Most of us have experienced an uncomfortable social situation, such as feeling awkward when meeting new people or giving a public speech. These incidents may come and go or disturb our emotions from time to time. This can lead us to believe that we can relate to how it feels to have Social Anxiety; in some ways, it allows us a small window into the experience. However, Social Anxiety (or what is sometimes called Social Phobia) is far more intrusive than the occasional feeling of shyness or nerves.
Social Anxiety Disorder is when a range of social situations are simply too much to handle. This may include public speaking or meeting new people, yes. But it might also include something as seemingly straightforward as making eye contact, entering a room, or eating in front of people. It can limit the sufferer from dating, going to parties, or even feeling able to attend school or work.
If any of this is familiar to you in the life you share with your partner, you may wonder, “Does my partner have Social Anxiety Disorder?” Perhaps you’ve noticed a deep discomfort in your partner in seemingly mundane social situations. Your partner might blush, sweat, and/or stammer when attempting to converse with someone unfamiliar or in an unfamiliar place. You may find yourselves at odds about attending certain functions. Your partner might avoid situations that could exacerbate his/her/their anxiety, such as pursuing promotions at work that would call for more high-profile activities.
If any of this sounds familiar, your partner may have Social Anxiety Disorder and may or may not be aware of it. There is no reason you can’t have a happy and meaningful relationship with someone who has social anxiety! However, your partner having social anxiety does not mean that you should resign yourself to being unhappy, feeling like you are making all the sacrifices, or that it’s okay for the anxiety to subvert the relationship.
Because your partner may struggle with unfamiliar or overwhelming situations, you may find yourself responsible for his/her/their emotional bank. It is exhausting to fulfill the emotional needs of your partner that should be filled with friends and other
close relationships. You may begin to feel resentment; you are constantly pouring from your own cup but not being replenished. The truth is that no one person can take the place of several, despite what media and marketing like to say about “finding your one special person.” There is a reason we strive to have friend groups, families (whether born or chosen), and romantic partners. Humans require a varied array of supports to live our best lives.
The saying “opposites attract” is true because, at times, we gravitate towards someone who balances us out. While this may work harmoniously initially, changes in our social interests may take a toll on the relationship in the later stages of the relationship. If your partner has social anxiety and you get your energy from being around people, this begins to limit what you can do together outside of staying home. Staying home together and relaxing is probably great sometimes, but it can lead to you feeling stifled if you have to do so too often or your partner feeling abandoned if you go out on your own.
Are you becoming more and more unhappy in your relationship because of the restraints of social anxiety? Maybe you start to wonder: Does social anxiety ruin relationships? Can a person with social anxiety sustain a healthy relationship? The answer to both is: possibly. It is possible for social anxiety to ruin a relationship if the symptoms of anxiety begin to make decisions instead of you as a couple. And it is possible for a person with social anxiety to sustain a healthy relationship if the anxiety is managed and respect for one another remains.
If you are currently frustrated with your partner’s social anxiety, you probably feel pretty low. You know that Social Anxiety Disorder isn’t a choice, so you probably feel guilty for your negative thoughts and feelings. You might feel that you don’t do enough at times, and other times you might feel that you’re forced to do too much. The first thing to understand is that you are not alone in your feelings, and you are not wrong to have them. Any mental health disorder is going to come with additional strain in some areas; acknowledging that your partner’s anxiety is hard on the relationship doesn’t make you a bad person. In fact, it puts you in a position to manage that social anxiety as an individual and as a team.
It is important that you understand the symptoms of social anxiety so as to avoid labels such as “he is so lazy, he is not even trying” or blanket statements like, “he is so indecisive, we can never go anywhere.”
If you feel alone as the partner of someone with anxiety, you may want to connect with other people who are in a similar situation.
You might also want to connect with other people who suffer from Social Anxiety Disorder; a great way to remind ourselves that someone isn’t doing something on purpose is to see that others do the same thing. Group therapy can offer reassuring access to many different people who have shared experiences.
Keep in mind that your partner did not choose to have social anxiety. This is not something they can just “grow out of.” At the end of the day, it is anxiety, which requires a certain level of understanding. Part of understanding social anxiety also means accepting that while one can make improvements, it will remain in some shape or form. Therefore, it is more effective and helpful to have realistic goals for the future of your relationship. It is important to seek therapy for social anxiety to learn the best tools in a safe and neutral space. Your partner may wish to attend therapy alone; you may want to attend therapy alone, and/or you may also want to attend therapy as a couple.
Sometimes, to see changes in our partner and overall in our relationship, the change will and must begin with us. Therefore, it is important that you re-evaluate and redefine your roles, responses, and behaviors in the relationship when social anxiety is triggered. As someone who is in a relationship with a person with Social Anxiety, you may have come to take on unhealthy roles, such as an enabler or a rescuer. Identifying these roles will allow you to subvert them.
Communicate needs and expectations in advance so that when the time comes to enforce those boundaries, both parties are informed and aware. Set your boundaries unapologetically yet also empathetically. You can understand where your partner is coming from, yet you can still say no, or ask for more. Communicating about your boundaries will give you both a chance to think about what that will mean, ask questions, and further clarify if necessary.
Your partner can only do so much as far as managing his/her/their anxiety but should be willing to do what is necessary to make you feel supported and respected overall. This might mean that your partner identifies that one particular boundary will be difficult; rather than you having to bend or your partner feeling abandoned, a compensatory act or habit can come into play. For example, if your boundary is that you need to spend time in a social group at least every two weeks, your partner might take up a solo hobby to do at those times. There are solutions that allow you to maintain your boundaries, and you have every right to pursue them.
Talk about your feelings and your partner’s feelings. You should each aim to listen to one another with the intent to understand, not simply to respond to defend. This can take practice and won’t
always be easy, simple, or straightforward. Remember: you and your partner are a team. Helping your partner to be accountable by supporting him/her/them will be a part of your process. As you do so, remember that your goal is not to police them or be their coach. You are the cheerleader! You can and should encourage their efforts, positive habits, and adaptive behaviors.
If you see an opportunity for your partner to practice some goals they are working on in therapy, avoid telling them what to do and how to do it. You will sound like a therapist, which will totally backfire; your partner already has a therapist. Instead, give them options. Gently point out to them something you are seeing and ask them if they would like to take on that opportunity for practice. If they don’t want to, do not be resentful or judgmental. Trust that your partner is aware of their ability (or lack thereof) to practice a goal at that moment. Offer to talk to your partner
about the experience at a later time, when he/she/they have decompressed. Both of you will have the opportunity to understand one another better through neutral dialog.
You are a person in the relationship just as much as your partner is. Taking care of yourself is important for your own wellness and the stability of your partnership. We see the importance and benefit of self-care every day at our practice here in Woodland Hills Self-care and self-love are the foundation for everything you do. Providing yourself with care means a couple of things in this context.
First, you can make more time for self-care and stress management. No matter what you have on your plate, you can’t forget the basic necessities of life, such as good sleep hygiene; healthy nutrition and water intake; physical movement; meditation; and journaling. You can’t pour from an empty cup, so self-care supports both you and those around you. It is not a bad thing to prioritize yourself in this way.
Secondly, you can identify other ways to meet your needs that don’t jeopardize your relationships. Are there other friends or family members who would like to go to a concert with you or a mini-vacation? Are there groups you can join that relate to your hobbies or passions, such as book clubs, paint nights, yoga classes, etc.? Many individuals in couples relationships have different hobbies; social anxiety on your partner’s part isn’t the only reason why you might need to spend time doing something your partner isn’t interested in.
It is human nature to want to socialize, and nobody would ask you to give that up. What will help you is to create a plan for navigating both your social needs that work on both of your strengths.
Maybe this means you go to social gatherings in separate cars, so that your partner can leave a little earlier if necessary, or he/she/they can join later. Maybe this means you set an alternating pattern for socialization: one weekend, the two of you engage in an activity or event together, and the following weekend you join in on a group activity. Or every other weekend, your partner might decide whether or not to stay home, but you are doing a group activity no matter what.
By all means, social gathering has been a hot-button issue for the past two years. We have collectively put our efforts into finding new ways to stay connected, and more and more people have learned to be flexible and compassionate about how people process the need for space and/or social distance. There is no reason why you shouldn’t use that same template to navigate social situations as they relate to your partner’s social anxiety.
As was said before, Social Anxiety Disorder is a lifelong companion for your partner. Managing the way anxiety impacts your life together, therefore, is a lifelong undertaking as well. If both you and your partner are invested in making that work, there is no reason why you can’t. There is also no shame in being unwilling to participate in the relationship if your partner isn’t willing to make efforts to deal with his/her/their social anxiety and its impact.
All relationships are two-way streets built on mutual love, respect, and communication. Your partner is no less capable of those things because of Social Anxiety Disorder, provided you share a safe environment. Both of you deserve self-care and a strong partnership, and you can have it! With work and patience, you can have a supportive and secure relationship with one another, regardless of what obstacles or challenges come your way.
Here at Embracing You Therapy, we invite you to explore with us how life would be different if you had more control over your thoughts and emotions, and we invite you to consider that it is possible to accept things just as they are, embracing imperfections to create a gentler place for calm in your life.
Let’s learn what drives your unique perspective on anxiety and stress. Then, let’s find the tools-your unique tools that help you respond to life in a healthy, calm way. Contact us today for your complimentary 15-minute phone consultation with our Client Care Coordinators.
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