By age 40, about 50% of the population will have or have had a mental illness. So that means, in most romantic relationships, one partner is struggling with their mental health, and the other is supporting.
Caring for someone who is dealing with a mental illness is tricky business. As a clinical psychologist, I see a lot of couples navigating these rough waters and the most important thing for the supporter to know is this:
You are no help to your partner if you aren’t looking after yourself first.
That’s number one, my friends. And if you’d like me to expand on this, here are a few more things to keep in mind as the supporter:
If you aren’t okay, they don’t stand a chance.
As mentioned above, you must look after yourself or you won’t be of any use to your partner. “That pressure to keep it all going can feel too much,” says Dr Monica Cain, counselling psychologist at Nightingale hospital in London. She advises, “taking that pressure seriously. It’s something that is very difficult to manage even at the best of times.
Mental health can be physical.
Conditions like depression, anxiety, or PTSD can impact our physical energy levels in different ways. Some people experience extreme fatigue or can’t get out of bed. You might want to scream at your partner, “You’d feel better if you just got up!” But it’s important to remember that much like a physical illness, when people are struggling mentally, they need grace and permission to rest.
Keep doing the things you love.
When our partners are down, we empathize. We want them to feel better, and so we skip the social engagement and stay home with our spouse. The problem with this? Nobody wins. The partner struggling starts to feel guilty about bringing the other person down, and resentment starts to build in the partner “missing out” – which only exacerbates the problem.
Share with your friends and family.
We sometimes fear that our loved ones won’t understand the complexity of what we’re going through. But keeping up “appearances” while supporting your partner is exhausting. Opening up to our people means we’re building a circle of support and breaking the stigma. We were never meant to do any of this alone.
Don’t take it personally.
One day you might get the person you fell in love with, your dream spouse. And the next day they might feel like a distant stranger. Just remember, it’s not about you. They’re doing their best to cope with emotional highs and lows and taking it all to heart will just burn you both out.
Above all, remember that all the advice we give to someone who is unwell applies to the loved ones who support. Reach out for help, keep communication lines open, ask questions, and prioritize your own health and happiness.