Should you consider couples therapy to treat a diagnosis of an anxiety disorder?

Most people think that treatment for anxiety should happen between the affected person and the therapist. After all, we are so used to the one-on-one treatment model between professionals and patients.

But this does not have to be the only way.

If one person in your relationship has an anxiety disorder, you can look for individual therapy or you can look for couples therapy as an alternative.

Although anxiety happens within the individual, it is possible to address a person’s psychological difficulty through a social context (a marriage or a family).

How can we do it?

Partner-Assisted Intervention

In a partner-assisted or family-assisted intervention, the partner or the family member is trained to be used as a “surrogate therapist” or coach assisting the person with anxiety.

A therapist can help you create specific assignments to take place outside of the therapy session.

For example, a partner might accompany an individual who suffers from social anxiety on exposure outings as a way to offer support and adherence to the treatment plan.

You might think, “I already do that”, but sometimes partners need to learn skills on how to become that surrogate therapist more effectively.

Therapists can teach skills to alter negative interactive cycles and to increase the connection between partners. They will also educate you on the nature of the individual’s disorder.

They will identify and modify the specific ways in which your environment is maintaining or making the situation worse, and will foster a relational context that encourages you to behave in ways that will lessen the disorder and help your partner cope better.

If couples are not getting along, we must remember that the focus of the intervention is not on the dynamics between the couple, but on reducing the symptoms of anxiety for one partner.

Disadvantages of Partner-Assisted Interventions

Having an anxiety disorder can be significantly associated with marital discord for either partner.

If your relationship is going through some difficulty, having your partner assist with the treatment might not be a good idea because this could create an imbalance in your relationship.

One partner can become negatively labeled “sick partner” or the helping spouse can be viewed as the superior partner in the relationship or “well partner”.

Should you enlist your partner to assist you with your diagnosis? You can certainly give it a try provided that you are seeing a therapist to guide you.

If you would like to learn more about how your partner can help you, contact me and we can discuss whether this is a viable treatment option for both of you.

Source: Empirically supported couple and family interventions for marital distress and adult mental health problems. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology