“So I’m not normally a stressed-out person” I proclaimed from the pulpit a few years ago. My best friend happened to be sitting next to my wife as I spoke and he leaned over and whispered “false!” When they told me the story later they both were laughing. It was then I realized I had a supermassive black hole-sized blind spot in my life. I was an anxious person. I had anxiety in marriage, and didn’t even know it.
The first six months of my firstborn’s life were tough. Our baby was struggling to breastfeed and losing weight. He slept terribly at night due to eczema. My wife had postpartum anxiety and if that’s a thing dads can have then I had it too. Those six months were the hardest of our marriage. We fought constantly and with little relief. I told myself this was just a normal part of having a newborn and it would pass.
The circumstances did pass, but the anxiety in marriage did not.
What I realize now is that most of my life I’ve been a “high-functioning” anxious person, meaning I’ve always had unhealthy amounts of anxiety but have largely learned to keep it repressed. However the pressures of having a newborn, a new job I’d taken, and some painful trauma surfacing from my past became a perfect storm of overwhelming, out-of-control anxiety. This anxiety was part of what led me to develop an unsafe friendship with another woman that came perilously close to becoming an affair that would have wrecked my family and my pastoral ministry.
My point is this: anxiety in marriage matters. A lot. Unfortunately in some Christian circles we don’t have language to talk about this. The word anxiety to many just means “stressed out” and the answer to anxiety is to pray more, trust God more, to experience the “peace that passes all understanding.” And for sure those things are important, but in my journey I’ve realized there’s more to anxiety than just “pray it away” in the same way that you wouldn’t just pray over a broken arm or a defective heart. You’d seek professional help! Over the next few days I’m going to share some of what I’ve learned about dealing with anxiety. These things have literally saved my marriage. Here’s the first one:
It’s Possible to be Anxious and Not Know It
As that opening story shows everyone who knew me well knew I was anxious, but I didn’t. The reason for this is I’d learned from an early age to repress any anxious feelings. I had the privilege of growing up in a great, amazing, Jesus-focused family with two parents closely involved in my life. But every family dynamic has weaknesses and ours didn’t have words for negative emotions. Phrases like “that makes me sad” or “I feel anxious/overwhelmed” weren’t a part of our family’s emotional reality. Looking back I think I’ve probably had diagnosable anxiety since 6th grade, but assumed it was just what everyone dealt with.
The first, strangest and for some hardest step of dealing with anxiety in marriage is realizing/admitting you have it! So …
- Do you find yourself feeling super jittery throughout your day?
- Would those who know you describe you as calm or high-strung?
- Do you have a compulsive habit (biting your nails, picking at your facial hair, obsessively cleaning, being on your phone at all times) you can’t seem to stop?
- Do you ever feel like there’s this pressure in your chest or your whole body is surging with energy?
- Do you find yourself disproportionately angry with people or circumstances around you?
- Does it feel like your emotions spike to uncontrollable levels unexpectedly?
- How much pressure do you feel to “get things done” in a given day?
- Do you constantly find yourself “zoning out” from your spouse/family because you just don’t have the emotional capacity to connect?
- Is there a seriously traumatic event either in your past or present you are avoiding dealing with?
- How hard is it for you to sit still in silence?
This list isn’t meant to be comprehensive, but more a launching pad for personal reflection. You might be a naturally laid back, low stress person. If so, good for you! (Just stay away from us anxious people. Your weirdly calm demeanor stresses up out). But if in reading through this post there’s a part of you thinking okay yeah maybe I’d encourage you to share this with your spouse and have a conversation. Ask each other “how anxious do you think I am?” (one warning: do this when things are calm and quiet, not when the kids are running around screaming or the house is on fire)
The good news is anxiety in marriage isn’t God’s plan for us. In future posts we’ll talk about some of his tools to help us find freedom, but for today just answer this question as honestly as you can: is it possible I struggle with anxiety, and if so am I willing to admit it?