My live-in partner of 2.5 years has depression. Coupled with chronic health issues, maintaining a healthy personal life as well as a stable career is a regular struggle. And while mental health resources are chock full of advice for people living with mental illnesses, they often don’t address the massive impacts mental illness has on the partners of those affected. We are privy to our partner’s deepest, darkest thoughts. We ride along for their ups-and-downs, take the two-hour phone call when they have a crushing day, stay up until one a.m. stroking their hair while insisting “it’s all going to be okay.” When they carry the weight of the world upon their shoulders, we take on some of that weight, too.
Although I’m no expert, below are some of my tips for dealing with a relationship where your partner has mental illness. This list is not-all inclusive, but highlights my own observations throughout my relationship as well as what I’ve learned from witnessing multiple relationships between friends where mental illness was a factor.
- Be frank, but kind. As you become aware of your partner’s mental illness and its impact on you and the relationship, it is very important to express your feelings. This can be in a face-to-face conversation, a letter, a phone call, whatever form you are most comfortable with and works for your relationship. When I finally broke and wrote my partner a lengthy letter, I found that he hadn’t even realized the effect he was having on our relationship. He made a therapy appointment the next day. Sometimes it takes the realization that our actions are hurting our loved ones to finally seek help.
- Seek external support, for yourself and for your partner. If your partner is on good terms with their family or has close friends, reach out to them. They may be able to encourage your partner to seek help or have better strategies to deal with their challenges. Make your own therapy appointments, and consider taking therapy sessions together. A mental health professional can be a great mediator in addressing roadblocks to your partner’s recovery—or the recovery of your relationship.
- Understand that they may be irrational. Seemingly innocuous things may make them angry or emotional, and that is okay. Let them vent about their frustrations. However, certain behaviors are always unacceptable. Physical violence, emotional manipulation, or any other abusive behavior should not be tolerated.
- Present opportunities to relax and get away. Ask your partner to go on a walk, visit the museum, or go to their favorite restaurant. If they refuse, express how important it is to you that you spend time together as a couple. Your partner may lose their sense of spontaneity, so set specific dates to perform activities together. It is harder to back out of a set plan for the day.
- Relationships are a two-way street. Things may not be as carefree and romantic as they used to. But your partner should still make an effort to be there for you in your times of need. Mental illness should not be an excuse to fully neglect their part of the relationship—especially if you’re working overtime to keep it afloat.
- Provide little ways to ease their burden. When bound by mental illness, even the smallest of tasks can feel like an immense weight. Do the dishes or laundry, surprise them by making their dinner. This may relieve a lot of the weight on their shoulders and give them the time to do something more enjoyable.
- If your partner threatens to harm themselves, call 911. If legitimate, this is a situation best handled by professionals. Unfortunately, a tactic I’ve witnessed in multiple toxic relationships is to make false threats of self-harm to delay a break-up. Although mental illness may be the catalyst for such a threat, do not tolerate attention-seeking and manipulative behavior. Someone that threatens suicide to keep you from leaving them is being downright abusive.
- This point is a bit controversial, but something I strongly stand by: it is okay to make ultimatums. Some things in life have zero room for compromise. Think of a couple where one individual wants a child and the other is adamantly against having children. Such an enormous disagreement is an acceptable condition for ending the relationship. In the case of mental illness, a partner that continues to refuse to seek help—in spite of your love and support—is being unfair to your relationship. Whether or not you express these ultimatums to your partner is up to you, but you are not a bad person for leaving a toxic situation.
The biggest lie you will tell yourself is that you are responsible for their happiness. You might blame yourself—that you nag too much, you’re not available enough, you complain about work too much. Your partner is a grown adult accountable for their own actions. Most likely, you aren’t a mental health professional (and if you are, unless your partner starts scheduling appointments with you, you’re sure not their doctor). No matter how much support you provide, they will not get better if they aren’t interested in helping themselves. This is where it becomes massively important to take care of yourself first—you cannot take of anyone when emotionally or physically overwhelmed. I found that my school performance began to be affected, as I spent so much time worrying about my partner instead of paying attention in class. Make a strong effort to spend time with friends or family; doing things you enjoy should become an essential component of your schedule. Supporting your partner does not mean that you are required to carry all of their burdens.
Finally, try to remain optimistic. Remind your partner—and yourself—that things will get better. With time and dedication, they can overcome this struggle and find stability and happiness. Tell your partner when you’re proud of them for working so hard to feel better. Appreciate the good moments, knowing that there will be plenty more to enjoy in the future.