It is quite common to fall in love with someone who possesses qualities that balance out your own. The phrase “opposites attract” describes exactly that. There are many ways in which being in a relationship with someone different is helpful. Messy people can be motivated by their cleaner counterparts, and the chronically late are often kept on schedule by their timely partners. What happens, though, when the difference between partners goes beyond a personality quirk and becomes a significant mental health concern?
Social anxiety is a condition defined by an intense aversion to social situations due to fear of being judged or rejected. People with social anxiety have difficulty controlling their worry about how others perceive them and, as a result, often avoid social situations. When social situations are unavoidable, they experience high levels of stress and anxiety, even panic attacks. Sometimes people who have social anxiety are viewed, inaccurately, as unfriendly or antisocial because of their difficulty socializing.
Depending on the severity of the social anxiety, the symptoms can take a toll on a relationship. Conflicts can arise from the various areas of life that the anxiety is affecting. Feelings of resentment arise when parties and events for couples are missed. Partners find themselves arguing about spending time with family, especially over holidays when more family members tend to congregate. Annoyance builds when work functions for couples are missed. Work events such as these are opportunities for networking and potential advancement, but may be a nightmare to the anxious partner.
Conflicts stem not only from the need to engage with friends, family, and coworkers, but also from the need to engage with each other. Performers and sports players feel unsupported when their partner is unable to show for their events; the crowds and potential for socializing might be too overwhelming. Social anxiety can force one partner to be responsible for most or all social situations, especially when the couple has kids.
As with all mental health issues, social anxiety has the potential to disrupt and negatively impact even the strongest marriages. It is possible to work together to avoid letting social anxiety ruin a relationship. Here are four ways to avoid letting social anxiety strain your relationship:
1. Communicate and Validate
Being honest about what the anxiety feels like, its triggers, and how it impacts the ability to function in social situations is crucial to gaining support.
Communication is one of the most important ways to maintain a healthy relationship. In marriages where social anxiety is present, it is even more so. Being honest about what the anxiety feels like, its triggers, and how it impacts the ability to function in social situations is crucial to gaining support. When anxiety symptoms are kept secret or hidden, they often manifest as irritability, anger, and irrational thinking. When this is the case, it is typically not clear what is causing these symptoms and leading to arguments and misunderstanding. Having the ability to say, “I am feeling very anxious about meeting your coworkers” is much more likely to gain support from a partner. In addition, talking about your feelings can lead to a reduction in symptoms. This communication also creates opportunities for both partners to express understanding of the other’s feelings and provide much-needed validation of their experiences.
When communication and validation occur, it is easier to compromise and find a solution to meet the needs of both partners. Perhaps your partner realizes you don’t need to come to their work function after all or agrees you need to attend only one holiday party with the in-laws, not three. There are ways for both parties to feel heard and supported when compromise occurs.
When social occasions are unavoidable, or you compromise and attend your partner’s event, you can mentally prepare yourself to make the experience less painful. Use your phone as your lifeline! Make a list on your phone of five ways to calm your body when the symptoms begin so they don’t escalate. Make another list with possible topics to talk about in case your anxiety shuts down your conversation skills. Identify where you can go for “time-outs” throughout the event to recharge. You can also come up with an emergency exit plan if all else fails. Hopefully you won’t need it, and just knowing you have one may be enough to prevent you from using it.
4. Get Help
Finding a therapist who specializes in working with anxiety is invaluable. By learning to identify and cope with your triggers as an individual, you are making an investment in yourself as well as an effort for your partner.
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