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Carolyn Hax: Partner is ‘overwhelmed with anxiety,’ denies it’s a problem and won’t get help

(Nick Galifianakis/For The Washington Post)

Dear Carolyn: My partner has a lot of anxiety in their life. This manifests in a lot of fear, a lot of control, and uncontrolled emotional outbursts. When an outburst happens, the excuse is stress. When there is an explosion at the kids, it’s because they “just won’t do what I ask.” The pandemic has been an exceptional challenge, as hand sanitizer has been a constant in our lives since the before times.

I am in therapy. I’ve asked to go to couples’ therapy. My partner refuses, saying we’ve done couples therapy before (we have) and we are still fighting (we are). They don’t view the anxiety as a problem. It’s who they are, and if I can’t deal with it I must not like them. I can’t even use the A-word for fear of an argument.

Couples’ therapy in the past got us communicating better but didn’t really deal with the underlying emotional challenges we have in our individual lives. Since the anxiety “isn’t a problem” for my partner but it is for the rest of us, what do we do? This is an incredible person full of love, intelligence and compassion who just gets overwhelmed by anxiety and cannot see it. Unfortunately, the rest of us do.

— M.

M.: “A lot” of “uncontrolled” “explosion[s] at the kids” aren’t a problem for your partner.

Give that one a long think. Harming them isn’t a problem?

The “rest of us” in your story aren’t on equal footing! Your kids don’t have the same maturity or agency you do to help them deal with the fallout — and you’re a mess. You’re afraid to speak!

How do you think that translates to them? It must be terrifying. They're vulnerable and stuck.

And it's your job to protect them.

So protect them.

I am always reluctant to step in where there is a therapist present. But you are barely talking about your children in your letter; you’re talking about being cowed into silence and resignation by your explosive partner — cowed by those explosions, which are a known form of control being used to dark perfection in your home.

So here I am. Fix your to-do list by putting your kids' safety at the top.

It is wrong to shun people for illness — but it is not wrong to make their seeking treatment a condition for a relationship with someone ill. It’s the not-so-fine distinction that allows you, maybe with a lot of pain but also with a clear conscience, to say that you will not stand for the explosions at the kids anymore. That your sympathy for the struggle anxiety involves is abundant but not bottomless and does not include enabling abuse. That you insist your partner seek treatment or you will have to find other ways to provide a stable home for the kids. That you are taking this stand because you “like” your partner enough to try to heal the family you made — but that goal is separate from your duty to your kids.

You can “like” them, by the way, and still refuse to be manipulated. To spin it into your fault for objecting to their outbursts is classic.

When you draw a hard line with an explosive person, it can pull the pin on an emotional grenade. Expect it. And be ready: Talk it through with your therapist first; talk to an attorney to explore your options and necessary duck formations; call the Childhelp hotline, a free and confidential resource for child-abuse prevention, at 800-4-A-CHILD. Firm up the ground, then take this urgent stand.