Carolyn starts getting ready for Girls Night at 3:00 on Saturday afternoon. She tries on every different combination of outfit in her closet, while her inner critic insults her mercilessly.

“You look fat in that.” 
“That is so out of date.” 
“All your friends are so much more attractive than you. Do you think they even like you? They just invite you out of pity.” 
“What will you even talk about? Your life is so boring.”

Defeated, Carolyn sends out her typical group text at 6:30, “I’m not coming. Have a nice time.”

Her girlfriends receive the text individually while en route to Girls Night. Each has her own interpretation.
Barb: “Carolyn thinks she is too good for us.”
Emily: “That is the fourth time in a row that Carolyn has canceled. I wonder what’s going on? I need to check on her.”
Ann: “She must have gotten a better offer to do something else.”

Carolyn settles into her PJ’s, opens a bottle of wine, and spends the evening watching Netflix. She goes to bed committing that next time will be different. She will start getting ready earlier.

Can anyone relate to this story, as either Carolyn or her friends?

This is how anxiety can affect relationships. Carolyn’s pattern of canceling plans opens up all kinds of interpretations from judgment to compassion. What would happen if Carolyn opened up to her friends and confided what was going on with her?

April and Kevin sit on the couch watching TV. Kevin laughs at all of the punchlines and genuinely enjoys the evening. Now and then he notices that April is watching but not laughing. He wonders what’s up.  

“Is she mad at me? Did I do something? Whenever I ask what’s wrong she always says ‘Nothing.’ I’m not asking this time. If something is wrong she will tell me. She has promised to tell me if something is wrong.”

April is sitting on the couch but her thoughts are focused elsewhere. Today at work she noticed her heart beating really fast and that made her wonder if something was wrong. She started sweating and feeling anxious so she grabbed a snack out of the break room for a change of pace. She made it through the workday by trying to focus on work. But now her mind keeps reporting all of the things that could be wrong with her health; heart disease, diabetes, cancer, a tumor, a rare disease that will be named after her someday. 

“Can Kevin tell that something is wrong? No, he is still laughing at the show. If I say something he’ll think I’m crazy! But I really did feel my heart racing, so there IS something wrong. I’ll just do some research on my own and figure out what is wrong with me. I’ll eventually go to the doctor, and then when I have a diagnosis, I will tell him.”

What is anxiety doing to this relationship? It is reducing the level of closeness this couple could be experiencing. It creates questions, insecurity, and distance.

➡️ Are they mad at me? | I can’t tell him. | He will think I’m crazy. 

My favorite relationship expert Dr. Sue Johnson says, “The most functional way to regulate difficult emotions in love relationships is to share them.”

Is anxiety interrupting your relationship? The best way to take back your relationship is to let your friends or partner know what is going on inside of you. This level of vulnerability builds intimacy and safety and reduces the power of silence where “What ifs” lurk and tear you down. When you don’t let your people know what you are thinking, your silence is open to all kinds of stories that are written to explain behavior. And most of the time the stories we write about others aren’t good, they tend to be worst-case scenarios. 

So the next time you find yourself canceling plans like Carolyn or working really hard to keep your thoughts to yourself like April, be brave, open up and share your thoughts! The loving people in your life want to love you through it. 

~ Donna Durham, MMFT

Photo by Alex Holyoake on Unsplash