I have social anxiety disorder. I also often zone out for unrelated reasons (say, when I'm really focused on something technical).

My partner mistakes my zoning out for me not being okay, so they ask whether I'm okay or not. I often reply with a distracted "yes", but because the reply was seemingly unconvincing, my partner takes to repeating their question again and again (with me replying with a distracted "yes" over and over).

I find it hard to focus on anything else while I'm engaged with the task at hand (in our scenario, installing software on my partner's computer, while around other people), and as such, I feel trapped when I have to subconsciously keep batting away such repeated questions.

I know my partner means well, and is really concerned about me. How can I politely let them know that I really am okay, such that it is indeed convincing?

Additional context:

[0] We have been together for a little over 4 months. Admittedly we have a lot more of getting to know each other.

[1] I have once stopped such a series of repeated questions with a "Yes, I am okay" with my voice raised. I essentially snapped. I felt bad about it and said sorry.

[2] In response to [1], my partner told me how their parents often had the same problem, and that their dad always snapped like I did. My partner was afraid that we'd devolve into something similar.

[3] I have (before [1]) in the past let my partner know how I am prone to zoning out like this and that I really am okay in such situations. They were unable to identify it when [1] happened, because a lot of people were indeed around, and they correctly thought that it might trigger my social anxiety (which it didn't at the time though).

We have moved past that incident, and we do love each other a lot, but I want to set up some protocol or signal so that this doesn't end with us feeling trapped.

  • How long have you been together?
    – DaveG
    Commented May 25, 2022 at 14:49
  • @DaveG Answered as [0] under 'additional context'.
    – Kevin
    Commented May 25, 2022 at 14:53
  • Is that a symptom of a social anxiety disorder? It sounds more like ADHD (which can also cause social anxiety). I'm not a doctor. But I do have ADHD. And I know how hard it is to be diagnosed correctly. Commented May 30, 2022 at 13:28

2 Answers 2


Like many small frictions in relationships, I feel like this is another case of failure in communication. The failure happens before you zone out, though, and now, or well, before the focus happens is when you need to have this conversation. The conflict here is A. you snapped and B. your partner wouldn't take your word for itself. These are 2 separate issues that play very well off of each other, and I've seen the exact same thing with a friend of mine recently:

Their conversation was about when to meet up (they don't live together) and it went something like this:

Friend: When are you arriving?

Partner: Friday at 22:00

F: Oh, so a bit later than I thought, that's okay.

P: Why did you think I was going to arrive earlier?

F: Just a misunderstanding, don't worry about it.

P: But what did I say to make you think I'd be there earlier?

F: Never mind, just forget about it.

P: Just tell me why you thought I would be coming over earlier.

F: Can't you just let it go one time??

And whops, suddenly you're arguing. But it's both people responsible for it. One person feels like they don't want to address their partner right now, and the other feels like they deserve an answer. Apologize for snapping at them, explain once more that when you're focused you wanna keep focusing without interruption, and lastly explain that they need to take your word for it when you say that you're okay. Make sure that they know that if you were NOT okay you would tell them: You're not a liar after all - this is probably what made you snap, the implication that you're not being honest even though it's about something else entirely.

So to summarize - communication. Talk it out at a completely different time than your focus time, and lay down the foundation of trusting each others' word by default instead of questioning it. And make sure that they know that if you need some emotional support, you know they're there for you and will let them know! :)

  • I did apologize and did explain my focus-quirk. You are indeed right about me feeling that they don't trust me about this, although I realize that's because my reply was a distracted one at best. Thanks for the suggestion of telling them that I'd always reach out, rather than the other way around.
    – Kevin
    Commented May 25, 2022 at 14:58

Perhaps the problem is that when you reply with a distracted "yes", your partner cannot distinguish between whether you are fine but focusing on something, or not fine but not willing to admit it.

So, you can help your partner out! Talk to your partner at a time when you're not in the middle of something, and remind them how you sometimes get caught up in work that you want to focus on, and would prefer not talking more until a later time when you're more attentive. Highlight that this is not a personal or emotional issue, it's simply how you are wired to work best. Then, come up with a specific signal that you can use to show your partner when you are in this state, so they don't have to guess based on your "yes" answer alone.

For example: use the signal word "flow" to convey that you're deeply in the middle of something and hence inattentive, and prefer not being interrupted until the current task is done. This signal would not be used in any other situation, so the meaning is unambiguous. For example:

Partner: Are you ok?

You (muttering, not taking eyes off screen): Yes, flow

Partner: Oh, sorry! I'll come back later.

You could go one step further and set up a visual signal (like a red card, or sign, or something else) that you put up next to you when you intend to enter a flow state. When your partner sees that signal, they know not to interrupt without even having to ask. However, you might not always know when you are about to start some focused thinking task, so this might not always work. Also, be sure to remove the signal when you stop the task, so the partner knows that you have capacity to be attentive again.

As a follow-up suggestion, keep in mind that it can be hard on your partner if you regularly block them out and are unavailable for them. Consider trying to make extra effort to connect with them, distraction-free, when you aren't deeply engaged with your work.

  • I do something similar by standing up and sitting down. If I'm just reading things, using the keyboard to page through, I can be interrupted. If I'm writing, coding, or otherwise working, I can't. My partner used to come to ask me something, see me at the desk staring at the laptop, and wander away thinking "I'll ask her when she's not busy." Now I stand to indicate that I am interruptible, and sit if wandering away and asking me later would be better. Commented May 26, 2022 at 19:35
  • 1
    Instead of saying something to indicate you're fine but otherwise engaged, you might find a hand signal more convincing to your partner and less intrusive to you — for example, the circled-thumb-and-forefinger ‘OK gesture’, or a thumbs-up.
    – gidds
    Commented Aug 9, 2022 at 18:05
  • In old hacker folklore, being ‘in the zone’ was known as ‘deep hack mode’. The Jargon File says: “Some aspects of hacker etiquette will appear quite odd to an observer unaware of the high value placed on hack mode. For example, if someone appears at your door, it is perfectly okay to hold up a hand (without turning one's eyes away from the screen) to avoid being interrupted. (contd)
    – gidds
    Commented Aug 9, 2022 at 18:10
  • “…One may read, type, and interact with the computer for quite some time before further acknowledging the other's presence (of course, he or she is reciprocally free to leave without a word). The understanding is that you might be in hack mode with a lot of delicate state in your head, and you dare not swap that context out until you have reached a good point to pause.”
    – gidds
    Commented Aug 9, 2022 at 18:10

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