Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

The Anxious Husband

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on May 8, 2012

Karen, fifty, married to Kip, fifty-five, for thirty years, says “I just realized that my husband is so anxious.” “After thirty years you realize this?” I ask, wondering how this happens that decades into a relationship new ideas are formed. “Well, yes, I know it sounds ridiculous, but last night as I was talking to him, I realized that the expression on his face was anxiety and not ‘spacing out’ like I used to believe.” “Tell me more,” I say, so curious about this pivotal moment. “We were talking about our financial situation and I was saying that I was worried about our retirement and he just went mute and in the past I thought he did not like to talk about this subject, but suddenly, I realized that it makes him anxious and that is why he does not like to talk about it. I never saw it as anxiety. I just saw it as avoidance. Now, I see that the avoidance is because of anxiety. Maybe I got this idea from reading your blog, but when I thought about it, his behavior made so much sense to me.” Karen says with the excitement of figuring out a puzzle.

“Did you tell Kip about your insight?” I ask, wondering if she had the courage to share her idea with Kip and wondering if he had the courage to consider this notion. “Yes, I did and he said he would think about it, so I was pleased with that.” “Is he anxious about other things?” I ask, wondering if there is a bigger theme in their relationship. “Yes, anything that has to do with losing control he gets anxious about. He seems anxious that I am going to gain a lot of weight and that really bothers me too.” Karen says with a feeling of irritability that his anxiety is infectious. “Maybe if he understands his anxiety then he can at least identify his feelings and communicate on that level and not on the level of the number on a scale.” I say, highlighting that this insight, if it fits Kip, could cause a major change in their communication style. “That would be interesting, after all these years.” Karen says, losing her irritable tone and regaining her enthusiasm.

“Anxiety is certainly a complicated feeling. You are right that so much of the time, the person does not even know they are experiencing it, but the people around them know.” I say, repeating a point I make in so many of my lectures. “Yea, but I did not know until now,” Karen repeats with the awe of reflecting over thirty years. “This is what is called the depth of a relationship. New things appear as time marches on.” I say, hoping not to speak in platitudes, but to emphasize that relationships deepen over time such that Karen should not be so mad at herself for not understanding this earlier. “I guess so,” Karen responds with some dismay. “I am glad you found my blog to be useful,” I say, reflecting on her comment and feeling cosy about it at the same time. Maybe the internet has helped Karen and Kip. Maybe I contributed to that through my work with Karen and through my blog. Maybe.

2 Responses to “The Anxious Husband”

  1. Shelly said

    Great to know that your blog is helping others. About Kip’s anxiety: I understand this must be a great revelation to Karen after all this time to know that her husband wasn’t tuning her out when she talked about her financial fears but rather, was anxious as well. This meant that there is congruence in their feelings and that perhaps, they can plan for the future together. But what should Karen do if Kip becomes paralyzed by his anxiety and is unable to act, essentially leaving Karen once again alone with the problem?

    • Hi Shelly,
      Once again you ask a penetrating question. If Kip could identify his tendency to avoid as a response to his anxiety, then he could communicate that he is sorry that he is not a good partner in this way because it makes him too anxious to think about long-term financial issues. Yes, Karen would still be alone, but at least she would be sympathetic to Kip’s emotional state and hence she could be more understanding and less angry about her isolation on this issue.

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