I often work with couples that struggle to understand each other when one person suffers from anxiety or depression. This has become even more common since the COVID-19 pandemic, as it has caused an uptick in the number of people struggling with these conditions while having to adjust so many aspects of their lives in a very unpredictable and ever-changing environment.
Anxiety and depression are mental health disorders that are not the same as typical sadness, stress, or worry. They are defined primarily by the persistence and severity of the emotional distress someone experiences and they often create difficulties with functioning, including participation in family and romantic relationships.
Making Relationships Harder
When anxiety or depression is present in a relationship it tends to make the common relationship challenge of effective communication even more difficult. One of the ways all of us attempt to understand or support someone we care about is by putting ourselves in their shoes, and trying to relate to how they are feeling. This isn’t always very effective in general, as different people feel differently in similar situations and circumstances due to their individual experiences and perspectives.
However, when anxiety or depression are involved it almost inevitably leaves one person feeling confused or frustrated and the other feeling misunderstood and unsupported. Simply put, it is very difficult for most people to understand the experiences of someone suffering from anxiety or depression without having either experienced it themselves or having been very close to someone in the past who was suffering from it (like a parent or sibling).
Often partners of someone struggling with anxiety will say things like, “there’s nothing to worry about” or “just stop thinking about it” or “it could be worse” or “just cheer up.” These things are taken by the anxious or depressed partner as dismissive, as they show a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of their feelings.
There is Hope
Working with a couple who present with this dilemma is something I find very rewarding as a counselor. The process involves a few things, including helping the anxious or depressed partner recognize the difficulty their partner has in understanding them. It also involves helping educate both partners on the nature of anxiety and depression, what it is and what it isn’t, and how to communicate more effectively about it. I also help the couple identify what allows them to feel they are partners in coping with the real problem, the anxiety or depression, rather than seeing each other as the problem.
Depression and anxiety are really difficult for the person suffering, but when their partner is able to really understand and support them it tends to lead to more effective coping strategies and symptoms improving, particularly in combination with other treatment or support.