Sometimes Nadine’s illness keeps the peaks and valleys of her mental roller coaster ride coming so quickly, it’s all her husband Will can do to hold the safety rail of his support group with one hand, and his wife with the other. He does his best to steady them both, reminding Nadine that they’re in this thing together.
Their ride often includes scary dark days, hospitals stays, adjusted medication, and therapy sessions.
But they’ve learned how to keep their eyes on each other, hold hands tightly, and bear down.
What about you? How can you manage mental illness in your committed relationship, so that you’re not continually thrown for a loop, or begging to be let off the relationship ride altogether?
Consider the following strategies for couples and mental illness:
Keep love and support flowing.
Whatever the obstacle, knowing your partner is there for support and understanding makes all the difference. The diagnosed partner should be assured that the stigma connected to the illness will not separate him or her from a spouse or partner. Feeling emotionally backed and connected can reinforce a desire to stay healthy, and seek help when mental health starts to slip.
The undiagnosed partner, too, needs support and sympathy from the diagnosed partner. By enjoying as much reciprocity as possible, he or she maintains a clear and healthy relationship balance that isn’t overcome by the caregiver connection.
Investigate how to be the most helpful.
There’s no reason to think anyone who hasn’t faced mental illness in a relationship context will know how to deal with it. Go easy on yourselves. To cope, you’ll need an education.
Read books, visit websites, talk to support groups. Learn what is helpful and what is detrimental. The more you understand about the illness, the less vulnerable you’ll feel to the condition, and the more empowered you’ll feel to take on your challenges together.
Beware assumptions and good intentions.
Couples who successfully manage mental illness are educated, but are also very careful not to play therapist. Neither partner should presume to know what the other needs to be happy or secure. It is better that partners ask questions and share honestly. Don’t make decisions for each other. Approach each challenge with sympathy, regarding each other’s role is the situation.
Try not to control your partner or conceal your concerns from each other. Prize honesty, intimacy, and authenticity, and a sense of humour between you.
Avoid enabling; embrace empowerment.
Both partners must face the realities of living with mental illness. In a committed relationship, partners are equally responsible for tackling the problems and challenges that come. One partner cannot be a perpetual superhero, while the other throws up his or her hands.
Employ daily strategies for checking in with each other, discussing your respective needs, holding each other responsible, and encouraging each other when it all seems too hard.
Learn to cope through counselling.
Coping with mental illness and maintaining a relationship can quickly lead to exhaustion and resentment without a plan. A couples counsellor may be the professional guidance necessary to help you and your spouse examine your relationship patterns, limits, and expectations.
Make self-care non-negotiable.
There will be times when the diagnosed partner might care less, and the undiagnosed partner will have to remain strong.
Prioritize your health. Sleep and healthy eating are vital. Pursue hobbies or recreational activities as well, to prevent the illness from being the focal point of your relationship.
Mental illness is often an unpredictable ride. Hold on to each other, and remember to call on the support of those who share the ride with you; therapists, doctors, friends and family. You and your partner can survive this ride together.
If a mental health condition is affecting your relationship, call Neil Ward on 07970 860 71 to arrange couples counselling.