Why Some Couples Play ‘Hot Potato’ With Anxiety
“Hot Potato” is a kids’ game in which an object is passed around a circle as fast as possible, and the person holding that object when the music stops is “out.” Adults play a more subtle version of the same game with anxiety as the hot potato.
Liz woke up in the middle night with a bad dream and was too anxious to fall back asleep. She woke her partner Sam to tell him about her dream. Feeling better, Liz fell peacefully back asleep while Sam tossed and turned for hours.
[TAG1]Anxiety is essentially a preoccupation with a series of fearful predictions about an imagined future. Anxiety is not only normal, but it can also be adaptive, alerting us to potential dangers. Mild to moderate amounts of anxiety improve performance. High anxiety levels interfere with performance, but too little anxiety also impairs performance.
Often, athletes try to get themselves optimally pumped up before the big game to maximize their performance. They understand that if they get too pumped up, they won’t play well until they “settle down,” but that too little anxiety might lead to “taking the other team for granted.”
Anxiety is also as contagious as a yawn. People who are feeling more anxious often try to get others to take some of their anxiety from them, and people who are not feeling as anxious naturally resist taking on someone else’s anxiety.
In our culture, women are diagnosed with anxiety disorders twice as often as men. That does not mean that women are more anxious than men, as we don’t know how much of that diagnostic discrepancy is due to innate differences between men and women and how much can be attributed to gender role socialization. The Gottman research group claims that 70 percent of conflict in heterosexual couples can be attributed to anxiously attached women partnered with avoidantly attached men. It fails to consider that any anxious person can make their partner appear more avoidant, just as any avoidant person can make their partner appear more anxious.
Men hold more privilege than women, so many things tend to work out better for them. Many argue that men, as a whole, face less challenge, struggle, and uncertainty in their lives than women, so they have less to be anxious about. Women are biologically tied to their offspring, if they have them; are at more risk of abandonment than their male partners; earn thirty percent less than men, on average; and are more likely to live in poverty if divorced. Women feeling more anxious, then, is likely to be just a realistic assessment of their situation.
Women do far more than their share of the worrying in intimate relationships. While men help to varying degrees, it is still primarily women who carry the load of tracking things and worrying about everything that needs to be done to run the family. Some men don’t even see this, and they get angry because, according to their calculations, the workload is about even, so they don’t understand why it seems so unfair to their partners.
One patient told me that he works about 60 hours a week and that his wife works about 40 hours a week in her job, plus another 20 hours a week helping everything run smoothly at home and with their children. This seemed like a fair division to him, and he had difficulty understanding why his 60 is not equivalent to his wife’s 40-plus-20. I asked him if he would trade with his wife—cut back 20 hours a week at work and spend that time running the family. The look on his face made it clear that he got it.
Women are also socialized to be more open about their anxiety, partly because they learn that anxiety is one of the most effective ways of getting their partners to respond to their emotional needs. This often results in a mutually dissatisfying polarization in heterosexual couples in which the woman takes on the role of the anxious person and the man the role of the person responsible for managing his partner’s anxiety.
Women understandably want men to share the load because they intuitively understand that they would feel less alone and less anxious if their partner felt a little more anxious. Some men are particularly resistant to feeling anxiety themselves because anxiety brings with it a sense of passivity and powerlessness, a sense of being vulnerable and weak, in a one-down position, experiences that men are taught to disdain as not masculine.
For some men, being around women who are anxious puts them more in touch with their own disowned anxiety, which their privilege has largely protected them from experiencing. Men are often taught to channel the expression of all their emotions into anger, an emotion that is socially acceptable to men because it feels more powerful and in control. As a result, many men do their best to “take care” of women and “solve” women’s anxiety to protect themselves from feeling more anxious.
Having people devolve into rigidly polarized roles is not good for any organization or any relationship. Healthy heterosexual relationships tend to be most growth-enhancing when men allow themselves to claim more of their anxiety and women do less to “help” them.
- Gottman, J. (2018). The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. Seven Dials.
- Remes, O., Brayne, C., Van Der Linde, R., & Lafortune, L. (2016). A systematic review of reviews on the prevalence of anxiety disorders in adult populations. Brain and behavior, 6(7
Excerpted, in part, from Hidden in Plain Sight: How Men’s Fears of Women Shape Their Intimate Relationships. (Lasting Impact Press, 2021).
Originally published in this format on Psychology Today.
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