What to do When Your Partner Doesn’t Understand Your Anxiety

This article is for informational use only, should not be considered clinical advice, and does not establish a patient-therapist relationship.

Anxiety can impact most intimate relationships. This is especially true when our partner doesn’t understand it. And when this happens, it can make us more to be anxious about, it can increase conflict, which can leave us feeling isolated and alone.

In this article, I offer some things to think about when trying to get your partner to understand your anxiety and when trying to increase your connectedness despite the anxiety

Express Your Needs Assertively

When our needs aren’t being met, a normal feeling to follow is hurt. And when we’re hurt, common reactions are to withdrawal or to lash out. Both will push partners away.

One way to avoid pushing our partner away is by becoming more aware of our communication style. We can do this by thinking of it on a spectrum.

On one end of the spectrum is passivity. On the other end is aggression. And in the center is assertiveness.

Another way to think about these communication styles:

  • Passive = caring about our partner’s needs or wants more than our own
  • Aggressive = caring about our own needs and wants more than our partner’s
  • Assertive = equally caring and considering our own needs and wants, and our partner’s

Being assertive is easy when there’s not a lot at stake. Being assertive is also easy when we are emotionally regulated.

When talking about our needs with our partner, there’s a lot at stake. Our partner could dismiss what were saying. Not only does that hurt, but it’s scary because we can quickly feel that the relationship in on the line. It’s easy to get emotional. As a result, it’s easy to close up or lash out.

One tip for being assertive around sensitive subjects is to use I statements. You can think of it as a formula:

  1. When I see or hear X
  2. I feel Y

For example:

“When I get advice when sharing my anxiety I feel frustrated and unheard.”

I like I statements for a few important reasons:

  1. It forces us to take time and think about what we want to say.
  2. Usually when we take time to think about what we want to say, it also helps us become emotionally regulated again.
  3. The listener is less likely to get defensive and more likely to hear what we have to say.

Make a Specific, Solution-Focused Request

Instead of focusing on what doesn’t work, try to focus on what does work or what would work. And then ask that of your partner.

Compare the two requests:

  • I hate when you give me advice when I talk about my anxiety.
  • Do you mind if I think outload for a couple of minutes. I just need to get this worry off my chest.

The first is critical. Our partner is likely to jump into explaining and defending the reason to why they give advice. More importantly, it’s only focused on what we don’t want. It leaves our partner hanging on what to do.

The second is straight to the point and focused on what we need. It gives our partner a road map to what we need.

Talk About Your Anxiety When Your Not Anxious

When we’re anxious, we’re focused on potential threats. It’s easy for anxiety to drag us around, for us to believe our thoughts, and for us to seek out reassurance (even though reassurance usually doesn’t work).

When we’re caught up in our anxiety, it’s going to be hard for our partners to listen and to avoid giving advice. Why?

You can think of our brains as having two sides: the emotional side and the logical side.

When we’re anxious, we’re caught up in the emotional side. Most people around us, including our partners, think the antidote to the emotion is to logically explain the person out of it. This rarely works. And more often, just makes the emotional mind more emotional.

Instead, it’s best to have a conversations about our needs when everyone is tapped into the logical mind, not the emotional.

For example, compare these two statements:

  • I can’t think straight. I’m not prepared for the presentation tomorrow, my coworker is sick, and I don’t have enough time
  • You know when I was anxious the other day? I’ve been really struggling with anxiety lately

The first one we’re in the anxiety. Most people around us are going to give us advice or stay away.

The second one is outside the anxiety, talking about it. We’re more objective. It allows you and your partner to have an objective conversation about how to talk about anxiety when you’re in it. You’re talking about talking about it. Your making a plan for the next time anxiety hits.

The Idea of Co-creation

When our needs aren’t being met in a relationship, it’s common for us to fall into black and white thinking, a thought distortion that results in oversimplified, extreme thinking. It makes it impossible for us to imagine someone else’s perspective.

Black and white self-talk might sound like:

  • “It’s my partner’s fault. She has no idea what I’m going through.”
  • “My partner doesn’t give me any support at all. He’s so selfish.”

And at the core of this self-talk is blame. Something Western culture has perfected.

When working with couples and even individuals, part of my job is helping people move away from a blaming perspective (i.e., black and white thinking: it is all one person’s fault) and towards a more balanced, realistic understanding that both of the individuals are playing a role in the dynamic. It’s co-created.

Moving toward this understanding requires two things: self-awareness (i.e., what am I doing to contribute to this dynamic) and empathy (i.e., how is this impacting my partner).

Yes, you have unmet needs from your partner, and at the same time, it’s very likely your partner is feeling that their needs aren’t being met either.

To get into a co-creation mindset, we need to step outside our own perspectives and place our own needs and desires on hold for a moment.

Here’s some possible ways your partner might be feeling:

  • Failing as a partner by not being able to relieve your anxiety
  • Feeling overwhelmed or exhausted from the anxiety
  • Helpless not knowing how to help
  • Feeling that the anxiety hijacks time together that could be more joyful

One experiment is instead of trying to get your partner to meet your needs first, try to understand what their needs are and align with theirs instead. By validating our partner’s experience we are treating them how we want to be treated. And it’s not uncommon that we get it back in return.

Some examples of aligning with potential needs of your partner:

  • I’m starting to realize I’m making you responsible for relieving my anxiety
  • I’m imagining that it’s hard to know how to help. I talk about my anxiety, you offer solutions, but I shoot them down. That must be confusing.

By doing this, we move from a place of conflict and blame and align with one another.

Even though every couple has different needs and preferences, most individuals in a relationship can agree on a few things: they both want to feel understood, validated, and accepted by their partner. If you can get the conversation there, it’s likely to be very productive.

Important Questions to Ask Yourself

  • How would you know your partner is understanding your anxiety? Try to be specific:
    • What would your partner do?
    • What would your partner say?
    • How would this impact you?
  • Do you think your partner can understand your anxiety to the level you hope?
    • Is it a realistic hope or is it more idealistic?
    • Is there a difference between your partner understanding your anxiety vs your partner just being supportive?
      • Do you need both?
      • What would support from your partner look like?
    • Are there other people you can get the understanding from instead?
  • Try to place yourself in the shoes of your partner; what do you think is going on for your partner?
    • Do you think your partner is being dismissive? Do you think your partner doesn’t care?
    • Is it possible your partner is annoyed or burnt out from your anxiety?
    • Does this lack of understanding exist just around your anxiety or do you feel it’s widespread on many issues?
  • Are you seeking reassurance from your partner?
    • What sort of reassurance from your partner are you looking for?
    • How might your partner feel when you seek reassurance?

When to Seek Help

It’s never too soon to get a second opinion from a professional counselor. Seeking counseling and therapy for your anxiety can bring relief by addressing a number of different things behind you not being understood by your partner:

Seeking therapy can help relieve symptoms and increase coping strategies to deal with your anxiety

Without counseling, it’s common for the partner without anxiety to feel as if their being relied on as a therapist. The partner may push away, which increases the partner with anxiety to feel even less support and understanding. It becomes a reinforcing cycle that can build resentment on both sides

By dealing with your anxiety in counseling, you will not only depend less on your partner, but you will also show that you’re working hard to deal with it. This alone can increase your partner’s empathy, which in return may cause you to feel support from your partner.

Seeking therapy can help find ways to communicate your needs to your partner

It’s common for us all to get stuck in our own perspective. Counseling is a great way to become more objective on our situation.

So often it can just be minor tweaks to how we’re communicating with our partner. Maybe we’re using words that make our partner more defensive. Or maybe we can present our needs in a way that make it easier for our partner to understand.

About the Author

Brian O'Sullivan, M.S., LMFT

Brian O'Sullivan is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist dedicated to helping people overcome their social anxiety. Brian uses Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to help clients better understand the role our thoughts, behaviors, and emotions play in either maintaining and calming anxiety.

This article is for informational use only, should not be considered clinical advice, and does not establish a patient-therapist relationship.