One day I was in a meeting at work when my wife called. I discreetly sent her a text: “In a meeting. You OK?” Her response? “NO.” So I stepped out of the meeting to call her. She was at Costco, by herself, crying. “I can’t get out of my car,” she said. I assumed she had been in a wreck. “Did you get hit? Do you need me to come up there?” She just cried and my heart sank. There hadn’t been a crash, but my wife struggles with anxiety.
She couldn’t verbalize what was happening to her because she was having a panic attack. Living with a wife who has anxiety can be hard. We have mostly good days, but we do have some bad ones and I have learned a lot from them in the last few years. While I’m not a mental health professional, here are 5 things I’ve have learned not to say to a wife who struggles with anxiety.
1. “What is happening to you?”
When I say this to my wife, what she hears is “something is wrong with you.” This doesn’t help. A better question is, “What is happening around you?” This allows her to pinpoint and process what’s currently triggering her anxiety. Helping your wife see what she can and cannot control brings some stability to that moment. However, there are times when words don’t help and all we can give is our presence.
2. “Did you forget to take your medication?”
This question comes from my frustration. For guys who like to fix problems, it’s easy to assess the situation and try to find a solution. It’s also easy to assume the solution must be to “take your medication.” To ask this question appropriately, my wife and I have created a checklist that includes taking her medication and monitoring and processing her anxiety triggers. She knows the checklist. My role is to help her process, not to fix her or the situation.
3. “Do you need a minute alone?”
If you think your wife needs a minute alone, she needs a minute alone. This is the same as asking her if she needs you to do the dishes. She always wants you to do the dishes. So instead of asking, when I get home, I’ll let her run to the store or let her know it’s OK if she would like to go for a bike ride. Give your wife some routine, structured space and time alone.
4. “This is such a small thing. Why are you blowing it out of proportion?”
Minimizing the struggle doesn’t help in the middle of a situation. One night, I asked my wife to order pizza. Over and over, she asked which pizza place to choose. I told her it doesn’t matter, but she was paralyzed by anxiety about making the right choice and talking on the phone. Whatever triggers her anxiety may seem like a small thing to you, but if you see a small thing turning into something bigger, don’t accuse her of blowing it out of proportion. Instead, use it as an opportunity to serve her.
5. “Calm down!”
Frustrating days happen, especially when one of you struggles with anxiety. Telling your wife to calm down is a childish approach to offering help. Instead, we must put aside our frustration and be reasonable yet firm. Ask, “What can I do that will be most helpful to you right now?” I often find myself hugging my wife tightly saying this over and over.