Anxiety is part of life; unfortunately it’s also part of relationships

Anxiety is part of life and basically there are three broad ways of coping with it – approach, avoid, or bind. Here’s the characteristics of each:

Approach. Folks who are able to approach anxiety actually feel anxious. What makes them approachers is that they have learned along the way that anxiety is part and parcel of either learning something new (for example, the new software at work) or part of solving a problem (being unsure where you stand with your new supervisor). Approachers know that if they stick with the software, get some training from IT in a couple of weeks they’ll master it and their anxiety will go away.

Ditto on the supervisor. Though the conversation may be a bit uncomfortable, they know if they can ask the supervisor for some feedback about their performance, the outcome will let them know what they may need to do or not do to fix any potential problems, and the knowledge and the doing will reduce their angst.

Their ability to tolerate their anxiety allows them to not be intimidated by the new or unknown, which in turn allows them to take acceptable risks. Not surprisingly, many approachers tend to be creative.

Avoid. Unlike approachers who view anxiety as part of growth or accompanying a larger problem that they need to solve, for avoiders their anxiety is the problem. Instead to pushing forward, their anxiety overwhelms them and stops them in their tracks. Because they can’t tolerate the feelings of anxiety, they try to avoid what they think may be causing it (like the supervisor or tackling the software) or kill the feelings through drugs, alcohol, other addictions like porn or video games, medications, etc.

Bind. Unlike approachers and avoiders, binders don’t feel anxiety. Why? Because they learned early on how to cut it off before it builds. They do this by keeping their world small, they’re lives are run on rigid routines, rigid thinking, the if-all-you-have-is-a-hammer-everything-is-a-nail view towards the world. They’ll dismiss the software as impractical, assume they are doing well and ignore the supervisor. And should anything come along that could potentially create anxiety, they will literally screen it out of awareness – changing the subject, for example, or not hearing what another person is saying. Blinders and control are the name of the game.

Okay, these are basic types. Generally everyone has a primary mode of coping – for example, most of the time you’re an approacher – but under enough stress will switch to one of the others – get overwhelmed and avoid, or get rigid and controlling. Where it gets interesting is when we combine the different primary types in relationships. Here goes:

Approach / Approach. This is a marriage made in heaven. Think Lennon and McCarthy, Jobs and Wozniak. Here both individuals are able to take risks, be creative, work together to tackle problems and push each other along to fulfill themselves and develop their individual and combined potentials.

Approach / Avoid. This relationship may lack that same magic, but approachers can be good role models for avoiders and can be supportive in their learning to take approach anxiety. This is what good parents do when they encourage their cautious child to go ahead and try out for the soccer team or the school play. This is what good therapists do when they help clients speak up and have that difficult conversation with their fathers. Similarly, in relationships between partners, the more risk-taking partner can helpfully encourage the other along until they can get their own sea legs.

The only tricky part here is making sure the approacher partner doesn’t become the drill sergeant / parent who is critical and controlling, who becomes the frustrated caretakeralways managing the other’s anxiety, or becomes the martyr who takes on all that the avoider avoids, and eventually burns out. To make this work well, there needs to be open communication, clear requests for support, and a sense of working as a team.

If the avoider, for example, knows he gets overwhelmed attending a party where he knows no one, he might say something like: “You know I can get shy in social situations; I’d like you to help me when we go to the party Saturday night by speaking up, by standing next to me and bringing up topics to help me get started.” Here the avoider is acknowledging the problem, making a clear request for support, and with it is able to take a baby step towards approaching his anxiety. When both can work like this as a team the relationship stay balanced.

Approach / Bind. This is a difficult relationship. The approacher who is always willing to move forward feels hemmed in by the binder’s rigidity, can feel her creativity being dismissed and sabotaged. The binder, from her side, sees the approacher as reckless, always rocking the boat, and making life unnecessarily uncomfortable. They usually part ways quickly.

Avoid / Avoid. What happens in the short term in these relationships and that both individuals avoid topics that create anxiety and avoid confrontation – we don’t talk about your brother, I don’t bring up your drinking. The result is that the difficult conversations are bypassed and real problems are more swept under the rug than settled.

Over a long term relationship, the couple essentially develops protection pacts – not only will I not bring up the topic of your brother because I know it makes you upset, if someone else brings it up I’ll help you out by distracting and changing the topic. Such as couple can also distract themselves from difficult subjects between them by focusing together on things “out there” – they can develop a somewhat paranoid, high alert  “us against the world” stance, for example, where they’re always focusing on the dangers around them so that they never have to focus on themselves.

Avoid / Bind. Binders can be seductive to avoiders. Here is someone, says the avoider, who seems to have all together. Unlike me, she / he never is rattled – my hero; they can help me feel safe. Unlike approachers, however, the binders aren’t good role models. Over time the avoider  finds out that the binder is rigid, controlling at times, listens poorly, and is often unsympathetic to the avoiders emotions and needs. The avoider gets fed up and eventually leaves.

Bind / Bind. Our last combination. Unlike the avoid / avoid relationships where both are actively anxious and actively working to keep anxiety at bay, binders, who are not anxious, can coexist by dividing up psychological and practical turf : You take care of the kids, I’ll bring in the money; you take care of the inside of the house, I’ll do the outside. As long as we leave each other alone to do our own thing, as long as we live in these somewhat compartmentalized, parallel universes, we get along. What’s missing of course is any real intimacy or growth.

So where are you in your relationships? What role to you tend to take? How is your current combination working for you?

If it is not, the starting point, of course, is to have conversations about the relationship – how you feel overwhelmed, or disconnected from your partner. If doing this is too difficult, write it down in a letter or email, but then follow up with a conversation – what did you think about my email? If that doesn’t work, go together to see a counselor to help create the safety you need to say what you need to say.

And if you are realizing that your coping style isn’t working, that you need to move out of those avoid or bind coping styles, practice taking small risks, experiments in stepping outside your comfort zone. The goal here is desensitizing yourself to those feeling of anxiety is by learning to tolerate it in ever-increasing doses. And if you need support – someone to challenge you or support you when you step outside your comfort one, that’s fine.

It’s all about growth. It’s a matter of practice. It’s a bit of courage, and a big dose of patience.

Author’s Books

© Copyright 2015 Robert Taibbi, L.C.S.W., All rights Reserved.
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Bob Taibbi is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker with 40 years experience primarily in community mental health working with couples and families as a clinician, supervisor and clinical director. Bob is the author of 7 books: Doing Couples Therapy: Craft and Creativity in Work with Intimate Partners Doing Family Therapy: Craft and Creativity in Clinical Practice, now in its 3rd edition, and recently translated into Chinese and Portuguese Clinical Supervision: A Four-Stage Process of Growth and Discovery Clinical Social Work Supervision: Practice & Process Boot Camp Therapy: Action-Oriented Brief Clinical Approaches to Anxiety, Anger & Depression The Art of the First Session Brief Therapy With Couples & Families in Crisis In addition to his books, Bob writes an regular online column for Psychology Today magazine entitled Fixing Families, as well as a monthly parenting advice column for Charlottesville Family magazine. He has also published over 300 magazine and journal articles, and has contributed several book chapters including Favorite Counseling Techniques: 55 Masters Share Their Secrets which cited him among the top 100 therapists in the country. He served as teen advice columnist for Current Health, a contributing editor to Your Health and Fitness, and has received 3 national writing awards for Best Consumer Health Writing. Bob is a graduate of Rutgers University and the University of South Carolina, and has served as adjunct professor at several universities. He provides trainings nationally in couple therapy, family therapy, brief therapy, and clinical supervision. He is currently in private practice in Charlottesville, Virginia with Lewis Weber & Associates: