Anxiety permeates everything. It zaps your positive self-image with ugly words (You’re unattractive. You’re lumpy. No one could find you cute or pretty). It roils self-doubt through your conversations (Did that just sound stupid? OMG, that sounded so stupid). It coils around your interests (boring). Your witty asides seem not witty, but weird. You feel like you’re always the strange kid in the corner, panting to keep up, worried you’re left behind, a hurdle behind the smart, cool people all around you.
It makes you protective of your body, this disease of the heart and the mind. You cross your arms over your breasts. You fold into yourself, a paper doll of fear.
In romantic situations, it’s not a question of if you’ll be found wanting, but how. Maybe you have a particular spot: the sag of belly leftover from childbirth, the stretch marks clawing up your thighs. Or maybe it’s simply your everything, and you never want to strip down because you feel unprotected, vulnerable, scared, but you don’t quite know why — just that you aren’t good enough.
Anxiety really complicates romance, both in a committed relationship and out of it. In a way, it’s a miracle that any of us anxious people ever managed to find a significant other because dating is hell for us. We’re introduced to strangers (who generally set us on edge) and expected to make small talk (which we suspect sounds stupid), all while gauging if this is a person we want to pursue something romantic with. Half the time, we can’t fucking tell because we’re so wrapped up in our own heads that we can’t get out of them long enough to evaluate the person. This is why anxious women end up with so many assholes. Sigh.
And if we manage it, our personal romantic lead needs to be able to cope with our anxiety. That means constantly — constantly — reassuring us that, yes ,we look fine, and no, we didn’t sound stupid, and yes, that dress looks great, and no, she doesn’t hate you; you didn’t leave the stove on, and the dog is not sad you left him in his crate when we went to bed because he gets crated every night and lives a charmed fucking life.
This can get exhausting, and it takes a special person, a special mate, to cope with an anxious partner, especially at the times when the anxiety gets bad. Some days it seems that everything coming out of my husband’s mouth is a reassurance of my attractiveness, fitness, and social skills. He ends up playing the role of the Great Reassurer, the Great Comforter, and I’m the damaged goods.
Take that into the bedroom and see where it leads.
You’re freaked out to enter that realm sometimes (not all the time, but sometimes) because what if you look bad naked? What if you perform badly in bed or don’t do what your partner likes? Or what if you can’t have an orgasm or take forever to orgasm? You literally can’t shut off your brain; your thoughts keep racing despite your best efforts to thwart them and live in the moment with your amazing lover.
The fear of taking forever to orgasm — I’m on multiple drugs that make that an issue — is enough to shut down my sex drive, stat, which confuses my husband who says he’ll go as long as it takes. But I don’t want him to “go as long as it takes” because how unpleasant is that? He swears it isn’t. I know what sex-ache feels like, dude, either in the hands or other areas. So it’s enough to make me don a giant unsexy T-shirt, roll over, and go to sleep. This is not a helpful marriage technique. Anxiety takes a huge toll on one’s sex life.
Then there are date nights. I often chicken out of date nights. The constellation of things that can go wrong is so enormous I can work myself into a miserable pit-of-the-stomach drop just thinking of them. I hate leaving the kids. What if the babysitter doesn’t help the 3-year-old when he cries? And I hate dressing up. Like many people with anxiety, dressing is an ordeal. I have to try on multiple outfits in multiple combinations multiple times before I can settle on something I deem only okay-ish, but which still showcases some major flaw only I can detect (or so they tell me). There are shoe and jewelry decisions, and none of them are quite right, and my husband comes home and puts on something without a care in the world, and he’s ready to head out while my head is still spinning.
Then there’s the dinner conversation where you try hard not to bring up the kids or argue with your spouse about anything, but dammit, somehow it always happens, just like you knew it would, which makes you feel guilty and you want to curl up in yourself, which looks like sulking to the uninitiated. Hopefully your partner will realize the mortification and sadness for what it is, but often they don’t. So in their mind, they’re out to dinner (which is a rare occasion) with a pissed-off spouse. Lovely.
Anxiety sucks. It takes a strong relationship to weather a case of it, a mammoth effort on the anxious person’s part, and a caring partner on the other side. The romance needs to be gentle and slow and careful. The reassurances must come thick and fast. The blowups, when your partner gets sick of it all, must be few and far between. It’s hard on a person to love someone with anxiety. It’s hard to romance someone with anxiety.
But most of all, it’s hard to be that person suffering, all day, every day, from doubt and fear. Fear of being not enough. Fear of being unattractive and inept. But most of all, fear of being unloved. So for those of you who stand alongside us, who help us weather the storms, and love us unconditionally despite this beast ravaging our mind: Thank you.