Welcome to Relationship Helpers! If this is your first time joining us, we’re so glad you’ve found us. Today’s episode marks the second in an eight week series on “How to Support a Spouse With…”.
Each week therapists, the husband and wife team Vincent and Laura discuss how you can support your spouse. Topics range from mental health conditions such as depression, to behaviors like alcoholism, to relational issues such as having a toxic family of origin.
Today we are offering tips on how to help a spouse with anxiety or OCD. If you find that your spouse is agonizing over something to the point that they are not able to function at performing home, work, or personal tasks, they may be suffering from an anxiety disorder.
If this behavior is affecting their personal relationships that is also a clue that they may be suffering from an anxiety disorder. The Relationship Helpers take a look today at what you can do to help them.
1.) Do NOT Send the Message That Your Spouse is Crazy
Unfortunately many spouses tell their significant others that they are “crazy”. Others may not literally say “you’re crazy” but they imply it. Regardless of whether you say it or imply it, the message that it sends is that they are a problem.
The harsher you come across, it ingrains the label into the spouse. More than likely there is some emotional abuse going on if a spouse calls the other “crazy.” Stop it. You’re making the cycle worse.
Saying “you’re crazy” very well could be coming out of your anger and frustration. Your hands probably feel tied in the situation, but calling your partner crazy will only make the situation much worse and build resentment in your marriage.
If you’re struggling with not knowing how to cope with the anger and frustration, a trusted therapist can guide you and your spouse into a healthier pattern of communication that does not berate the spouse with anxiety. A therapist can also teach both of you how to cope with the anxiety symptoms.
2.) Create An Open Dialogue About It Using Gentle Observations
If you are struggling with how to initiate the conversation about your spouse’s anxiety, try this: “I’ve noticed that when…”, “tell me more about that…”. This can act as a formula that you use to broach the subject.
An example would be “I’ve noticed that when we get around my family you become irritable, tell me more about what’s going on there.” Another would be: “I’ve noticed that when you are driving you seem to wait pretty long before you make a turn, then you make the turn at the last moment. Tell me more about that.”
Anxiety can be more apparent surrounding driving because of the immediacy of the process of driving. You have to make quick decisions. The second-guessing and avoiding of driving-related anxiety is easier to notice.
When you make your observation about them be careful NOT to say “You always…”. You statements only rouse defensiveness. Be careful not to come across with a critical tone. Being gentle with your observation will take you further in trying to break the cycle of anxiety in your spouse.
3.) Acknowledge The Cycle & Your Role In It
OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder) is marked by a cycle of obsession, compulsion, momentary relief from the obsession and then the cycle starts over. Many times the spouse of the anxiety or OCD suffers gets sucked into this unhealthy cycle. He or she may be trying to make the situation better, but actually makes it worse.
Popular culture has portrayed OCD at a surface level, but what is it? From a clinical standpoint, OCD is an anxiety condition marked by beliefs or fears that are compensated for by a compulsion or behavior—something that is done to ameliorate the fear. The compulsion is an unhealthy way of coping with the fear. The compulsive behavior is a short-term solution to a long-term problem. It’s only a momentary fix.
An example of the OCD cycle with someone struggling with fear of germs could look like the following:
OBSESSION: The thought/fear of getting sick or dying.
COMPULSION: Excessive hand washing, sanitizing and frequent or prolonged baths. There is momentary relief and then the obsession cycles back around.
It’s not unusual for other people to get sucked into the cycle. They often attempt to try make the person feel better by entertaining the sufferer’s compulsion, in other words they enable the fear.
With a germaphobe spouse, the other spouse may go along with it. They may allow that person to spend 30 minutes in the bath. They may just not say anything about it, even if it inconveniences them or puts them in a financial crunch because the water bill is high.
Be aware that people who suffer from anxiety and OCD often struggle with negative self-talk. For the person who has difficulty driving, they likely believe that they are a bad driver or incapable of making adequate driving maneuvers. This negative self-talk reinforces the cycle of OCD or anxiety.
How can a spouse unwittingly play into this cycle? In the driving example, the other spouse may just decide to do the driving for them so as to avoid having to deal with the ordeal that happens when their spouse drives, rather than addressing the issue at hand. It’s the easy way out. Again, we have a short term solution to a long term problem. This is unhealthy and feeds the fear.
Another example of the anxiety cycle is school refusal behavior. This is a situation where a child does not want to go to school and either pitches a fit or says that they don’t feel well to get out of school.
Sometimes this behavior is the result of a fear. That fear could be of getting sick at school or being embarrassed at school. They try to avoid school to avoid confronting the fear. Often the parent and school is complicit in the cycle of fear by sending the child home from school, instead of encouraging them to stay.
Here’s what the cycle looks like:
OBSESSION: “I’m afraid I’m going to get sick.”
COMPULSION: Make it almost physically impossible to get me inside the school. The parent then gives in and keeps them home. (This reinforces the fear because the child is not challenged to face their fear.)
4) Setting Boundaries So That You Don’t Get Caught Up in the Cycle
Using the school refusal example above, we take a look at how to successfully create and follow through with a boundary; when your child says they do not feel well, you take this moment to use a GENTLE OBSERVATION: “I’ve noticed that when it’s time to go to school you do everything you can to get out of going. Tell me more about that…”
The child gives an answer. Then the parent responds with THE BOUNDARY: “You’re a strong kid who is able to handle school. We’re going to go to school now.” Then the parent takes the child to school and does not look back.
When a parent does this it sends the message that the parent is confident in the child. If a parent gives in to the child’s protestations then the parent is sending the message that he is not confident in his child. It’s important to note that when a parent has negative thoughts and anxiety it can spread to the child. If the parent has worry surrounding the child, then the child will feed off of it and become more anxious.
If your spouse is a housecleaning perfectionist, you’ll find that he or she may clean and tidy to the point of missing out on timely activities because they have to get their house just right. This is to the detriment of the family.
It sends the message that they would rather be cleaning than spending time with family and may also send the message that the family’s efforts at cleaning are not good enough. This can be a recipe for disaster for your family.
One problem that we find happening in families is that the perfectionist parent does all of the chores for everyone, and the children do not grow up learning how to do household tasks. Another concern is that children grow up overly criticized when they do attempt housework and develop negative self-talk that makes them second guess themselves.
An example of creating a boundary here would be “I’ve noticed that on game night when we are supposed to start playing at 6:30, you’re still straightening up at 6:35. The kids aren’t able to play with us as long as they could before bath time. We’re going to go ahead with our plans regardless of whether or not you are cleaning at 6:30.” When you tell them this boundary, you follow through with it—don’t bend to their fear or protests.
Another boundary in this situation is telling them that you are going to help them with the cleaning tasks. Many times perfectionist housecleaners won’t let others help them.
Telling them you’re going to do it challenges their obsession. It takes some of their control away. Doing this can change the dynamic in the home.
5.) Encourage Them To Use Healthy Coping Skills
Educate yourself about different ways to help someone experiencing anxiety attacks. Learn about the cycle of OCD. Be sure to check out episode 011 where we talk about anxiety and panic attacks and how to cope with different calming techniques.
One such coping skill is called “grounding.” Grounding techniques can be used in the more extreme situations. Anxiety is often a fear of what is going to happen in the future—the “what ifs?” Grounding exercises forces the anxiety sufferer to focus back on the here-and-now and the safety of what is around them.
As the supportive spouse, it will be helpful for you to re-direct them with what’s going on right now. Engage them with what is going on around them. What do they hear, see, smell, taste, touch? Unless they are undergoing something painful and frightening in the moment, the grounding exercise will help them feel safe.
Singing praise songs and encouraging them to think about what God has provided them with are other healthy coping skills to pull out of your tool box when they are struggling.
If you are dealing with early signs that they are anxious, you can help them to challenge unhelpful thinking habits. First, help them to recognize the unhelpful thinking habit. Then challenge it. For example, “What is the worst thing that would happen if you vacuumed for ten minutes instead of fifteen?”
Another thing you can do is to help your spouse remember what has happened in the past. It can be difficult for a person in the throes of an anxiety attack to remember their coping skills. If there has been a particular way that they coped in the past that was healthy and helpful, remind them.
6.) Encourage Them To Talk With Someone Else
Individual or couples counseling may help you to learn healthier ways of managing anxiety in your marriage. The counselor can help you and your spouse understand where the fear comes from, to acknowledge it, and to cope with it.
Therapists can be helpful, but other people can be as well. Hearing other people’s perspectives can help the anxiety sufferer to challenge unhelpful thinking habits. Healthy friendships are an important part of who we are as people and can help us to avoid isolation, which typically reinforces unhelpful thinking habits.
Vincent mentions how when you open up to someone, bringing your issues to the light, they begin to lose their power over you.