Anxious readers and partners, pay attention to this post. Get some decaf coffee. Settle in. We’ll be following up and expanding on this post when we reach the letter T.
I have mentioned that Amy G. Dala is pretty much a serial liar. That’s because she always exaggerates in order to get you to pay attention to her. We all know people who do this. There is the guy who always claims his boat sails 15 knots in a 10 knot breeze. There is the person who seems perfectly healthy but always claims that death is right around the corner. These people are attention-seekers. They are exhausting and energy sucking. And that describes an overly active Amy G. Dala very well. She can create tension that registers like this:
The problem is that sometimes Amy is right! Let me give you an example of how my inner Amy creates a problem where there usually isn’t one. Mostly, my inner Amy prefers to focus on distance and other measuring… as in:
Is there enough room to get into our slip without crushing that other boat?
Is there enough room to back out of our slip without crushing that other boat?
How far are we from those boat-crushing rocks?
How far are we from the boat-crushing bottom in this water? (Amy likes it to be over 100 feet.)
How close is that boat anchored to us and will we crush him? (Which he will totally deserve if he anchors too close to us because that is just rude.)
These are the kinds of things that drive Mike a little mad. I’m sorry, baby. I just want you to live. It doesn’t help that on occasion, Amy has been correct. We have been too close or in water too shallow. This summer we were exploring a bay up in Canada and I just didn’t trust the chart for some reason, so I was going dead slow. Dead slow is my very favorite speed when we are in a new place. Suddenly we had less than 1 foot under the keel and I was screaming into reverse and revving the engine to keep us off the ground. According to the chart (Yes, I was scrolled in tight. I told you I only had to learn that once.) we should have had over 10 feet of water. Amy was already on high alert because it was less than 100 feet. It was a soft bottom but still. Better not to go aground no matter how soft the bottom is. Yeah. Amy was right that time. When Amy is right, it only encourages her.
The fact that sometimes your anxiety is going to bear ripe fruit can be confusing and irritating. Wouldn’t it just be easier if you could simply ignore that internal voice of fear and allow your partner to ignore it as well? Living with someone who struggles with anxiety is a pain in the ass. Take a minute to thank your partner, if you have one, for sticking it out with you because there are some days when, I guarantee you, it would be easier for them to simply go it alone.
Loving partners want to help keep you calm, and that’s fine. But it’s a fine line to walk to allow your partner to contribute to calming you down without making them responsible your internal state of tension. Let me give you a couple of examples.
Over the years I have worked with many people whose partners suffered from profound anxiety, way worse than my own (knock on wood). As a rule, those people came to see me because they felt worn out and their relationship was at risk. The felt nothing they did was enough for their partner. They wanted nothing more than to see their partner be happy, and they did everything they could to accommodate their partner’s belief system. They folded laundry a certain way. They never went to bed without giving the cats that third daily feeding. They put their shoes in a certain place without fail. They changed social plans at the very last minute, on command. Anxiety drives a lot of weird expectations when people are trying to control their outer world in order to keep their inner world in some kind of peaceful state.
But it was never enough. The partners were critical and sometimes downright abusive, blaming my clients for their own general unhappiness. In each case the mutual belief system was that if my clients would only try harder then the partner would be happy. But the partner never WAS happy. Usually by the time my clients finally came to see me, they were pretty broken, convinced that something was terribly wrong with themselves, that they were somehow just not worthy of a good relationship. Somehow they were doing it wrong.
And you know what? They WERE doing it wrong. They were taking ownership of a problem that they had no control over. And every time they tried to rescue their mate from the mate’s own inner suffering, it encouraged a level of emotional dependency that left them drained and discouraged. Their partners had become a living, breathing, Amy G. Dala in the flesh; horror incarnate. Unbeknownst to them, they were holding their partner back from examining their own suffering and developing coping skills, and even, in some cases, getting treatment. Take my word for it: anxiety can break up a marriage. I could write an entire book, just on this topic.
Reality check: if you have anxiety, it’s YOUR problem. Not your partner’s. Sure, it affects them, but they can’t fix it for you. They may be able to help in specific situations, but they can’t fix it and they are not responsible for it. How do you decide where the buck stops? How can you tell if your inner Amy needs a time out in her room, or whether you should be listening to her? That is the million dollar question.
I wish there were a general answer to that question but there isn’t. However, I think part of the answer lies in results and reason. If something your partner does out of love for you (and maybe out of wanting to reduce their own suffering because of you) results in an actual decrease in anxious thinking, then why not? If it’s a small thing and they don’t resent doing it, or it benefits the two of your together, then by all means give it a go. Again, I illustrate through examples:
I’ve written here that due to a series of unfortunate experiences, I’m generally anxious about leaving the dock, just the pulling out of the slip part. It’s my own problem and I know that it is unreasonable. Even though it belongs to me, it affects Mike because he can always tell when I’m stressed. So as a couple, we have some choices in how to handle that. First, we could never leave the dock. That’s ridiculous, isn’t it? So that’s not happening.
Second, Mike, who is the captain of the ship, could accept that there is a possibility that we will hit the boat next to us. That’s HIS reality check about my anxiety. I mean, people hit other boats all the time in marinas. Just because I have anxiety doesn’t mean it’s not possible that our boat will hit the one next to us. Unlikely, yes, but not impossible. See how that works? It’s an actual possibility, even if it’s less likely to happen than I think it is.
Here’s the interesting thing: if he accepts that it is possible we could hit that boat, then my anxiety suddenly goes way down because I know that he acknowledges the problem, even if I make it bigger than it needs to be. He could take a little time to explain to me how we are going to get out without crushing the big-assed boat next to us. He could learn with me how to control the bow using lines rather than just saying, in effect, ‘Stop worrying. It will be fine.’ Because if I believed that then there would be no problem and that kind of answer makes it sound like he’s just throwing caution to the wind. These things would be good for both of us and would go a long way toward making me feel more confident as we pull out of the slip. He might actually learn something too.
Here’s a reality check about couples: when both people agree that something COULD happen, even if their emotional state about that problem differs, suddenly the energy shifts. Suddenly you are working as a team again and back into problem solving mode. Try it sometime. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the outcome.
Now rewind to that panic attack I was having on the way to Tofino last summer. I lay down in the cockpit. There was no danger anywhere, the weather was calm, the water serene. But I was having anxiety. In this case, there was literally nothing he could do to help me. I told him I would handle it and that he shouldn’t concern himself. That may not make him less worried about me, but it does allow him to know that I’m not holding him responsible for what my body is doing.
In another instance this summer, we were anchored off a small island close to Tofino. It seemed fine to both of us, but when we got up the next morning, I checked the depth sounder and began worrying we were going to hit bottom. I hollered down to Mike, who thought I could be right (thanks, Honey) and out of curiosity got out the lead line. He measured the depth at the bow and it seemed we had plenty of room. He went below, checking oil and other manly stuff. I was not actually satisfied and kept watch.
When I continue to be on alert, even when faced with actual numbers, then I tend to listen to myself. There are intangible feelings at play that have to do with intuition. At this point, I was not feeling ‘anxious’, only alert. It’s different. I looked at the stern of the boat and low and behold, I could see mud very close to our stern. Too close for me. This time I just didn’t bother to ask him. I walked forward and brought in some chain, pulling us out into deeper water. About this time, he wanted to start the engine anyhow, so he did, and the prop kicked up a lot of mud. Thanks, Amy. You were right, again. Sometimes you just have to listen to your gut.
Reality check: just because someone has anxiety doesn’t mean they are always wrong. When you begin paying attention, you can differentiate between being anxious, and alert intuition. It’s subtle, but it’s there.
I know that I’m likely to get spun up over distances and in the past I’ve had to rely on Mike to convince me that we were not too close to that other boat, or that rock wall, or whatever. He gets tired of that, and so do I because on some level I don’t think he’s any better at estimating distance than I am. Next time we go out I’ll have a reality check in my hot little hand now. It’s called a Laser Range Finder and Mike was gifted one for Christmas. It’s similar to this one. We are very excited to use it because it’s going to be a quick and easy way to measure distance without having to figure it out on the GPS. I’m pretty sure that it will go a long way towards solving any arguments we could have about whether we are ‘too close’ before they even happen. Hey, maybe by the time it either breaks or wears out, I won’t have this problem anymore because I’ll be more experienced! A girl can dream.
I can’t finish this post without talking for a minute about the difference, again, between anxiety and fear, this time in the context of the relationship. I’ve made the statement that your partner is not responsible for your anxiety. But what if they are responsible for making you afraid? I’ve noticed a couple of questions posted on a private FB forum for women where the woman is posting that she wants help controlling her anxiety, then goes on to describe behaviors that her mate exhibits that make her anxious. In the posts I’m thinking of, I’ve replied that the problem appears to be one of choice of mates, not one of anxiety. Don’t mistake chronic anxiety for fear of real things. If you consider if for a minute, you’ll know the difference unless you are already in a state of panic as you read this.
Maybe your partner is really doing something that makes you afraid, and because you have anxiety it’s easier to blame you for being anxious than to take their own responsibility for being foolish. I am reminded of the many women whose men make them terrified in the car because they drive way too fast, wait too long to apply brakes when traffic ahead is already stopped, tailgate the car in front of them, zip in and out of traffic, and in general drive like the rules don’t apply to them. (Sure, I’m stereotyping. But there’s a reason why that stereotype exists in this case.) If you are the partner of someone who has anxiety, the single worst thing you can do is betray their trust by blaming their anxiety when you are doing something that actually is actually making them afraid. That’s completely on you, my friend.
Do you do speed through no-wake zones? Anchor on top of other boats? Fail to check tide and current charts? Go up on deck without a life vest and tether at night when your partner should be resting? Climb the mast without proper safety equipment? Constantly sail with the rail in the water, even though your partner has asked you to lighten up? If you do stuff like that, then consider yourself lucky you have a partner at all. If you have a partner that has anxiety (or any partner at all, come to think of it) it’s part of your job as 1/2 of the equation to ask yourself if there is anything you are doing that is contributing to the problem. If so, then stop doing it. Maybe your anxious partner is right.
Likewise anxious people can blame themselves for having anxiety when what they are really experiencing is good old fashioned fear, like the women who I’ve seen post in that private group. I’m reminded of the woman who came to see me because she was afraid at home all the time. She thought she must have anxiety. She couldn’t relax in her own home, and she couldn’t sleep. Turns out she lived in a gang infested neighborhood where people actually got shot and there was, in general, a high level of all kinds of crime. Every night she would hear gunshots. The solution? Move the hell out of that neighborhood. She did. Problem solved. Sometimes it really is just that simple. I’ll never really understand why she had to come to me to figure that out. But I was glad to have been of service to her.
Be responsible for your own anxious feelings. Look at them. Examine them. On some level, you are going to know it if Amy is being overly dramatic, even if there is little you can do about it. Just say it out loud, ” Amy is being overly dramatic just now. It will go away.” It can be a relief of a sort when you realize that even though your body has these feelings we call anxiety, no one is actually to blame. If your partner is not doing anything to create fear, take your partner off the hook. If your partner IS doing something that creates true fear, and they won’t stop, well, that’s probably another kind of conversation.
This was a long post. If you want to read from the beginning of the series, here’s your link to the letter A. Stay tuned for the follow up when we publish the letter T.