Being in a relationship with someone you love is beautiful and can be one of the greatest joys of life. Theses important relationships in our lives are full of complexity and often tough times. If your partner struggles with their mental health, sometimes life’s everyday hurdles become more intense for the both of you. Understanding the needs of someone with mental illness is challenging- and you may not know how to support your partner living with mental illness while caring for your own needs, too. Here are a few ideas on how you can get closer to finding that balance.
Sometimes as a society we tend to think that ignoring something will make it go away, but ignoring a partner’s mental health slump usually just leaves them feeling further isolated. Being open to the dialogue, or even being the one to start the dialogue, can go a long way in reducing the negative impact of a mental illness in a relationship. Feeling less alone in our struggles is one of the primary needs we have from our close partners and this is an incredible way to practice that.
Many people can’t recognize how much someone may be suffering because their symptoms aren’t outwardly apparent. Since symptoms of mental illnesses can range from difficulty concentrating to more serious conditions such as depression, severe anxiety and hallucinations, it’s important to understand your partner’s diagnosis and their personal experiences. Ask your partner questions. Do some research (and then ask your partner questions if this matches their experience). Don’t assume you understand it because your friend in college “had that too.”
The best way to go into a conversation is delicately and sensitively. Open it with phrases like, “I’ve been thinking about you and wondering how you are, ‘I care about you and want to be there for you’, and ‘Is there any special way I can support you right now ?” Even if you need to express your own needs (e.g., needing more attention or quality time together), work to do so sensitively.
Everyone is different, especially when it comes to handling their difficulties. Get clear on what they need from you! And as luck would have it- asking is often the best way! It could be as simple as your presence and quiet time, or a daily walk after dinner every night. Showing your partner respect and understanding as they’re coping with mental health challenges will strengthen your connection. Take a step further, and consider ask them questions like, “Next time I see you struggling with anxiety, what can I do to support you better? Would it be helpful to offer some space? Can I recommend we go for a walk?”
It may not feel like much, but one of the best things in a relationship is when a partner truly listens in an effort to understand their loved ones experiences. As Brene Brown says, “rarely does a response make something better. What makes it better is feeling less alone.” Sometimes we jump right into problem-solving. And while this is well intended, and usually a genuine effort to support our partners, it can miss an important step, which is emotional support. Mental illness affects individuals differently, and it’s essential to listen to those experiencing it to better understand their perspectives and provide effective support.
Anyone facing hardship of any kind wants to feel seen, heard, and loved, regardless of what is going on. Validation lets them know there’s you feel there is nothing “wrong with them” or their experience, even if they’re feeling fear, shame, confusion, or anger. Try saying “I can see your struggle and how much effort you’re giving”, or “what you are saying and experiencing are completely understandable” And don’t shy away from empathy!! Allow yourself to open up to their emotions and really feel what they are saying. Empathy shows them you understand, or at least trying to. This shows your partner not only are they allowed to have the feelings they are experiencing, but that you support them as well.
It can be hard to open up about mental health struggles, especially with those closest to us. If your partner is hesitant about getting vulnerable, model it for them. Let them know how you’ve been feeling, or if there’s anything you’re struggling with, and they may feel safer to open up to you. Don’t hijack the conversation, but give them a sense of safety with you being vulnerable.
Sometimes, depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues can make it hard to remember whether we’ll enjoy activities when actually it could help shift our moods. Suggest and make plans with your partner that may shift their mood, but don’t force it, they need to feel willing to do them. Think simple: going for a hike or walk, playing a board game, going for ice cream, etc.
When we talk about mental health, on a broad spectrum, we’re not just talking about the lack of mental illness. When I zoom out and think of mental health, I think about the perspective that comes when we’re able to step back and recognize the seasons of life and all that we go through. I often encourage clients to remember that mental health isn’t just about “bad s*it not happening.” That is not within our control. It just isn’t. Mental health is about being able to recognize that when the tough times come, they won’t be here forever. And that perspective, along with some quality coping and support (be it personal support or something like therapy), allows us to work through those times just a little bit easier, just a little bit faster, with just a little bit less tension and “strong-arm-ing-it” (that’s a technical term). And I would say the same thing to someone supporting a partner going through it. Remember, for most circumstances, it won’t be this way forever. And with that, stay cool, and focus on what is possible in this moment. Tomorrow, something else- something more, may be possible.
Samantha Morel, Ph.D.