In the 279th episode of South Park, we see the problems that can arise in an intimate relationship when one person is anxious and another isn’t. Tweek, constantly on the verge of outright panic, is losing it because he thinks North Korea is going to bomb America, while Craig, his ever-stoic lover, does his best to bring about calm, which only makes things worse.
“Everything’s fine,” Craig says.
“Will you please stop saying that? I can’t take it,” Tweek responds.
“I’m trying to make you feel better,” Craig offers.
“Well, maybe I don’t want to feel better right now,” Tweek counters. “Why do you have to be so logical? I don’t need you to problem-solve all the time!”
It’s the type of conversation that anyone who’s anxious has been forced to have (probably on multiple occasions) with their more relaxed partner, and this clashing of contrary demeanors can certainly spur arguments. In many cases, it’s the nonchalant response to a person’s angst or anxiety that causes trouble. “The anxious partner will feel alone or judgmental of themselves for being so anxious,” says couples therapist Caitlin Cantor.
Worse yet, they’ll think their conveniently chill partner is undermining their worries. “They feel like their partner’s ‘la dee da’ attitude means they’re unaware of the danger,” Cantor explains. “In that case, the anxious partner may be more judgmental of the less anxious (or non-anxious) partner, and even angry at them for not being more in tune with what seems like such obvious danger.”
Boiled down, this is just like any other conflict in a relationship — it’s a difference of opinions and communication styles. But there’s not a right or wrong stance to take, and no “correct” level of anxiety to strive for in any given situation. Rather, both the anxious person and their carefree partner should have equal care paid to their approaches, which requires somewhat of a team effort.
For starters, the easy-going partner will need to step up. “Connect with them, listen and try to understand where they’re coming from,” Cantor suggests. “If you can validate a piece of their perspective, no matter how small, they’ll likely feel connected and possibly less anxious, and there’s always at least a grain of truth in anyone’s perspective.” In other words, don’t be too quick to shrug off their concerns.
The uneasy partner has work to do, too. “It’s important for the more anxious partner to take ownership of their anxiety and offer the same non-judgment to the less anxious partner,” says Cantor. “It’s not the less anxious partner’s job to be more anxious any more than it’s the more anxious partner’s job to be less anxious.” If you’re highly nervous, you might benefit from taking a cue from your chiller partner, as well. Their mellowness might even calm you down, especially if you allow your trust in them to trump your anxiety.
Now, if you’re in a relationship for long enough, you may even find that these roles become reversed as different life circumstances pop up. That’s why it’s always important to pursue open communication. “People go through times when they’re more anxious or depressed,” Cantor says. “The important thing is that partners learn how to allow for differences without judgment, and to practice patience and empathy for their partner.”
Not sure where to start? Take a lesson from Craig, who figures out how to communicate with Tweek about his anxiety toward the end of the episode:
“Tweek, what’s going on?” he asks.
“What? What do you mean, what’s going on?! The same shit that’s been going on,” Tweek responds.
“Nothing’s gotten any better?” Craig asks. “Oh my God, how does that make you feel?”
“I feel scared,” Tweek answers. “I feel alone!”
“That must be horrible to feel that way,” Craig says. “It must be hard for you to even think.”
“It is,” Tweek replies. “It’s terrible.”
“I bet it’s terrible,” says Craig. “What else are you feeling?”
That’s how it’s done, folks.