Living with an anxiety disorder, I've learned to dread a lot of things. Talking to strangers? No thank you. Taking on large projects that require lots of responsibility? Please, stay away from me. Being center of attention for any reason? I'd rather crawl under a rock and stay there. I generally want to steer away from any type of forced social interaction or pressure, period.
So imagine my delight (read: horror) whenever someone decides they should ask me on a date. Normally this is how it would go down: I'll be secretly crushing on someone from afar (because is there any other way when you're anxiety-ridden?) and if I was another person I would be so excited. Instead, I'm terrified. I can't sleep the night before we go out, but not because I'm giddy with butterflies. I toss and turn and run through all the different worst case scenarios, convincing myself that something will go terribly wrong. "What if I say something inappropriate and he gets surprised and starts choking on his food and I have to give him the Heimlich? I don't even know the Heimlich! Am I strong enough to do the Heimlich? I need to go the gym more. I definitely have to learn more about the Heimlich before I go on a date with him. I should cancel." I think about canceling at least a hundred times, I'll draft the text, even though I probably really like him. And this is just before the first date! Can you imagine what a whole relationship is like?
Through some serious trial and error, I have learned that dating with anxiety is not impossible at all. All relationships take work, and this is definitely no exception. Your significant other is not your therapist, but they can be a strong pillar of support and understanding. If you or your partner are dealing with anxiety, here are some realities you may face in your relationship:
1. Leave room for our self-doubt at the table
My trust is not difficult to earn unless you happen to actually be me. I'm pursuing a degree in Communications but I've already got my PhD in Insecurity. I'll try to keep my self-deprecation internalized, because on top of everything else, I'm worried I'll annoy you with my vanity. Regardless, these insecurities will trickle their way into other aspects of our relationships. I'll constantly need to be on time because I'm sure everyone will judge me for being late, but I also won't want to show up early because what if we're the only people there? Then who will we talk to?
There are a variety of ways to help an insecure partner, depending on how they respond best. I've found that I'm partial to the "No BS" approach. When my SO doesn't needlessly flatter me, but pays me genuine compliments when I'm not actually fishing, I can rely on them as a voice of reason. I put my faith in them to give me the cold, hard facts of a situation without sugarcoating it.
2. Sometimes we really just need to stay in
There are times when my anxiety is at a four, but I'm treating it like I'm at a 10. I'm allowing myself to spiral and I need someone to tell me that it's going to be OK and that we really will be fine going to dinner with your uber-successful boss and his part-time model girlfriend. There are other times, however, that I feel like my anxiety is at a strong nine because it really is a strong nine, and I need to stay in. I'll need to cancel those dinner plans or tell you to take someone else to the concert, and I'll apologize until you're sick of hearing my voice. I'm drained. I just need to stay in.
If your partner is the same way, it can be extremely frustrating, I know. Be patient, and remember that every time they engage in self-care they are furthering their own healing process. You'll be grateful when they've had the chance to ride out the worry and are ready to reengage.
3. Don't shy away from talking about panic attacks
Honestly, thinking about having that first panic attack in front of my SO still makes me nervous. They're a confusing and terrifying experience, that make you more vulnerable than you would probably choose to be. Plus, the unpredictability of it all makes possibly triggering situations feel like a landmine.
Consider talking to your partner about their panic attacks early on in the relationship. Give them an idea of what to expect, but only share what you're comfortable with. If they need to be alone when they have a panic attack (like I do) have them tell you. If they need someone to engage them in physical contact to reassure them, make sure you're aware. For me, it's difficult to communicate basically anything when I'm in the midst of an attack, so having this conversation beforehand is so beneficial.
4. There will be plans, but also there won't be plans
Something that soothes my anxiety is having a detailed knowledge of exactly how things will happen in any given situation, so that I'm not taken by surprise. Obviously that's not always possible, but I try to accommodate that need when it's in my control. The "unknown" is a terrifying place to exist when your nerves rule your brain. However, even though I love myself a good to-do list, I am also terrifyingly indecisive. I don't want to make decisions because what if you don't like what I choose? I want you to like me, and these things are mutually exclusive in my mind.
I've found that a good first-step toward a solution can simply be to alternate who makes specific decisions. Today I'll decide where we go out, tomorrow you decide. Alternating days satisfies my need to plan ahead, while also taking away the pressure of making a last-minute decision.
5. Having anxiety should not define you, your partner, or your relationship
Anxiety plays a huge role in my life, but it is not me. My SOs have shared space with my anxiety, but it is not them. There are so many other facets of a person aside from their struggles, emotional or otherwise. Having anxiety is exhausting but it does not control me, nor do I ever want to allow it to. Appreciate that it is a small part of what makes a person, not the whole. If anxiety ever seems to consume every aspect of your relationship, take a step back. Reevaluate what steps are being taken towards self-care and the relationship itself. Having a wonderful, functional relationship with someone who has anxiety is totally possible and rewarding, as long as you're not centered around it.