Poor mental health can affect our daily lives and our relationships in many ways, and while we all want to support the people we love, the pressure can feel more intense or daunting when it’s our partner who’s struggling. Knowing how best to help your other half, and take care of yourself, can be key to a happy and healthy relationship
There’s lots of advice out there relating to mental health but, as we know, everyone is different, and so are their experiences. There’s no single set of rules that will apply to everyone, which can make trying to support a loved one with their mental health feel overwhelming.
And the thing is, the support you provide to a partner is likely to be very different to how you would support a friend or family member. As counsellor Lena Fenton explains: “You live with a partner and their illness on a day-to-day basis. Their condition, like a physical illness, can take over your lives; you are in danger of becoming a carer and not so much an equal partner.”
Just as our physical health can change from day-to-day, so can our mental health. Whether your partner has a diagnosed mental health issue, or they’re going through a particularly tough time, it’s important to understand that mental health is a spectrum.
Of course, every relationship has its ups and downs – that’s to be expected. Maybe you’ve noticed a change in the way your partner is, either in themselves or the way they are with you. They might seem distant. There are signs we can look out for that suggest our loved one is experiencing poor mental health, but the truth is, only you and your partner know your relationship, and what’s “normal” for you as a couple. But there are a few things to keep in mind to keep them (and you) happy in your relationship:
Remind them how much you love them
This may seem obvious but, while a mental health problem is only a part of a person’s identity, to the person themselves, it can feel a lot bigger.
When I’ve struggled with my own mental health, knowing that my boyfriend is there for me – there’s someone “on my team” – is comforting. It’s easy to feel that you’re on your own with what’s going on inside your head, but that’s often far from the truth.
Be there for your partner, remind them that you’re there to listen, support and love them. Encourage discussion, but only when they’re ready.
Remind your partner of the things that make them happy. Being able to continue these activities is a big part of recovery, and in maintaining good mental health in the future.
Make plans together – but remember it’s best to take small steps. Planning an event like a holiday might be overwhelming while going through a hard time, so instead try to schedule small things little and often, like going to the cinema or dinner at a favourite restaurant.
Patience is key
Understanding how a mental health condition affects your partner can be essential in building a healthy, supportive relationship.
One of the most emotionally draining aspects I’ve found when I’m having a tough time with my mental health, is the thought that I can take it out on my boyfriend, or make him feel in some way responsible. But, it’s really important to try not to take your partner’s mental health to heart.
Counsellor Lena explains that, unlike when supporting a friend or family member, we are more likely to take it personally when our partner’s mental health is concerned: “It’s harder to be objective about what’s going on. Some people can feel responsible when their partner is depressed or experiencing other forms of mental ill health for long periods of time.”
Recognise that symptoms may vary
Be aware if they withdraw, behave differently or become more irritable. Common symptoms of some mental health issues include insomnia, feelings of worthlessness, and loss of interest in activities. You may notice gradual differences in their mood, rather than huge changes from one moment to the next.
Lena tells us: “If your partner is taking medication to help them, this may have a variety of side effects that can impact the relationship. This can include loss of libido and, therefore, there can be a reduction of intimacy between you. Your social life may also be curtailed as your partner may have difficulties in socialising.”
Take care of you
The most important thing to remember when supporting a partner with mental illness is to take extra care of yourself as well. You could be in danger of burning out, especially if you’re not taking care of your own needs too.
“Your partner’s mental health can take over your lives and create an imbalanced relationship. Further difficulties can be the possibility that you make them the centre of your world, and you too can lose yourself to the illness,” says Lena.
Try opening up the conversation with friends and family. You might be worried that they won’t understand, but trying to keep things under wraps can make the situation more exhausting. Talking to your friends or relatives can make a big difference in building a support network for you both.
Listen to them
Doing your research and gaining knowledge can help you guide your partner. But recognise that you’re not an expert and you might not know the right thing to say.
Lena warns: “People can become caught up in trying to make their partner ‘better’, instead of allowing them the space to be ill and stand by while they find their own way back to wellness.”
Sometimes the best thing to do is just listen to them. Allow them to feel like they can come to you to talk about anything – without fear of judgement.
And remember, encouraging them to seek out professional help doesn’t mean you’ve failed. Rather, it shows that you understand that your partner may need care that you don’t have the tools to provide.
Don’t be afraid to part ways
It’s completely normal to feel overwhelmed sometimes, especially if things are not working in the relationship generally. Lena says: “If you feel trapped and torn between leaving and staying together, you’re not alone.”
Leaving can feel much more difficult if your partner depends on you for support. But you have to put your own mental health first. If the relationship isn’t working, you shouldn’t feel pressured to stay together; it’s OK to walk away if you need to. And just because you’re not together romantically, doesn’t mean you can’t still support them as a friend.
Speaking to a professional can be helpful, whether as a couple or individually. Find a counsellor near you at counselling-directory.org.uk