Feature Friday: Relationships and Mental Illness, Plus 10 Tips on Being a Great Partner in a Relationship With Mental Illness—Both Perspectives
Our relationship is one that’s been touched by mental illness. Between the two of us there’s an on-again-off-again relationship with depression and some flirtation with anxiety.
It’s been a steep learning curve for us, learning the different roles required, self-awareness, education, and self-care.
We know, mental illness sounds scary, but it’s more common than you think. According to Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), 1 in 5 Canadians will experience some form of mental illness in their lives. If you think about that 1 in 5 person, and their partner, those chances of encountering mental illness in a relationship is high.
In this week’s Feature Friday we’re diving into relationships and mental illness and how to be a great partner in a relationship with mental illness — from both perspectives. Meaning those that suffer from illness and those that are supporting their partner.
Because, let’s get one thing straight, mental illness affects both roles just as significantly when it comes to intimate relationships.
Before we start out, let’s de-mystify mental illness a little bit.
You’ve probably heard of these common terms, Anxiety, Depression, Bipolar Disorder, OCD, ADD/ADHD, etc. What does that mean in the real world?
CMHA’s definition of mental illness is simply: “The term used to refer to a variety of mental disorders that can be diagnosed.”They further explain, “Mental disorders are health conditions that are characterized by alternations in thinking, mood, or behaviour (or some combination thereof) associated with distress and/or impaired functioning.”
In this Feature Friday, we hope to shed some light on these disorders in REAL-ationships and how we can be a great partner despite (and because) of these experiences.
Here’s our top tip list we’ve created and personally found the most helpful. All references and resources are linked below. (You can zoom there now if you want to explore more on these topics)
1. Help is your number one priority.
Asking for help is a really, really, difficult thing to do sometimes.
Especially when you throw the stigma of mental illness on top of it. But, let us tell you, help is what will pull you through. Knowing that you may not have all the answers, is okay. Whether that help is from a professional (most recommended), your place of worship, your family or friends, it’s vital for both roles; the sufferer (we dislike this word but, we couldn’t find a better word to use here) and the supporter.
Therapy has been, single handedly, what saved our relationship and (most possibly) my life. When suicide was knocking at our door, neither of us had the answers. Jake, as the supporter, was out of ideas and didn’t know how to help. I was in over my head and very much needed answers that only therapy could give.
Slowly, but surely, therapy pulled us back to a healthy place. Gave Jake more tools to use as a supporter, and gave me the life-line I needed. There is no shame in seeking professional help. Both of us are now huge advocates of mental health professionals.
You do you, my friend. (We’ll have some links below if this is what you need)
2. Stop comparing.
At the relationship project we’re attempting to expose the underbelly of REAL-ationships, but most of the content you see out there are the high-light reels.
When mental illness has your relationship in it’s grips, stay away from social media. Seriously.
Comparison of your struggles to other’s triumphs is not going to help the situation, cut that shit out when you know you or your partner are struggling.
There is already so much stigma around mental illness, we don’t need to throw a shame shit storm on top of it. Communication is your path out of that shame. According to shame and vulnerability researcher, Dr. Brene Brown, “If you put shame in a Petri dish, it needs three things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence and judgment.”
So, talk to your partner about your experiences, have honest conversations without judgement. It may not look pretty, or sound perfect, and that’s okay. Be each other’s soft place to fall by creating safe places to have hard conversations.
Simply, what’s okay and what’s not okay.
For our relationship, this was a challenging one. When we’re really in the grips of depression or in an anxiety panic, it’s really difficult to manage our actions.
Clarifying, ahead of time, what’s okay and what’s not really gave us a path to move from moment to moment in those challenging times. Along with being our path to navigate, it also helped to prevent erosion of our relationship and disrespect by doing or saying hurtful things.
Knowing ahead of time what those boundaries were allowed each of us to prevent collateral damage, regardless of the role. It also prevented co-dependancy and maintained a clear line to between help and hinderance.
5. Don’t try to fix them.
Ooooh, how tempting this is.
It’s such a seductive idea, to just tell your partner what they “should” do. How they “should” feel. We know it comes from a good place, we really just want to help “fix” them—
BUT—Anyone who suffers from mental disorders can tell you, it doesn’t work like that.
A partner telling them what they should and shouldn’t do, in addition to their other struggles, will most likely do more harm than good. Sufferers are usually aware of what they “should” be feeling and doing different, and are massively struggling to achieve it.
Mental illness isn’t something that can be “fixed” in most situations, and if it is “fixable” it’s usually by a professional. Your role as a parter, or sufferer, is to support moment to moment change. Not to fix. (Easier said than done, we know!)
6. Check in.
This is such a valuable tip that can be applied to so many things, but in the case of mental illness, it’s invaluable.
Schedule check in’s with each other. You’ll both need it.
Sincerely, ask how each other’s day is going.
How are the thoughts circulating today?
What’s the emotional weather like?
What can I do for you today?
What do you need?
How was my response last time I supported you?
How did you feel last time you supported me?
What are we working on now?
I love you, incase you needed to hear it again.
Check in’s are extremely important for both roles. The sufferer has an opportunity to reflect on their emotional state, communicate how they’re doing and ask for what they need. The supporter has that same opportunity to communicate how they are feeling, what they need, and gain insight into their partners experience.
Busy is a relationship status, we highly recommend actually scheduling check in’s like you would any other appointment. Daily, weekly, hourly, whatever works for you.
7. Continue your normal relationship.
So often with mental illness in relationships, it can start to create it’s own solar system. Where everything in the relationship now revolves around the illness, the sufferer, the supporter, the symptoms, the triggers…you see where this is leading, right?
We want to highlight how important it is to maintain your regular relationship habits, date nights, and conversations. Don’t make your entire relationship about the mental illness.
The vital puzzle pieces to achieve that: do the things you love doing together and go on the date nights you have planned. Share, chat and laugh as you “normally” would.
Life doesn’t stop when mental illness occurs and neither should your relationship. You can have thriving marriages and long term partnerships and have mental illness, too.
8. Discover “Power Punch” responses.
There’s never a “perfect response” to someone who’s suffering from mental illness. But there can be some pretty damn good ones. We like to call those “Power Punches”.
Have a conversation when things are relatively neutral and ask each other:
What is something that I could say or do, that would be powerful for you, in those moments of struggle?
Here’s some from our list:
”I’m so glad you told me”
“What do you need?”
“Can I hold you?”
“You’re trying your best, and it’s going to be okay.”
“I see your effort, it’s amazing”
“It’s okay that you feel this way”
“I’m on your team. I’ve got your back”
“If you need a minute, I’ll be here when you need me.”
“This is what I need:______.”
“Can you sit with me?”
“I love that your doing _______.”
“That’s not helpful right now, thank you.”
“I’m not sure what I need right now, can you give me a minute?”
“You’re doing a great job at trying, I appreciate that.“
“Thank you for being there.”
Every relationship, person, situation and need will be different, that’s okay. Find the “power punches” that work and resonate with you.
9. Assist in self-care.
We know this term seems tuity-fruity, but let us tell you, it’s a necessity for both roles.
Keeping your own tank full will give you more to pull from when those tough times roll in. Both the supporter and the sufferer will benefit from determining their self-care habits and activities, then sharing that with their partner. This allows both partners to assist in each other’s self-care.
On a rough day, here’s what it can look like:
Draw a bath for your partner when they get home and toss their PJ’s in the dryer to have something warm to snuggle in afterwards.
Put on the basketball game and make sure they eat a great meal.
Give them space, light a few candles and put on their favourite playlist.
Encourage them (kindly) to make an appointment with their mental health professional, take them to that appointment, with their favourite snacks.
Invite them to join you in their favourite exercise activities, or create space in the schedules for them to have the freedom to exercise.
Everyone’s idea of self care is different, the bottom line is to help each other help yourselves. Supporting and encouraging your self care routines is a great way to do that.
10. Have fun, too!
This ties back to number 7, but, find reasons to make each other laugh, watch those hilarious dog videos, turn on Netflix and find your favourite stand up comedian. Play with each other, find a great board game, try new things.
Remember, mental illness usually comes and goes in waves. Really enjoy those times when it’s at bay, lean into that joy. Breathe easy. We need the darkness to balance the light, and when that light is shining, you better go bask in it!
There you have it.
Our Feature Friday showcasing REAL-ationships and mental illness and our top 10 Tips on Being a Great Partner in a Relationship With Mental Illness—from Both Perspectives.
Feel free to share this with someone you love who also suffers from mental illness. Let’s all do our part in ending the stigma around mental health!
As promised here are some links with great information on mental illness and relationships.
Some videos worth watching:
You are not alone, these articles showcase what it’s like to experience mental illness and how it can relate to relationships and love:
Research on Mental Illness and Relationships:
These sources have inspired the content of this article or were referenced, check them out:
Remember our number one tip: Help is your first priority. Here’s a link for that, too: