March 13 2024

A First-Hand Account Of Supporting A Partner With Anxiety

A couple holding hands with a sunset in the background to represent the topic of the post - A First-Hand Account Of Supporting A Partner With Anxiety

This is my first post on Unwanted Members Club, but instead of this being written by me or being put behind a paywall, this post is free for everyone to read. This post also connects to my article, ‘How To Be A Supportive Partner To Someone With Agoraphobia‘. So enjoy my partner’s first-hand account of supporting a partner with anxiety, that person with anxiety (social anxiety disorder and agoraphobia) being me. It also discusses the difficulties with finding support and being the person offering that support.


My Partner’s First-Hand Account Of Supporting A Partner With Anxiety


When my partner, the author of this blog (Unwanted Life), asked me to write an article about supporting a partner with anxiety, I hesitated for a long time. Although public discussion of mental health has become mainstream, and stigma around the subject is reducing, we rarely hear the voices of the people supporting those suffering from mental illness.


There are probably many reasons that carers don’t talk about their experiences, but I am sure that they include a fear of being accused of self-pity, and of a lack of compassion for the sufferer; fear of further stigmatising an already misunderstood and mistreated group of people; and fear of burdening our loved ones by adding our own problems to their already-overflowing stack.


But the truth is that for every mentally ill person, there is someone who loves them and desperately wants to help them, who is not a trained psychiatrist, psychologist or social worker, but who is thrust into supporting a person with a chronic, unpredictable and in some ways untreatable illness; an illness that causes behaviour that can be confusing, frightening and sometimes deeply hurtful. Carers are potentially affected by a loved one’s mental illness almost as much as the ill person themselves.


Advice around supporting mentally ill partners often encourages thinking of mental illness in the same way as physical illness: “You wouldn’t expect your partner to go ice-skating if they had a broken leg, so why do you get upset when your partner with social anxiety disorder won’t come to a party with you?”.


Alternatively, the advice can focus on “protecting” yourself from your partner: “You have to set boundaries/make time for yourself/practice self-care”. Ubiquitous wellbeing advice, which focuses heavily on mindfulness-like practices, can feel sorely insufficient in the face of some of the issues carers face. And of course, there are the horrendous old clichés, “You can’t fix them” and “It’s not about you”.


Not all of this advice is entirely wrong, but for me, it doesn’t fully work either. Start with the broken leg analogy. Although there are some similarities, mental illness is not like physical illness. A broken leg is time-limited and has a fairly predictable trajectory from injury to rehabilitation; there are also both effective and accessible treatments, and clear and obvious practical steps a partner can take to support the injured person during their recovery. Finally, the effects of a broken leg are mostly understandable and relatable, even to a person who has not experienced it for themselves.


A Black woman supporting their partner to represent the topic of the post - A First-Hand Account Of Supporting A Partner With Anxiety


None of these things are the case with mental illnesses, which are often chronic or lifelong, with unpredictable peaks and troughs; treatment options are limited, hard to access, and have questionable success rates; and symptoms manifest as behaviours which are at best baffling, and at worst, extremely challenging.


Fortunately, there are some positive steps a partner can take to help both their partner and themselves. Probably the first and most important step is to learn about the condition. Despite growing public awareness of mental illness, there is still a lot of misinformation around, which contributes to stigma and negative stereotypes, and the rise of social media is almost certainly accelerating this. A good rule of thumb I like to follow is that if something is conventional or received wisdom (or is going viral on social media), then it is probably wrong, or at least heavily biased, and should be treated with scepticism.


Unfortunately, information from official sources can also be unhelpful: when I first started to grasp the nature of my partner’s anxiety disorder, I searched online for information about the condition, but sources such as the NHS website were simplistic and patronising, reflecting both the paternalistic attitude sometimes taken by health authorities, and that psychiatry seems to be about a century behind the rest of modern medicine.


Mental health charities such as Mind proved a little more useful, but not much. Perhaps understandably, they heavily emphasise that treatment is available and that recovery is possible, while glossing over the devastating impacts of mental illness, the huge barriers to accessing treatment for many sufferers, and the variability of success for many of those treatments.


Personal accounts, such as mental health blogs, provided some insight – hearing sufferers speak from their own experiences gave me a better idea of what my partner was going through. The rawest accounts felt the most honest – when the author didn’t spare the reader any of the darkest and most disturbing details, I finally felt that I was hearing what it is really like, without a veneer of faux-positivity.


I volunteered for a charity that worked with people with severe and enduring mental illness, which involved daily interaction with the clients, as well as taking training courses such as Mental Health First Aid (MHFA). As well as gaining a wider perspective on the range of experiences of people suffering from mental ill health, I believe this gave me a vital tool: the language to talk about mental health and illness.


A photo of a couple supportively holding hands to represent the topic of the post - A First-Hand Account Of Supporting A Partner With Anxiety


Above all, I found that the best source of information on my partner’s condition is my partner himself – after all he is the leading expert on his own mind. I tried to ask him about his experiences with open questions, and respond in a non-judgmental way – a knowledge of active listening is useful for these kinds of conversations. It’s easy for people to assume that they know what having an anxiety disorder is like, because most people experience anxiety from time to time. However, an anxiety disorder is nothing like “normal” anxiety, and some of the symptoms can be severe and shocking; for example, my partner has experienced hallucinations and suicidality.


In the face of such extreme and frightening symptoms, it’s easy to feel helpless. However, people with long-standing mental health problems usually have their own coping strategies, and it’s useful to know what those are so you can help them to implement those strategies when a crisis hits. This leads to another important step: asking how you can help. I found it was best if I asked my partner about his coping strategies at times of lower anxiety, so that he didn’t have to come up with an answer in the midst of an anxiety attack.


One of the things my partner suggested was distraction, so sometimes we would simply have a conversation about something unrelated to the anxiety, and often silly. My naturally quick-witted partner excels at absurd and funny banter, meaning that this tactic plays to his strengths. However, I can struggle to come up with witty chatter when put on the spot, so if a sudden distraction is needed, we have experimented with playing word games and puzzles (e.g. crosswords), or games like Eye-Spy. Being verbal and switching attention to external things can help to shut down an out-of-control inner monologue and focus attention away from the anxiety; another advantage is that these strategies can work via phone or text messaging, so it’s not necessary to be physically with the anxious person to help them.


Another way my partner has told me I’ve helped, is by accompanying him on outings. This is not something I initially did deliberately as a strategy to help him; rather I was acting on my own desires both to spend time with him and to have enjoyable experiences and good memories. However, I have come to recognise this as an important role I played in his recovery: I tried to find fun and interesting things for us to do, to encourage him to want to go out, while being there with him helped him overcome the sometimes significant challenges of leaving the house and going somewhere new. I had to be flexible – if my partner was feeling particularly bad, I wouldn’t insist on us going to a large party with a group of strangers in a far-flung part of the city; a quiet drink at his local pub would suffice on that occasion.


Planning ahead helped – knowing well in advance where we were going, at what time, and how we would get there seemed to make a big difference. Finally, respect of boundaries was critical – I may have sometimes felt like my partner needed a “kick up the ass” to force him out of his comfort zone, but that kind of pressure is almost always counter-productive; gentle encouragement to stretch boundaries, while always respecting his right to pull back, worked much better and built trust.


This leads to the idea of adjusting – but not lowering – expectations. Employers are required to make reasonable adjustments to allow disabled employees to do their jobs, but to give them an easier job or fewer duties on account of their disability would be discriminatory. Similarly, it’s important not to expect less of a partner on account of their mental illness. Where my partner’s mental health issues have been an obstacle to a relationship goal, my approach has been not to give up on the goal, but just to change my expectations about how long it will take or what steps are required to get there. For example, not going to the big far-away party on one occasion did not have to mean giving up on ever going to a big party – we would just build up to it by starting with smaller gatherings, closer to home.


An older couple embracing


It’s also important for carers to be vulnerable sometimes and let their partners support them, too. I used to be reluctant to reach out to my partner for help, because I felt that he had enough of his own problems to deal with. This was wrong – my partner is perfectly able to support me and I eventually realised that I was denying him the opportunity to play his full role in the relationship. Now, if I do turn to him for support, he usually gives it, willingly and generously. I say usually, because of course, as happens in any relationship, there are times when we are both having difficulties and our needs conflict; in these situations, communication, negotiation and compromise are vital.


Now on to the idea of “protecting” oneself. I believe viewing a mentally ill partner as an opponent is truly unhelpful and not conducive to recovery or a good relationship; if anything, the one guiding principle I always try to follow is to be on my partner’s side. Having said that, it is true that supporting a mentally ill partner can be extremely hard. They can behave in ways that leave you feeling confused and rejected.


They may engage in self-destructive behaviour, which can be incredibly frightening and stressful. They may appear to be refusing to help themselves, which is deeply frustrating. Talking to them about how this makes you feel risks making them feel misunderstood and blamed for a condition that is not their fault. Talking to other people about it can lead to misunderstanding, unhelpful comments, unsolicited advice and further stigmatisation of both your partner and yourself – as well as the issue of disclosing private information about your partner’s health. All this can easily lead to isolation, compassion fatigue, and guilt and resentment on both sides.


In light of all this it can be hard to know where to look for support, but getting support is crucial. For some people, professional counselling/therapy could be a good option, however, one thing everyone dealing with a mental health problem (whether their own or that of a loved one) learns very quickly is that professional help is hard to access. Furthermore, in my experience psychological practitioners usually want something to “treat”, which means they focus on finding something about you to change and trying to facilitate that change; I’ve found it hard to find a counsellor or therapist who will just listen and be supportive while I offload, which is what I really need most of the time.


Peer support groups can also be helpful, although as with therapists, finding one that suits you is the trick. I’ve been varyingly involved with a support group, with mixed results – on one hand, it is liberating and validating to talk openly about feelings and experiences that only others in the same situation can truly understand. On the other hand, my group contained some difficult personalities, and was sometimes poorly facilitated, which led to it not always being the equitable and non-judgemental environment I wanted.


My greatest source of support has been from one or two close friends, who also have some knowledge and understanding of mental illness, through their own lived experiences and those of loved ones. I am wary of relying on them too much, and risking putting a strain on the friendships; in addition, there are limits to what I am able to share with friends, while respecting my partner’s privacy. Nevertheless, they are always amazingly generous, supportive and non-judgmental, and I could not do without them.


A couple holding hands to represent the topic of the post - A First-Hand Account Of Supporting A Partner With Anxiety


inally, cultivating autonomy within in a relationship is an excellent thing to do, whether or not mental illness is involved. My partner and I have always chosen not to live together – this gives us space to pursue our own interests and lifestyles, incentivises us to make the most of the time when we are together, and prevents arguments about housework. Furthermore, having separate (but overlapping) spheres of work, hobbies, home life and social life means we are not completely reliant on one another for all of our needs, and have other places to turn when we are less able to be there for one another. Of course, autonomy is only desirable up to a point – most people want to share most things with their partner most of the time, or they probably wouldn’t have chosen to be in the relationship. Nevertheless, I have found that achieving a balance between connectedness and independence makes navigating mental health issues easier, while making the relationship more sustainable and exciting.




In summary, anxiety disorders (or any mental illness) can have a severe impact on partners as well as sufferers, but there are things people can do to help both their partners and themselves. Arm yourself with knowledge; ask them about their experiences and how to help; learn the language of mental health; practice communication skills; adjust, but don’t lower your expectations; find support for yourself; and cultivate autonomy. None of these things are going to fix the situation – in my case, it was my partner’s own hard work, self-discipline and determination that brought us to the point where anxiety no longer has as such a strong hold over our lives – but they can make life easier and happier for both of you until things get better – and the final thing to remember is that, eventually, they will.



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