notes all over my bathroom mirror, filled with proclamations of love, apologies, and specific promises to do better.
We both learned more about anxiety, and we both learned numerous coping skills we never had before.
We know that after a long day, he will need time to decompress. I let him know when he won’t get that because I need time for myself instead. When I’m able to, I insist that he takes a moment to decompress alone somewhere, even if he’s resistant. Most often he feels resistant because self-care still makes him feel guilty — another component of anxiety.
We know he does better with one-on-one time with our children, rather than all three at once, so we facilitate that as often as possible.
We’ve done a monumental amount of learning about holistic mental health care, including exercise, meditation, and how diet affects mental health. The latest research shows that food sensitivities, inflammation, and gut health can all impact anxiety, and thankfully my husband is on board with any and all changes. Probiotics, B vitamins, magnesium and 5-HTP are natural supplements which, combined with diet and exercise, have worked well for him.
We know that he will be distracted and irritable during times of stress and change, and he knows it’s human to be irritated sometimes. He no longer immediately assumes he is a failure, a bad dad, and a bad husband when he makes a mistake. Admitting his irritation makes it drastically less powerful.
We’re aware that something as simple as a holiday spent with extended family, or a day without any alone time has the potential to overwhelm him. We talk about coping strategies beforehand. We talk about the reality of feeling overwhelmed. We talk about leaning on each other and tag-teaming parenthood. Instead of feeling like he needs to do it all on his own, and he’s a bad dad if he can’t swing it by himself, he can count on me just as much as I count on him.
We check in with each other frequently, especially if there’s a reason to expect more stress than usual. And we’re honest about how we’re feeling, instead of hiding our feelings out of shame. We give each other pep talks, and we ask for help when we need it.
I tell him I’m not going to leave him if we have a bad day, and he believes me. Bad days or uncomfortable moments are no longer catastrophic to our relationship.
I no longer take it personally, nor do I internalize his feelings. That’s one of the most important lessons I’ve learned — my husband’s anxiety doesn’t mean he doesn’t love me. His propensity to feel overwhelmed by his day doesn’t mean he didn’t have a good day with me.
Our journey has been long and full of ups and downs, but it has made us much stronger. We know we can get through anything, and we keep moving forward — together.
If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health, reach out, learn more, and let the healing begin.