As a couples therapist, I’ve worked with many husbands throughout the years who say a big problem in their marriage is their wife’s anxiety.
Men can certainly experience anxiety as well, but I see more women present with anxiety. This falls in line with scientific research which consistently shows that women are 1.5-2 times more likely to be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder.
To help reduce a wife’s anxiety, a husband can validate his wife’s fear even if he doesn’t share it. The husband should not try to fix his wife’s anxiety or make the issue about himself. Instead, he should show empathy, be curious about her fears by asking questions, and paraphrase back her worries to show he hears her.
This is a particularly tricky dynamic because for a lot of men, when faced with a problem, their instinct is usually to fix it. But anxiety – especially someone else’s anxiety – isn’t as simple as going out and buying the right tools from Home Depot.
So, let’s dive into how each partner can support themselves and each other in this situation.
Talk About Your Wife’s Anxiety
So often, I hear from men that they avoid talking about their wives’ anxiety for fear of making it worse. They hope that by not bringing it up, it’ll be forgotten or at the very least minimized.
In reality, the opposite is true.
Anxiety is based in fear, and fears tend to grow in the dark.
Instead of ignoring your wife’s anxiety, lean into it. By talking about what’s triggering your wife’s anxiety in a helpful and supportive way, you’re being an ally – someone she can trust to face her fears with her.
There are two things I want to clarify:
- Struggling with anxiety is nothing to be ashamed of. More often than not, at the root of anxiety is a deep care – for yourself, your partner, your family, and your loved ones. And regardless of what’s triggering the anxiety, the experience of being afraid and anxious is really tough. Recognizing your anxiety for what it is and getting help doesn’t make a person weak, it makes them brave.
- Having a partner with anxiety is not easy. True, you’re not the one with anxiety. However, you’re likely dealing with your own difficult emotions. Maybe you’re afraid for your relationship since you don’t know how to help, and everything you do seems to be wrong in your partner’s eyes. Or maybe you feel like your own desires and fears are never big enough or important enough to matter – as if your own problems have been eclipsed by those of your wife. Maybe you feel controlled by your wife’s requests. This isn’t an easy position to be in, and you don’t have to remain silent, frustrated, and feeling powerless.
Ok, now that we’ve cleared that up, let’s get into the meat of it. How can you support your partner who’s feeling anxious? And how can you, as the anxious partner, continue to connect with your spouse?
How Do I Help My Partner With Anxiety?
When faced with an anxious wife, men usually respond with defensiveness, stonewalling, and resentment.
Partly because you’re left feeling powerless in the face of your wife’s anxiety.
And partly because anxiety can lead your wife to behave in ways that you may perceive as controlling or nagging.
Does she call you frequently to check why you’re not home yet? She’s probably worried about your well-being.
Does she hound you about the money you spend eating out for lunch every day? She’s likely feeling anxious about finances.
Remember, anxiety is about fear.
Even if you don’t share that same fear, you can validate your partner’s fears. Validating doesn’t require agreement. It simply means acknowledging that these feelings are her reality, and that feeling scared and anxious is difficult for her, no matter the cause.
When you’re in the middle of dealing with your partner’s anxiety, do your best to breathe and stay calm.
Chances are, it’s nothing personal against you.
Anxiety takes healthy concern to a new level. When your wife is triggered, she’s operating from a fight-or-flight standpoint. As she’s thinking about safety or finances, her heart may start to beat a bit faster, her thoughts may race, and she may start taking quick shallow breaths.
Be Your Partner’s Stress-Reducer
Here’s the good news:
While you can’t fix your wife’s anxiety, you do have the power to make a difference in how she experiences it.
You can add to her stress and anxiety by becoming angry, defensive, and shutting down.
Or, you can be a stress reducer – a safe haven for your wife when she’s battling the storm. The key is to listen to your wife the way she wants to be listened to.
In order to do this, there are four things I want you NOT to do, and three things I want you TO DO in your conversations with your wife about her anxiety.
What NOT to Do When Your Wife Is Anxious
When you’re in the thick of it and your wife is feeling anxious, there are four things I see husbands attempt that inevitably backfire. When you’re talking with your wife about her anxiety, keep these four things in mind as what NOT to do:
1. DON’T try to fix or solve whatever is going on.
Now, I know I’m stereotyping here, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that men really want to do this. You want to fix it.
If your wife is worried about you going out with your friends, you might say, “Fine, I won’t go!”
If your wife is worried about how you’re loading the child car seat, you might just stop doing it, thinking that if she wants it done a certain way she can do it herself.
Problem solved. Right? Not so fast.
These types of fixes lead to resentment (on both sides), and can end with both partners feeling like they can’t do anything right, or can’t express how they’re feeling without having to take on yet another task.
Rest assured you don’t need to have a solution or a fix for your wife’s anxiety.
2. DON’T make it about you.
When your wife is in the middle of something triggering her anxiety, it’s universally unhelpful to say things like, “Your anxiety is driving me nuts!” Or, “Do you know how hard it is to live with this?”
Becoming defensive or dismissive is another potential pitfall in this category. Resist saying things like, “You call me nonstop!” Or, “We have enough in savings, so don’t worry about it.”
While your feelings and perspectives are valid, there’s a better way to talk about them, and we’ll get to that next.
3. DON’T be judgmental.
Avoid saying things like “Normal people don’t worry like this.” Or, “You just need to relax and stop being so controlling.”
These phrases, while they may be well-meaning, can be extremely hurtful. And chances are, when you approach your wife’s anxiety from a judgmental place, neither of you will leave that conversation feeling supported or understood.
4. DON’T side with someone else when approaching your wife’s anxiety.
Avoid bringing other peoples’ actions and opinions into your conversation. For example, stay away from comments like “None of the other spouses are calling all day.” Or, “Our kids are so tired of your anxiousness.”
Making comparisons or talking about how your wife’s anxiety is possibly affecting other people can add to her anxiety, and pile on feelings of guilt and shame.
What TO DO to Support Your Wife
There’s always more to understand about someone’s anxiety. The key is to remain calm and curious. Remember, you don’t have to come up with exactly the right thing to do, or the right thing to say. What matters is listening and connecting.
Here are three things to do when you’re having conversations about anxiety:
1. DO Show Empathy.
Brené Brown is a leading expert on the subject of empathy. She describes empathy as, “Feeling with someone.” This means being willing to see things from their perspective and sit with them in their difficult feelings.
Empathy can be a challenging concept and is easily confused with sympathy. Here’s a great Brené Brown video clip I share with my clients to explain the difference between empathy and sympathy:
“Rarely can a response make something better. What makes something better is connection”
– Brené Brown
2. DO be curious.
Ask open-ended questions, like these:
What’s bothering you the most?
What are you telling yourself might happen?
What other feelings are you experiencing besides anxiety?
Have you felt this way before?
When was the first time in your life you remember being anxious?
Were you anxious a lot as a kid?
What purpose does your anxiety serve for you?
When you start a conversation from an open and curious place, you lay the groundwork for having a productive conversation. Remember not to interrupt, and instead listen to everything your partner has to say.
3. DO paraphrase and reflect back what you hear.
While it may feel silly, this step is incredibly important. It allows you to know you’re on the same page as your partner, and makes her feel heard and understood.
You can say things like, “I want to make sure I heard you right. You said that when you get really anxious it feels like the air has been pulled out of your lungs and you don’t know what to do. Is that accurate?”
Or, “So, I want to make sure I have the connection here. You were worried a lot about cleanliness when you were a kid because your mom was sick a lot and you worried about her. Is that right?”
Husbands: Your Emotions and Needs Matter Too
Now, this next step can be challenging since it brings out feelings of vulnerability, but it’s absolutely crucial to have a sustainable relationship.
What I’m asking you to do is identify your own emotions and ask for what you need. After you’ve listened to your wife’s experience, then it’s time to find a solution that works for both of you.
To understand more about what you need, ask yourself these questions:
- Am I becoming resentful of my wife’s anxiety?
- Am I sacrificing something too important because of my wife’s anxiety?
If the answer to either of these is “yes,” then it’s time to ask for what you need. This could include things like:
- Your wife going to individual therapy.
- You both going to couples therapy.
- Your wife receiving an evaluation from a medical professional.
- Having an outlet to be social.
- Being able to return to the workplace or return to travel.
- You (or your wife, or both) trying meditation, mindfulness, or yoga.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this blog, having a partner with anxiety is difficult for both of you. Make sure you’re practicing your own self-care – things like:
- Working out.
- Eating well.
- Seeking help from a couples therapist.
- Asking your spouse to listen to how her anxiety affects you as well (using the same do’s and don’ts outlined above).
Your mental health is just as important as your partner’s, and you have the power to create positive change in your life and your relationship.
Wives: Try These Steps to Reduce Anxiety
Dealing with anxiety is incredibly challenging. It can feel like it hijacks your life – like you’re not even yourself anymore.
You might even have an inkling about how it’s affecting your husband and your relationship, and yet you can’t seem to let go of the relentless fear and anxiety.
First of all, you’re not alone. Truly. In this last year, the number of Americans reporting symptoms of anxiety and depression went from 11% to 42%. That’s almost half of us.
Second of all, I’m fully aware a blog isn’t going to resolve all your anxiety. But, it can be a starting point in giving you ideas to get back the life you want. Try these four starting steps:
1. Practice Self-Care for Anxiety
While it may seem obvious, it’s easy to overlook the basics when you’re feeling overwhelmed. Consider starting with things like:
- Getting a good night’s sleep.
- Eating well.
- Exercising regularly.
- Mindfulness practices like meditation and yoga.
- Herbal remedies or prescribed medications.
Pro tip: If planning and cooking meals is where the “eating well” idea falls apart, try a meal delivery service. There are ones for all different diets now (vegetarian, keto, vegan), and the convenience is hard to beat.
Investing in traditional therapy and with a professional to gain insight and empowerment can also be incredibly beneficial.
2. Use the STOP Method
The STOP method stems from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or CBT, and is a form of mindfulness. It helps you live in the moment and deal with your anxiety in real-time. STOP stands for:
S – Stop. Pause what you’re doing and take a beat.
T – Take a few deep breaths.
O – Observe your thoughts and emotions. Name them specifically, more than just “stressed” or “angry.” Try to dig deep and really identify what you’re feeling and thinking.
P – Perspective. Consider the issue from a different angle, or zoom out to look at the big picture.
I go over those steps in a lot more detail in my post about how to use mindfulness to strengthen your relationship. Be sure to check it out. But the overall idea is to get your mind out of the fight-or-flight response, and back into rational thinking.
Even though this technique is for you to use, I find it’s helpful if your husband also knows about it. That way, if you’re really struggling, he can support you as you go through each step, and he will know the importance of what you’re doing.
3. Have Open Conversations with Your Partner
When you open up a conversation about something that’s making you anxious, use a simple three-part template that’s known as a “soft start-up.” It goes like this:
- When this happened ______________.
- I felt _____________.
- Would you be willing to _____________.
“When you came in from the grocery store and didn’t wash your hands, I felt scared about passing germs onto the kids. Would you be willing to wash your hands when you come home?”
Or, “When I looked at how much we’ve spent this month, I felt worried. Would you be willing to go over our monthly budget together and make sure we can afford everything?”
Remember, there’s no wrong or right list of things to feel anxious about. It will be different for everyone, and that’s ok.
4. Give Your Partner the Benefit of the Doubt
Finally, try to give your partner the benefit of the doubt. Chances are, he’s not trying to trigger your anxiety on purpose, and he really does care. He’s likely feeling powerless and maybe even scared for your relationship.
By taking action to alleviate your own anxiety, you’re helping yourself, your partner, and your relationship.
To Both Partners: You Can Do This!
I want you to try something:
Take a big, deep breath, into your diaphragm.
Sometimes, just reading something like this blog post can bring on big emotions. And I know there are no quick fixes or easy solutions.
If I could choose four things for you to remember moving forward, it’s these:
- We’re all responsible for our own mental health. Think about what you need to be well, then – using a soft start-up – talk with your partner about what you need and take steps to achieve those things.
- Anxiety is incredibly common – You’re not alone, weak, or weird. If you’re hoping to just ride out the storm and power through until things get better, I ask you to reconsider. Your personal well-being and your relationship are too important to put off.
- Men: listen to your wives. Be curious, compassionate, and don’t try to fix it. It’s ok not to have the answers, or have a solution! Ask for what you need. Just because you’re not anxious doesn’t mean your own needs or concerns are less valid. And remember, you can show up and have a positive impact on your wife’s anxiety.
- Women: take responsibility for your mental health. Avoid the cycle of criticism, and instead, talk with your partner about what you’re feeling. Let him into your world a little bit. When you’re feeling triggered, remember to STOP, and breathe.
Today, I challenge you both to step outside your comfort zones. Be curious, be empathetic, and focus on the connection rather than the response.
If you’re not sure where to start, or you’re feeling like you need some extra support, consider reaching out to a mental health professional today.
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