We’re living in an age of unprecedented transparency and awareness around mental health and wellness, especially after the pandemic. However, this doesn’t always translate into the knowledge we need to live sustainably with mental illness and its impacts day in and day out. Knowing that depression is a real issue doesn’t necessarily prepare you for your partner feeling unable to cook or do house chores or make plans as a couple for weeks on end when their depression is bad. How do you best support a partner with mental illness in concrete ways?
1. Listen rather than talk; ask rather than assume
Stigma and a lack of general cultural knowledge about mental health mean that when a partner discloses any kind of mental health struggles, you may first feel overwhelmed or confused. Maybe you’ve only heard of their diagnosis in scary terms on TV or in movies; maybe you’ve never heard of it at all; maybe there isn’t even a specific diagnosis to work with.
Although it can feel overwhelming at first, remember that any mental health condition is something that primarily affects your partner; your job here is to support them as much as possible while maintaining your own health and wellness, not to make it about you. Notice and let go of any urge to center your own feelings in this exact moment with phrases like “I’m not sure if I can do this” or “what does that mean?” and instead focus on listening for now. Ask non-judgemental, open-ended questions that center your partner’s experience: “What does this illness look like for you?” “How does this impact your daily life?” “What do you want me to know about it?” “What are episodes like for you?” Your partner is the expert on their illness(es), and you can show your care for them by being interested in how it impacts their whole lived experience, not just you or your relationship. Their illness might not manifest at all in the ways you’d assume or fear, or they may not want or need your help or support with it — try to let go of assumptions as much as possible.
After you both feel grounded and comfortable with basic knowledge and communication about their condition(s), you can start an (ongoing) line of communication about what it looks like for your relationship. Are there specific triggers you might need to be aware of or avoid as their partner? Do they want to educate you about their medication in case they have an episode? Do they want support in managing their mental health relative to other parts of their life? It’s totally ok to ask questions about how it will impact your relationship or be honest about how mental illness impacts you; try to lead that conversation constructively and with an eye to collaborative solutions, and again keep in mind that whatever negative impacts someone else’s mental health has on you, it’s much more intense for them.
2. Set informed, compassionate boundaries and ask for the same
All relationships benefit from healthy boundaries and expectations; this doesn’t change when mental health struggles enter the picture. One or more partners having mental health issues to navigate doesn’t mean that this no longer applies; it means you (both!) need to create boundaries and practices that take everyone’s mental health into account. Some conditions, like personality disorders, can impact how someone shows up in interpersonal relationships; it’s normal and healthy to still have boundaries around what kind of behavior you’re okay with from partners or how you want to work through conflicts. Having a mental illness isn’t a pass for harmful behavior in a relationship; mental illness also isn’t an excuse to denigrate your partner or something to hold over their head or invalidate their feelings for. It’s also totally possible (and common!) for both partners in a relationship to struggle with mental health in different ways; it’s crucial for both partners to manage and balance their needs as best as possible.
As an example, a partner with severe anxiety might have a recurring paranoia about their partner breaking up with them out of nowhere. This isn’t their fault for having and isn’t in their control, and also is something the couple can work through how to manage together. They might decide that even though the anxious person would love to be reassured daily that they aren’t breaking up, this would be too much pressure for their non-anxious partner, and they don’t feel comfortable having that level of responsibility for regulating their partner’s mood. They might agree that while they won’t respond to daily requests for reassurance, and will gently redirect to another topic if they’re asked, that if they’re having a conflict or fight the non-anxious partner will clearly and proactively communicate whether breaking up is on the table or not: “I’m really upset and we do need to find a better way to handle this, but I still love you even when I’m upset and I’m not breaking up with you.”
3. Move forward as a team
People with mental illnesses often (reasonably) fear that their loved ones will grow to resent them over time for the inconvenience of managing their illness, especially if they live with something that isn’t necessarily going to “get better” or go away. Partners of mentally ill people (just like everyone!) have the right to leave a relationship whenever they want — but as long as you are in the relationship, try to remember that you and your partner are on the same side, and act like it. Their mental illness is, again, something that primarily impacts them, not you; try to support them in it the same way you would support them through being laid off or breaking a bone, without resentment and with empathy for how hard and unfair it is. Remember that you’re on the same team, allied against both the negative consequences of their illness and the stigma and medical obstacles they may face related to it — the work will pay off in your relationship ten times over.