Anxiety in pregnancy and the postpartum period is very common, experienced by up to 20% of parents. If your partner is struggling with new or worsening anxiety during the perinatal period (any time from conception up through two years after your baby's birth), you might feel at a loss about how to best support them. We have put together a few tips and resources to help you be an effective support system, ensuring that you are doing your best supporting your partner with anxiety.
- Normalize the experience of anxiety
- Be a good listener
- Holding space activity
- Be understanding and flexible
- Provide practical help
- Avoid major changes
- Encourage your partner to seek help
- Don’t forget about yourself
- What NOT to do
Normalize and Destigmatize
It is helpful to understand just how normal anxiety in the perinatal period is. It is one of the most common side effects of pregnancy and childbirth! Reminding your partner that they are not alone in their feelings can be helpful, and sharing some of your own anxieties can deepen your bond and show that you have vulnerabilities too.
Treat your partner with a spirit of acceptance and validation. By making room in your relationship for difficult emotions and hard conversations, you will show your partner that you are there for them even when they are not at their best.
Try using phrases similar to the below, that show your support while normalizing the experience of anxiety:
- I can see how hard this is for you.
- You have been dealing with so much lately.
- I’m sorry you’re suffering. That must feel awful.
- We will get through this together.
- I’m here for you. I’m on your team.
- What words of assurance do you need to hear from me?
- I won’t leave you. We’re here for each other through thick and thin.
- You’re doing such a good job (followed by specific examples).
Be a good listener
Good listening is a skill, one that we have to consciously develop and one that we can always improve upon.
As you interact with your partner, remember to ask questions unrelated to the baby or pregnancy. Perinatal anxiety often manifests as hyperfixation on the health of the baby or the course of the pregnancy, so by asking more general questions you can show that you care about your partner as a whole, complete individual.
Try starting conversations with questions like “What happened to you that was good today? What was hard? What worried you today?” Then, work on being an empathetic listener following the below guidelines:
- Don’t give advice. It is tempting to want to solve our loved one’s problems and be a “fixer” in their life, but oftentimes when one is sharing emotional experiences they aren’t looking for advice. Your partner just needs a safe person to vent to and to talk things through with.
- Be gentle and encouraging. To show you are paying attention, ask follow up questions like “How did that make you feel?” and reflect back what you are hearing with statements like “I can see that you’re really worried about ___.” No need to elaborate on what you think they might mean. By simply reflecting on what you hear, you will give your partner the chance to delve deeper into the topic at hand.
- Show you are engaged. Give your partner your full attention. Put away your phone, and turn off any other electronic devices that could distract you. Make eye contact and turn your body in their direction. Avoid crossing your arms, which can make you seem emotionally closed off. Occasionally nod or make “mmhmm” sounds to show you are listening.
Holding Space Activity
“Holding space” is a phrase that encompasses the listening skills discussed above. When we hold space for another person, it means that we surrender our entire attention to them. We focus completely on what they are saying and how they are feeling in that moment, without letting our minds drift away to think about how we want to react to what we are hearing, what we will say in response, or how the speaker is making us feel. It is a selfless type of listening, without judgement. It allows the speaker to share their thoughts and experience their emotions freely.
If you find you struggle to initiate meaningful conversations with your partner, try this "Holding space" activity to boost your communication skills:
- Start by sitting face to face. You can hold hands if that feels natural. Have a clock nearby to time the activity.
- First, your partner will have a chance to talk. They get to talk uninterrupted about their feelings for two entire minutes. You can acknowledge what they say through facial expressions and nodding, but should remain silent, listening intently, holding space for your partner’s feelings. After the two minutes are up, acknowledge what you heard by simply saying “Thank you for sharing that with me.” That’s it.
- Then it will be your turn. You will have two minutes to talk uninterrupted about your own feelings, while your partner listens and nods in encouragement. Do not reply or respond to what your partner shared during the first two minutes - come up with your own unique thoughts and emotions. After the two minutes are up, your partner will say “Thank you for sharing that with me.”
- After you each have a turn to talk, if you feel it will be beneficial, you can have two more minutes of back-and-forth conversation where you can discuss and respond to what you each said during the earlier part of the activity.
You might think that two minutes doesn’t sound like much time, but it is rare that we get to talk for two entire minutes without any interruptions, and you will find that it is plenty of time to allow for deep discussions of fears, worries, emotions, and whatever else might be on your and your partner’s minds.
The entire activity takes around 6 minutes, and it is a great way to connect and practice listening skills. You may find that this exercise encourages further conversation that lasts beyond the time limit, and that’s okay! Run with it.
Practice this activity starting in pregnancy, and keep it going during the postpartum period as a simple way to prioritize your relationship. Even during the chaotic newborn period, you will always have two minutes to spare for your partner, to check in with each other emotionally in order to foster the best possible relationship, while supporting each other’s mental health.
Be understanding and flexible
Having an understanding and flexible attitude will help you be the best possible support person for your partner. Know that anxiety isn’t their fault and it isn’t something they are choosing to experience. Be adaptable in the way you offer support, knowing that what worked for your partner one day might not work the next.
Frequently mental health challenges affect the libido, and if your partner’s anxiety causes a dip in sexual desire, express understanding and look for other ways to connect and be intimate, such as cuddling while watching a movie, scheduling a date night, or holding hands while taking a walk. Remember that a lower libido is not a personal rejection, but an effect of the emotional and physical changes your partner is going through.
Provide practical help
Be direct and ask your partner what you can take off of their plate, and then make sure you follow through. Discuss the way you currently divide household chores and tasks to see if things can be more equitable or less stressful for your partner, keeping in mind that you may need to take on even more duties around the house after the baby arrives, once your partner's primary focus is healing from birth and breastfeeding (if they chose to do so).
Be aware of your environment and tackle chores without waiting to be asked. See a load of dishes in the sink? Wash them! Notice a basket of clean laundry on the bed? Fold it! Try using an app like AnyList which will allow you both to make and view grocery lists, so you can run to the store to assist with meal planning, without directly asking what your partner needs.
You can also step in to help your partner break down large tasks into more manageable small steps, and if your partner is anxious about talking on the phone you can offer to make calls and schedule appointments for them. Plan to attend prenatal appointments and classes (including childbirth, breastfeeding, and newborn care classes) with your partner to show that you are taking an active role in preparing for the baby and that it won’t all be on your partner’s shoulders. You may find it is appropriate to advocate for your partner during classes and appointments by asking questions and bringing up concerns if they are too anxious to bring them up themselves (but check in with your partner first to make sure speaking on their behalf is okay).
Avoid major changes
If possible, put off making any big life changes or decisions until your partner’s mental health has improved. Major changes, such as moving, buying a house, or changing jobs create a lot of stress, even under the best of circumstances. If your partner is experiencing perinatal anxiety, the added stress from such events will be even more difficult to cope with.
Encourage your partner to seek help
Because you know your partner so well and interact with them every day, you are in a unique position to be able to recognize signs of an anxiety disorder that may require the assistance of mental health experts.
If your partner’s anxiety is severe enough that it interferes with their daily life, it may be time to encourage them to seek professional help. They might not see the symptoms of anxiety or depression for themselves, and a nonjudgmental push from you can be the impetus they need to get the help they deserve.
If your partner is overwhelmed by the idea of finding the right doctor or therapist, you can help by searching for local providers through the Postpartum Support International Directory, a directory of mental health professionals with special training in perinatal mood and anxiety disorders.
Don’t forget about yourself
You’ve heard it said that you can’t serve from an empty cup, and the saying is true. While you are supporting your partner, don’t forget to care for yourself. When your partner experiences depression and anxiety, you are more likely to experience mental health struggles too.
Make sure to find your own support system through your friends, your family, and mental health professionals if needed. Make sure to take breaks from your role as a caregiver, and make time in your life for activities that you enjoy and help you reduce stress.
What NOT to do
The way you respond to your partner’s anxiety can either comfort them or exacerbate their worries. In addition to making sure you are kind, understanding, and flexible, here are a few behaviors to avoid:
- Don’t dismiss your partner’s concerns. Anxieties that come up during the perinatal period are not always rational, but it won’t help your partner feel better to point out that their concerns are irrational. Instead, continue to offer reassurance with phrases like, “I’ll be here to help you no matter what happens.”
- Avoid responding with surprise or acting taken aback. When your partner opens up and shares their anxieties with you, what you hear might be scary or dark. Do your best to be a calm, non-reactive listener.
- Don’t encourage a bootstrap mentality. It isn’t helpful to tell your partner to “just snap out of it,” or “just relax,” or “just think positively.” If your partner could pull themselves out of their anxious state through their own effort, they would have already done so. Recovering from mental illness is more complex than simply changing your outlook. Be patient as they explore therapies, exercises, and potentially even medications to find what works best for them.
Beyond the Blues: Understanding and Treating Prenatal and Postpartum Depression & Anxiety by Soshana Bennett, PhD & Pec Indman, EdD, MFT
Enhancing reciprocal partner support to prevent perinatal depression and anxiety: a Delphi consensus study
Supporting your partner when you have a baby: Tips to help you stay mentally healthy during the transition to parenthood