January 20, 2016
At dinner a friend told me a story about her live-in boyfriend. “I said to him, ‘I’m so anxious,’ and he said, ‘You’re always anxious.’” She looked at me for sympathy.
I said, carefully, “I think he means that whatever you’re anxious about isn’t the cause. He’s not necessarily being unsympathetic.”
She nodded. She knows she has an issue. “The best time in the day is when he kisses me in the morning when he goes off to work. He’s just out of the shower and he smells fresh and he smiles at me. It’s all downhill from there.” She laughed. “I have my anxious thoughts all day long. He’s not neurotic at all. He just doesn’t think about the things that could be problems.”
It’s not easy living with someone who is anxious all day long. You wouldn’t want to be with someone who was mostly angry or sad, either. Emotions can be as contagious as yawns.
In one of my own periods of continual dread, a boyfriend broke up with me saying that my anxiety made him more anxious. I thought of him as not anxious at all and kicked myself for missing those clues. I wonder if my friend is also missing the point. If her boyfriend truly never thinks about his problems, he could be fleeing the anxiety they arouse. He distracts; she ruminates.
If you’re anxious about relationships, you may be especially attentive and perceptive because you care. But you may also misread people. For example, it’s common to read silence or neutral facial expressions as a threat or rejection. You may need to steel yourself before you fire off a third text. There may be no problem, or you may need to step back rather than pressure someone who is distancing. Sometimes it’s best to distract yourself and do nothing to “fix” it.
The greatest benefits come from seeing the effect of your self-absorption. As Daniel Smith describes it in a personal essay for CNN, “anxious thoughts are radically personal thoughts. Their central concern is what affects you, what threatens you, what you need, you regret, you dread, you fear. Anxiety is a condition of near-total self-absorption, made only worse by the fact that the sufferer typically realizes that he is being self-absorbed and grieves over his sad inability to see past himself.”
Smith describes how he’d doubt his love for his girlfriend and turn hostile. My friend and I have both been highly ambivalent about our partners, and done damage along the way. Imagine loving someone who is self-absorbed, ambivalent about you, over reactive to slights, and needy on a good day.
So we fret, not without reason, that we’re unlovable and incapable of love. This insight is useful when it motivates us to pull out of anxiety. The truth is that neither of us has much trouble finding partners. Vulnerability can be charming. I know when my friend pulls out of her fog, she’s grateful, funny, generous, and attune.
The remedies for anxiety are many and most of us need to apply several: setting goals and meeting them, volunteering, knitting, yoga, meditation, fitness, self-help books, therapy, support groups, medication. With our romantic partners, we need to own up to the burden we put on others and be careful not to lean too hard. I still slip up on my anxiety-reducing habits when I am in a new situation or feeling better, but do go back to them quickly when the anxiety cloud gathers. Calm self-awareness has helped me keep people, pleasures, and satisfactions in my life.
Write me at firstname.lastname@example.org with your questions about health and relationships.