I was recently contacted by someone who was looking for advice on being in a relationship with someone who is socially anxious. She wrote, "I'm contemplating marriage and children with someone who appears to have moderate to severe social anxiety disorder, and it's having a profound impact on our lives and our relationship. I know that my own way of communicating needs improvement, and I also want to understand the challenges of social anxiety better, so I know what my partner is going through. We've reached a breaking point of sorts, and I'm looking for new approaches." It struck me that there are many, many resources available for people who struggle with social anxiety—do a quick search on amazon.com, and all sorts of self-help books will be retrieved. However, there are no resources that I know of to help partners of socially anxious people. I am taking a step toward changing this by writing this article.
What is social anxiety disorder? It is a type of anxiety disorder that is characterized by fear of negative evaluation or humiliation, concerns about the judgments of others, and worry that one will be rejected. According to the website of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, it is one of the most common anxiety disorders, affecting around 15 million people in the United States. Most people experience a bit of social anxiety from time to time, such as when we walk into a room full of people we do not know, or when we have to stand up and give a speech in front of others. Social anxiety becomes problematic, and might even be diagnosed as an anxiety disorder, when it causes substantial interference in one's life. Many socially anxious people avoid situations in which they might be evaluated by others, which can then cause a host of occupational, academic, and interpersonal limitations.
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Because the central feature of social anxiety disorder is worry about the opinions of others, it is logical that social anxiety could have effects on romantic relationships (much like those described by the woman who contacted me for advice). Several years ago, I conducted research on social anxiety and romantic relationships, such that I had couples engage in videotaped conversations about neutral, conflictual, and positive topics. I found that during conversations about conflictual topics, socially anxious people demonstrated many more negative behaviors than people who were not socially anxious. For example, they often gave the sense that they did not understand their partner's point of view. They often brought in other issues, rather than sticking to the topic at hand. They often jumped to the conclusion that they knew what their partner was thinking. In addition, across all types of conversation, they demonstrated fewer positive behaviors than their nonanxious counterparts. For example, they rarely took ownership over their own feelings and viewpoints using "I feel…" statements. They rarely provided a rationale for why they agreed or disagreed with their partner. They did not often show empathy toward their partner.
It is important to recognize that socially anxious people are not intentionally trying to be contentious, avoid taking responsibility for problems in their relationships, or withhold empathy from their partner. In fact, they would probably be mortified that they are having that effect on their partner. Rather, what happens is that socially anxious people are often "living in their heads". Many socially anxious people continually monitor themselves to ensure that they are coming across favorably and not doing anything that would make them "look stupid", even when they are interacting with someone they know very well, such as a romantic partner. Researchers have coined a term for this phenomenon—it is called self-focused attention. The problem with self-focused attention is that the socially anxious person's attention is divided—he is engaging in conversation, but he is also tracking his internal thoughts, emotions, and physiological sensations. The end result is that he misses important social cues and interacts less effectively than he might otherwise. Over time, this interpersonal style can impair the strength of a socially anxious person's "connection" with another.
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If you are in a relationship with someone you think might be struggling with social anxiety, here are some tips for making your relationship work:
- Make benign attributions for her behavior. An attribution is an explanation that we give for why things happen, such as why someone treats us as they do. When your partner interacts in a way that seems unhelpful or offputting, it's easy to get upset by making a malicious attribution like, "She just doesn't care enough". In contrast, a more benign attribution would be something like, "I bet she didn't mean to come across that way. She struggles with communication." Research shows that relationships are more likely to last when partners make benign attributions for one another's behavior, relative to when they make malicious attributions.
- Do not make assumptions. Social situations that might seem fun and exciting to you might seem torturous to your partner. When making plans for social events like family gatherings and date nights, check in first with your partner to make sure that he thinks it will be enjoyable. If he expresses concern, strive to understand his hesitation rather than assuming that he'll just go along with the plan and be fine once he gets there.
- Compromise. If you and your partner differ significantly regarding the degree to which you find social gatherings fun and enjoyable, you will probably have to make some compromises. Have an intimate evening at home on occasion, rather than going out in public. Find a close friend or family member who will accompany you to social gatherings that are particularly challenging to your partner. That being said, you do not need to compromise all the time. Both of you are equal partners in the relationship, and it is important that you get your needs met as well. Besides, if your partner avoids most or all social gatherings, her anxiety will only get worse.
- Have accurate expectations. When your socially anxious partner does accompany you to a social gathering, he will probably come across as shy. He might not contribute a lot to the conversation. At times, he might seem uncomfortable. Just remember that it took a lot for him to get there and that he might not "perform" to your standards.