Mental Illness and Relationships – How to Make It Work?

I’m creative, funny, conversational. With the number of podcasts and documentaries I watch, you couldn’t say I have nothing to talk about. But I’m also someone who struggles with anxiety, PTSD and sporadic depression. From my experiences, I know making a relationship with mental illness work isn’t always easy.

They’re the ‘bad days’ – when symptoms affect your behaviour and plans. The days when you cope with negative thoughts. Not to mention, the taboo impacting how some perceive mental illnesses. It can also feel stressful for people who have partners living with mental health problems.

How metal illness affects relationships

“intimacy problems”, “codependency” and “shame” can impact a relationship with mental illness. “low self-esteem” and feelings of inadequacy could affect a couple’s bonding time. Certainly, feeling sexual isn’t a straight-forward task when you don’t consider yourself attractive.

Many many years ago, I was in an unhealthy situation where I expected my wonderfully confident and self-secure partner to help uplift my insecurity. When he didn’t say the right words (he often didn’t) I’d end up in a mood which led to us arguing. Besides showing signs of codependency, I struggled to communicate my thoughts. It felt better to be angry than vulnerable. I know of people who have ended a relationship when her partner’s mental health became too taxing. You feel drained and helpless – at a loss on how to support them.

When your partner’s mental health problems impact your own well-being

It’s really important to have good boundaries in these situations. What that means is taking time to make sure your own emotional needs are being met. If your partner is having mental health problems, they may be less emotionally available for a period. So practically this means getting support from friends, taking time to nurture yourself and using physical space to take a break. In some cases, it will be necessary to encourage your partner to seek medical help. You don’t have to fix them. In fact, you almost certainly cannot be the answer for them.

Despite a lack of training and education, I feel there is a pressure, not only in romantic relationships, to take on the role of therapist and offer advice. This advice tends to be based on personal experiences…. “You should exercise/read/take a bath… this is what helps me”. We want to reach out and assist loved ones, but certain suggestions may potentially make a person feel worse. I would consider therapy when:

  • “The offloading is becoming a heavy burden
  • Things are no better despite all your care, all your advice and all your love
  • You feel out of your depth
  • When you see the same cycle of thinking and behaviour happening over and over again.”

Making a relationship work

While mental health problems can come with some unappealing traits, there are also great positives. Friends say their mental illnesses have made them more understanding, more appreciative of life’s happy moments; more mentally strong and aware of themselves. For me, I feel my darker days have cultivated more creativity. I wouldn’t write the same if I hadn’t felt particular emotions.

It’s entirely possible to enjoy a healthy and satisfying relationship regardless of whether one partner or two lives with a mental illness. Making this work involves good communication and care. This can include:

  • Asking open ended questions; letting a person talk at their own pace.
  • Not dismissing a partner’s feelings; avoid telling them they have nothing to worry or feel sad about.
  • Trying to encourage your partner to create small goals that are achievable
  • Not attempting to shield your partner and act as therapist. (A partner is one person in a network of family and friends).
  • Not assuming all experiences are the same.
  • Putting in place healthy boundaries – not accepting damaging behaviour as an excuse for mental health problems.

On occasion, making a relationship with mental illness work can mean knowing when to step away. No one can be responsible for the mental wellbeing of another person.

Subsequently, if you have a mental illness, consider whether a partner’s behaviour or perception of mental health could be harmful to your wellbeing. A partner doesn’t have to understand what it feels like, but they should be able to respect your feelings.

The impact of Covid on mental health

For couples struggling with their mental health during the pandemic, please see below some tips I have created

  • “Reduce expectations and accept that sometimes just watching Netflix together is enough.
  • We are in a time when physical touch and tenderness is more important than ever. Physical affection can decrease stress. Also, it doesn’t necessarily have to lead to sex.
  • Keeping communication open is crucial but also, time limit sharing and make sure you both get equal airtime. You don’t need to solve the problem; just show you are listening and present.”

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