By Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD
When two people commit to being partners, they not only agree to enjoy and celebrate life together. They also agree to support each other through life stresses and personal difficulties. Although everyone needs to feel understood and supported, people with mental illness especially need their partner’s to do this for them.
I don’t particularly care for the term “mental illness” because of the stigma that’s attached to it, but it’s the term that’s commonly used for people who have emotional and/or behavioral struggles that have been categorized and codified. It includes problems such as schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and depression. Although the term refers to many different kinds of problems, those problems can all be helped by the support of a loving partner. If your partner has a mental illness, you might consider doing the following:
Learn all about your partner’s particular problem. The more you know, the better chance you have of understanding your partner’s experiences. This includes, but is certainly not limited to, any stigma they might face for their problem. This is especially important because intimacy begins with understanding the person you care about. Some ways you can learn about an illness are reading factual information about it, reading autobiographies of people who have struggled with it, and by talking with (and listening to) your partner.
Be open to ongoing discussions about your partner’s experiences related to their illness. Mental illness is not something that you learn about and then can move on from. It is part of what shapes your partner’s everyday experiences, so you need to understand this to understand your partner.
Remember that not all of your partner’s experiences are due to their psychological illness. People are more than their physical or psychological health. Just as you (hopefully) would not attribute all of a diabetic’s emotions to their physical condition, don’t do this with the mentally ill, either. For instance, even someone who struggles with major depression might be appropriately sad or distressed about a situation (e.g. death of a pet, problems at work).
Talk with your partner about how you can support him or her. By having such a discussion, you will learn the best ways to help and your partner will feel more cared about just because you wanted to have the conversation.
Share your own difficulties. Romantic relationships are best when they have two equal partners. If one partner is the “sick one” and the other is the “benevolent one,” such an equal partnership is impossible. By being vulnerable about your struggles with your partner, you can each be there for the other.
In the long-term, supporting your mentally ill partner will work best if it is part of a larger dynamic of mutual support. So, love your partner and accept him or her as a whole person, just as you would want to be loved as a whole person. The result of such open, accepting, and mutual caring can be the romance of a lifetime!
The Art of Relationships blog posts are for general educational purposes only. They may or may not be relevant for your particular situation; and they should not be relied upon as a substitute for individual professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you need help for an emotional or behavioral problem, please seek the assistance of a psychologist or other qualified mental health professional.