I think my boyfriend has anxiety and I don't know how to help.
Am I doing things right? Is it okay that I basically insisted that he get help for his possible anxiety or I would have to break up with him for my own sanity?
Here’s The Thing is an advice column/newsletter where I mostly beg people to either stop dating someone or to ask their crush out. Or I talk about weird things that came to my mind that no one is paying me to write about. I can never decide if I should capitalize the “the” in Here’s The Thing or not; apologies on lack of consistency.
THE SWEETEST ANGEL:
I’m 19F and I’ve been in a relationship with my boyfriend for almost 2 years. For both of us, it is our first serious relationship, and it has resulted in a lot of firsts for both of us. He is the first person I have ever loved this way, and I would be happy if he were the last. He is a very affectionate person and I know that he loves me a lot as well. I really want our relationship to succeed. We both still live with our parents, as college has yet to be in person for us, so over the last almost year we have spent most of our time at one or the others houses (not going out because covid) so our families are also pretty close.
Over our entire relationship, it has become increasingly obvious that he has some sort of mental.... something. At the start of our relationship, he had a lot of anxieties about the stability of our relationship (if I was going to break up with him, if I didn’t actually like him, if I didn’t like to kiss him, etc.) I attributed most of these to his last relationship (which from what he has told me seems like it was sort of toxic in the way that many short-lived highschool relationships are) because he often brought up his previous girlfriend in conjunction with statements that usually required reassurance that I wasn’t going to leave him.
Since then, he displays behaviors that I have attributed to “probably anxiety?” almost every day. I say “probably anxiety” because he hasn’t been diagnosed, he has no therapist, and I am basing this conclusion off of behaviors shown by one of my close friends who has anxiety. My boyfriend will, at the drop of a hat, react to something that happened or something that someone said and then will shut down. He becomes quiet, resistant to discussion, stressed, and he physically jolts (which is honestly scary, not because I am afraid he will hurt me but because I am afraid for his mental health).
I have some experience with people with anxiety and have also made many mistakes when trying to communicate with those people, so I have made sure that I communicate super carefully with my boyfriend all the time. If he reacts to something I did or said, I can usually (after an hour or so of calming and gentle talking/prodding) get him to tell me what it was and how it made him feel so I can avoid it and/or understand it in the future. If he is in a mood because of something someone else said or did, I can usually get him to calm down enough to tell me what is going on so I know how serious it is and after the situation dissolves a bit he can usually tell me about what was happening and how he felt.
Both of us at this point put significant work into communicating with each other about both hard and easy things. We discuss his relationship with his parents, religion, his mental health, my mental health, and more with each other because we know that communication is essential to a healthy relationship. While he has actually made a ton of progress with his “maybe anxiety??” this way and is now so much better at communicating about his feelings, I’m afraid that if things continue the way they are now, I will be unable to sustain my own mental health. I am not a therapist and I have no training to help with things like anxiety, and having so many anxious thoughts being discussed with me every day and helping my boyfriend unpack those thoughts and come to a more reasonable conclusion is a lot for me to handle, especially long-term.
I did recently have a conversation with him about his mental health (we have had several conversations over the last year where I told him that he needs someone who is a professional to help him and not me) where I told him that I can’t do our relationship long-term if he doesn’t get help. That *finally* prompted him calling his doctor to talk about his mental health, which is a huge step! He not only picked up the phone, but actually CALLED the doctors office and set up an appointment, and I am so proud of him.
While I do think he is making some necessary steps towards better mental health, I am so afraid of what could happen in our relationship. His mother likes to call him my “service project” and she thinks that once I’m done helping him with his mental health, I’ll get bored and move on. I’m afraid that the help he can get for his mental health won’t work or be enough and he will still fall on me so heavily to help him cope with his anxiety. I’m afraid that even if he does have anxiety, his parents will be unwilling or unable to support him getting help or that they won’t be open to the idea of their son having anxiety (any time he has brought it up in the past, they say things like “stressed is a feeling, get over yourself”). I’m afraid that he will see my need for him to talk to a professional about his mental health as me not wanting to talk to him or be in a serious relationship with him. I don’t see his potential anxiety as a reason to break up with him at all, I am just worried for his health and my health as well our relationship continues the way it is.
Am I doing things right? Is it okay that I basically insisted that he get help for his possible anxiety or I would have to break up with him for my own sanity? What should I do if no other progress is made? How do I navigate this anxiety topic with his family, or should I leave that only to him? Am I putting too much work into this relationship?
This image has NOTHING to do with this article at all. I just was thinking about carbonara again and it seemed warm and comforting.
First and foremost, you’re doing everything perfectly. I mean, I’m sure you’re not literally getting every single thing in your whole life correct, but you are handling this like a flawless angel. Let me count the ways in which you’re navigating this well: 1) You’re self aware enough to know that this situation cannot keep going like this or it will start to wear on you. 2) You’re both already practicing a lot of great communication about tricky topics. 3) You’re kind and generous and full of grace for your partner and his mental health. 4) You seem to be compassionate beyond belief and genuinely interested in making this work. 5) You’re not trying to change him, only to make sure you can both care for your mental health.
You are knocking it out of the park on just about every front. Most people I know would pay good money to have been as mature as you seem to be at 19.
I think you’re 100% correct in your assessment, however, that there is a limit to what you can offer your boyfriend. There’s a VAST VAST difference between supporting your partner in their mental health struggles and being their only source of mental health support. There’s a VAST VAST difference between being a partner and a therapist. You’re already being great at trying not to conflate the two, but I’m a little afraid your boyfriend isn’t. That’s not his fault—well, not entirely! Men (and other people, but especially men) are conditioned socially such that getting mental health support often doesn’t seem like an option. Instead, they are taught—through example, rather than through explicit lectures or anything—that the person who ought to be their dumping grounds for all things mental health is their romantic partner. It’s… not great for anyone involved! And right now, you are bearing the brunt of it.
Your partner is also no doubt suffering, whether he recognizes it or not, from the difference between you and a therapist. I want to be clear that for EVERYONE INVOLVED it’s imperative that he learn the difference between you and a mental health professional.
I have anxiety. I have been diagnosed by multiple doctors with anxiety (not to brag). I am in no way minimizing how difficult it can feel and be to jump through the hoops required to get a therapist. (And if you’re in the US—which I assume from the use of the word “college”— it’s double hard because insurance in this country is ass). I also recognize that it’s difficult, even above the age of 18, to get a therapist when your parents are against it.
That being said, he’s gotta go to therapy. There’s kind of no way around it at this point. At least no way around it where your relationship survives fully in tact. Mayyyybe there’s a way where your relationship survives and your mental health is a disaster and his is two and you both feel a lot of resentment toward one another but neither of you is able to leave the relationship because your own situation is so dire so you stay for a while. But to me, that does NOT seem like a good or particularly viable solution. He’s pretty much got to figure out how to get help for his anxiety that is not just you. Whatever else he’s doing right now to cope is not enough. Let’s say working out or smoking weed or journaling or hanging out with friends has worked in the past. Great! Those are all amazing techniques. They aren’t working now. They simply aren’t enough. There really is no “or” option that I see. He has to go. And if the first therapist doesn’t work, he’s gotta try another. Not every therapist is going to be a fit, which sucks ass—TRUST ME!! I KNOW IT SUCKS!! But most therapists are base level positive. Be patient. It’s not going to immediately stop his anxiety just because he went to a therapist for a month.
Ok, I’m going to go through a couple of your specific fears that you outlined, because I want to address them all:
You were 100% correct to insist on this. Frankly, his mom sounds like she sucks, I don’t have kinder words because who on god’s green earth says something like “once you’re done helping my son with his mental health you’ll get bored” ????? That’s cruel to her son and incredibly rude to you. I genuinely can’t think of a context under which expressing any single piece of that thought is appropriate, kind or helpful.
I’m afraid that the help he can get for his mental health won’t work or be enough and he will still fall on me so heavily to help him cope with his anxiety. There is some chance that this is the case. I don’t think it’s a big chance, and I think a lot of it depends on how much he actually puts into therapy. Is he going consistently? Is he being open and honest with his therapist when he’s in a session? Is he doing the work? Obviously, another part of this is out of his control: How extreme is his anxiety? Is his therapist good or helpful? But I really do think that if you communicate with him how important this is to not just you, but to your relationship, he will want to put in effort. Not because of you precisely, but because he values the relationship. Big picture, therapy helps anxiety a lot; anxiety is generally thought of as highly treatable. I know it’s difficult (this is part of anxiety), but please try to cross that bridge when you get there. As you go, talk to him about your boundaries. You two together— and his therapist may be able to help with this or have suggestions—need to come up with how to communicate about his anxiety in ways that work for both of you. Maybe that’s him learning to say, “I need alone time night, I’m not in a good place to hang out.” Or him reminding you, “Hey, this event coming up is going to be super anxiety-inducing for me most likely, here are some things that you could do that might help me.” Or you saying, “Hey, when you come to me with X, I’m not always sure what you’re looking for. Can you Y or Z so that I know?”
I’m afraid that even if he does have anxiety, his parents will be unwilling or unable to support him getting help or that they won’t be open to the idea of their son having anxiety. This one, sadly, you have no control over. He’s an adult and he needs to get help. They can support him or not. He can tell them or not. But ultimately, that’s their shit and not yours. I wish they would support him; I wish so much that they cared like you do. But you cannot—CANNOT—spend your mental reserves begging them to care about their son in the right ways or being angry and resentful that they aren’t better about helping him with his mental health. It will get you absolutely nowhere and it will not make them care. He is their son and if they genuinely don’t care enough to support him, no begging from you is going to undo that kind of moral rot.
I’m afraid that he will see my need for him to talk to a professional about his mental health as me not wanting to talk to him or be in a serious relationship with him. I adore and admire you to bits but you have got to stop being so hard on yourself. The reason to be in a romantic relationship with you is not only to provide mental health support. That’s not a romantic relationship; that’s a patient-doctor relationship. Your boyfriend did not start dating you to get his anxiety under control, I’m virtually certain. I am sure that your support has been invaluable to your boyfriend; I’m not trying to diminish that at all. What you need to communicate here to him is this, “I don’t see your potential anxiety as a reason to break up with you at all, I am just worried for your health and my health as well our relationship continues the way it is.” You know where I got that quote? FROM YOU! You can add on a line like this, “I still want to know how you’re doing. I want to hear what’s working and what isn't. This is not about me wanting us to communicate less, it’s actually about me wanting us to communicate more. I just have been holding back in my communication about what I need because I felt like I didn’t want to put pressure on you, and I’m finding that that isn’t working.” You guys are supposed to be—as corny and shitty as this phrase is!!!!!—a team. You’re literally supposed to be working together to solve problems. Keeping information from one another (LIKE HOW YOU FEEL ABOUT SOMETHING!) hinders that process. That’s like ripping a page out of the IKEA instructions of a bookshelf you’re supposed to be setting up together and throwing it in the trash. It’s not only not helpful to keep shit to yourself, it actively hurts the process of being in a healthy relationship. Start telling him shit!!!! He can handle it! Even with anxiety!
If, after you have some of these talks with him—and there will be many! This will be an ongoing thing!—you feel like he might be feeling stressed, you can always ASK HIM ABOUT THAT! Meta talk! Say something like, “did anything that I said make you feel worried?” Or, “Does any of this make you feel anxious? Because I’m happy to clarify what I’m asking for if you have concerns.”
If after a certain amount of time (I would think months, not weeks) no progress at all is made—whether because he’s not going to therapy or because he’s going but it’s not working or he’s not communicating with you or whatever the hell nightmare scenario you’re imagining—then take a step back. Take a break. (Or break up fully). This is one of the few times in the world I’d recommend a break. Say something like, “I love you, I want to be there, but this is genuinely just too much for my own mental health. I want you to get the help you need, but that doesn’t seem to be happening, and I’m stuck. I need us to take a break. Here are my boundaries during this break.” (Or again, fully break up). Taking a break or breaking up with someone because the relationship is not good for your mental health is a good decision, even though it will suuuuuuuuckkkkkkkk shiiiiiiiit. (And yes, I guarantee it will suck shit, should this very very unlikely scenario come to pass). But you cannot live as someone’s romantic-therapist, no matter how much you love them. It doesn’t work. If the scenario above comes to pass, you either stick it out until it’s hard and then walk away or you stick it out until it’s very very very unbearable and have an even worse ending. That said, again, I don’t think this is very likely.
As a note unrelated to him getting help, I want to linger a bit on the paragraph where you describe how much effort you’re putting in to communicating with your partner in ways that don’t trigger his anxiety. This is a delicate tango. (Is that a mixed metaphor? Idk). On the one hand, with all people we love and care about, it’s a requirement of kindness that we pay attention to their triggers and what hurts and harms them. That’s a given. On the other hand, I feel like you’re dangerously close to overanalyzing your every word and action to make sure it doesn’t possibly bring up any anxiety in him. I want to tell you that you cannot behave such that your boyfriend never feels anxious. I know you know that, but I also don’t want you trapped in your own version of anxiety where you’re questioning your every move, walking on eggshells that you placed on the floor. Your boyfriend is going to feel anxious; he has anxiety (or at least we all suspect he does and he’s exhibiting anxious behaviors). You are responsible for being kind and loving—which you will do mostly by nature. You are not responsible for mitigating any bad feelings he has. He needs to come to you with conversations about what works and what doesn’t. If he’s having an issue with how you two are communicating, if something does trigger his anxiety especially strongly, he needs to be able to articulate that. You cannot guess that. Please. Give yourself a break.
Last thing I want to say to your question “Am I putting too much work into this relationship?” I don’t know. I can’t answer that one, sadly. If I could, trust me, I would answer it. I would LOVE if there were a simple way to know if you’re giving too much for a relationship. It would be very very very helpful. I myself have felt that way before; I’ve asked myself, “Isn’t it supposed to be easier than this?” Or “Am I foolish for staying? Does everyone think I’m a clown for giving this much of myself?” What I do know is this: you’re not a fool or a clown to give a lot to someone. Especially not in the circumstances you’ve described above where your partner isn’t being unkind or cruel in the least—he’s just in a bad place currently. I think relationships in your teens and twenties should have a certain degree of ease to them, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t going to be work to do. It should mostly be enjoyable to put in the work on the whole, but that doesn’t mean you won’t have months that suck. I will also say this—and I mean it positively not negatively, although it may sound weird—even if you don’t “end up” with this guy forever, whether it ends two years from now or ten years from now or whatever, giving a lot to a person and loving them well is it’s own reward. You loved someone well! Do you know how rare and lovely that is???!!! You proved to yourself and others (not that anyone needs proof) that you tried hard and did your best to just be good to a person. That’s wonderful. Just because a relationship ends—and yours is by no means doomed to end at all! I’m just playing this out for you on a long scale—that doesn't negate the good loving parts of it. That doesn’t make it not worth it. You don’t not plant flowers because they’re going to die some day. You don’t not run a marathon because at some point it will be over. Give this what you can, what feels good. Trust that if you need to get out of the relationship, you will know that and you will do so. I swear you’ve got this.
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