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 (though not professionally diagnosed) someone who struggles with anxiety 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
According to Psychology Today, “intimacy problems”, “codependency” and “shame” can impact a relationship with mental illness. The publication notes how “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 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.
A friend of mine ended a relationship when her partner’s mental health became too taxing. She felt drained and helpless – at a loss on how to support her boyfriend. She admitted, she felt happier when he wasn’t around. I remember the guilt expressed on her face as she made that statement.
When your partner’s mental health problems impact your own well-being
To gain further insight on how to make a relationship with mental illness work, I spoke to psychotherapist and life coach, Andre Radmall. Andre has been a therapist for more than thirty years; once Manager and Group Therapist at Priory Hospital North London and a psychotherapist at Rafan House in Harley Street.
“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”, says Andre.
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. Andre suggests considering 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. (Mental Health Org)
- 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 (BBC Radio 4)
- 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.
Suggested next read: Kanye West Proves Society’s Mental Health Stigma
The impact of Covid on mental health
For couples struggling with their mental health during the pandemic, Andre shares these tips:
- “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.”
Andre Radmall MA, MSc, BA – specialises in addictions, eating disorders, anxiety and stress, relationship issues & family therapy and issues of self-worth. In summer 2021, Andre is releasing his second book, ‘Pivot Points’ which shares tools on how to rewrite your life story and make a pivot to a new direction. Andre is on Twitter @Radmallandre and Instagram @andreradmall.