If you’re living with another human being in this wonderful institution called marriage, then there is a good chance that at some point in your experience as a couple, your spouse is going to experience anxiety. I’ve seen this over and over and believe me, some couples handle it much better than others. Here are some how-to’s and how-not-to’s.
This topic was actually spawned by a conversation Caleb had some time ago with a frustrated husband. We’ll call him John. John’s wife was really struggling with anxiety and he was trying to fix it. (Trying to fix anxiety is about as effective as calming a puppy down by playing with it – and it’s a lot less fun!) He was bitter and frustrated and fed up.
He was still in love and still committed, just really struggling with it all, so Caleb asked him to do something. He asked John to reach way down inside himself and see if he could find compassion, then to act out of that place of compassion.
John decided to give it a try and their marriage turned a corner that day. There were still moments of anxiety and frustration, but when Caleb checked in with John some time later, him and his wife were together. And not just together as in they stayed married, but they were together in the middle of her struggles. That’s a precious thing.
That true-life story is a bit of a spoiler for where we’re going here, but this is where we need to start. If your spouse experiences anxiety, you cannot reason it out. You cannot talk him or her off that ledge through reason, persuasion, manipulation, threats, or anything like that. The battle with anxiety is never won as long as you think you’re in a battle.
The biggest blessing you can give a spouse who struggles with anxiety is the gift of compassion. This will help you yourself also as it is way easier to be compassionate towards an anxious person than it is to fight their anxiety.
Fighting anxiety never works. Only compassion will effectively uproot anxiety.
But let me give you an example of what compassion is not. I was observing a couple (let’s call them Bob and Betty) at a ferry terminal one time. They were obviously dating. She had just missed a ferry, and the next boat wouldn’t leave for another two hours. Because of this, she would miss her night shift at the hospital. At this point Betty was becoming quite distressed about the situation, and dear Bob was trying to help. Unfortunately, he had missed the “com” part of compassion, and was just trying to use passion to ease the situation.
For every statement Betty would make, Bob would just respond, “I love you Betty” and try to hug and kiss her. Well, I’m sorry, Bob, but that was not helping! Betty was becoming more and more frantic, pushing Bob away and trying to avoid him. Obviously Bob loved Betty, but it didn’t look to her (or me!) that he cared about what she was going through in the moment.
Compassion means that you acknowledge and understand what the anxious person is going through. It does not mean that you ignore their feelings. Can you imagine?
“I missed the ferry, what am I going to do?”
“I love you, Betty” Kiss kiss
“Oh good, I was worried about your love when the ferry left without me… Now I can’t get to work. I need this shift so bad so that I can make the car payment this month.”
“It’s ok. I love you, Betty”
“Phew, I’m glad your love will make me enough money to pay the bank… What am I going to do?”
“I love you, Betty. Let’s make out.”
“Ok, obviously your love solves every dilemma. Let’s get married” – NOT!
There is a difference between supporting your spouse with compassion and ignoring your spouse’s needs while showing passion. You need to love. You need to provide a safe, committed, secure relationship. That safe place is going to be the anchor that your spouse needs to get through this hard time.
What is Anxiety?
Some anxiety is very brief and situational – like the feelings right before a major job interview. It can also be more prolonged and diffuse as in the case of generalized anxiety disorder.
Panic attacks are another type of anxiety. A panic attack is a normal physiological reaction but it occurs without a valid cue.
Agoraphobia is the fear that one might lose control if he or she ventures from a safe environment. It involves a real sense of powerlessness.
Social phobia is a fear of having to engage in social interactions.
All types of phobia’s cause anxiety.
How to Support an Anxious Spouse?
If your spouse grew up in a family where love was conditional, where safety was an uncertain and rare commodity, or where he or she was not wanted, then these conditions would leave him or her vulnerable to anxiety (and depression).
If you are loving and kind to your spouse when they’re calm, and distant, angry or frustrated when they’re not, what are you doing? You’re reinforcing that same message from your spouse’s family of origin and making your spouse more vulnerable to anxiety and depression.[i]
Instead, you want to do whatever you can to help your spouse feel secure. Secure adults believe that they are worthy of the care, concern and affection of others and this will make them more comfortable in the marriage. Fearful adults appear to anticipate rejection and insensitivity from their spouse and will be less comfortable and engaged in the marriage.
There’s a Bible verse in 1 John 4 that says that “perfect love casts out fear”. While it can be a huge challenge to be in relationship with a very anxious spouse, this is an opportunity for you to accept and rise to the challenge of learning to love really, really well (unlike Bob, who didn’t understand that love was more than empty words). Love that is unconditional, consistent, secure and authentic will go a long way to undermining feelings of anxiety. To show this kind of love, you need to find compassion for your spouse at the point where you feel most frustrated.
And anxiety can be both difficult and frustrating. Your spouse can tell though, the difference between a spouse who is supporting them and a spouse who is frustrated with them.
The scary thing about being the frustrated spouse is that the hostility your spouse senses activates and reinforces negative self-evaluations and negative core beliefs which perpetuates the anxiety. Not only that, but the hostility adds stress and undermines your spouse’s motivation to change. Think about it – if I struggle with anxiety and know that it is frustrating for you, why would I want to make any effort to get closer to your hostility? It just does not work.[ii]
So, we’ve seen that neither frustration, hostility nor fighting help an anxious spouse; it is love and compassion and security that will help them cope and heal.
Can Anything You Say Help?
We may think we need to be like Bob, and only send affirmations of love to our anxious spouse. But remember, love is not empty platitudes.
By the way, Bob could have got a lot further with Betty if he had started with empathy, and tried some clear communication/questions to find out more of what she was feeling and the ramifications of her situation – would she lose her job over this, etc.
Love also means speaking the truth. It has been noted that non-hostile criticism can actually help an anxious spouse. [Non-hostile criticism is just fancy language for constructive feedback.] If you can give your spouse feedback that does not in any way communicate rejection but provides an alternative, more balanced perspective to negative thoughts and beliefs, it is likely your spouse will consider it. The key part is that is cannot communicate rejection in any way.
Going back to Betty and Bob, let’s create a hypothetical scenario to emphasize this:
If Bob, getting frustrated with Betty, told her in a gruff voice to just calm down, it would have sent the signal that he was not happy with her feelings which, given her emotions at that moment, she would have sensed keenly as disapproval and rejection.
Instead, Bob could have started with empathy and told her how disappointing it must be to miss the ferry and scary that she may not be able to make the car payment.
At this point, once Betty knows that Bob cares and understands, Bob could provide some alternative thoughts about the situation such as switching shifts with a co-worker, or arranging a flight that would get her there on time, etc.
Remember, the feedback needs to be full of assurance and security and not in any way communicate rejection. People that perceive negative criticism from their spouse are more likely to have higher ratings of anxiety and depression. In fact, a person who is in treatment for anxiety may not do as well if their spouse is negative towards them.[iii]
Researchers are actually finding that the work they do at the clinic with a person who experiences anxiety can be undermined by the negative hostility of the spouse at home. These people do not respond to treatment nearly as well as those that have supportive spouses.[iv] If you can take negative criticism and hostility right out of the equation, you give your spouse a much stronger opportunity to overcome the anxiety they are experiencing.
Your spouse feels anxiety the most when he or she is desperately trying to reduce the uncertainty around an outcome that he or she cannot control. We do live in a very uncertain world, but the one thing you can make certain is that your spouse is in a marriage that is loving, secure, and stable. That is a huge certainty point that will repel the fear that lies at the heart of anxiety.
[i] “Adult Romantic Attachment and Cognitive Vulnerabilities to Anxiety and Depression: Examining the Interpersonal Basis of Vulnerability Models – ProQuest Psychology Journals – ProQuest,”
[ii] Richard E. Zinbarg, Jeong Eun Lee, and K. Lira Yoon, “Dyadic Predictors of Outcome in a Cognitive-Behavioral Program for Patients with Generalized Anxiety Disorder in Committed Relationships: A ‘Spoonful of Sugar’ and a Dose of Non-Hostile Criticism May Help,” Behaviour Research and Therapy 45, no. 4 (April 2007): 699–713, doi:10.1016/j.brat.2006.06.005.
[iii] Gail Steketee et al., “Effects of Perceived Criticism on Anxiety and Depression during Behavioral Treatment of Anxiety Disorders,” Behaviour Research and Therapy 45, no. 1 (January 2007): 11–19, doi:10.1016/j.brat.2006.01.018.
[iv] “Family Factors in the Development and Management of Anxiety Disorders – ProQuest Psychology Journals – ProQuest,”