Supporting a partner with a mental illness

How to support a partner with a mental illness. Image: Getty
How to support a partner with a mental illness. Image: Getty

You’re in a relationship and everything is going well. Suddenly, you feel nothing. Then the arguments begin. He thinks you’ve checked out. You, on the other hand, struggle to explain that your sudden emotional collapse has nothing to do with him. The more you argue, the harder it becomes to find words.

Instead, you turn inwardly, and go through silent battles with anxious, depressed thoughts about what is wrong. You don’t want your boyfriend to think that you’ve plunged into “depression” because of minor relationship problems. You don’t want him to think of you as weak in the face of your storms. After all, you are her man. This is seven months into the relationship. You’re madly in love, but suddenly have no clue how to connect meaningfully with her. 

Mental illness and relationships 

Is it possible to maintain a healthy long- term relationship with someone who is suffering from a mental illness? From the first instance, my instinct was a reluctant “no”. 

However, clinical psychologist Anele Siswana, also an author and lecturer at the University of Johannesburg, offers a more optimistic, balanced outlook. “Mental illness will certainly disrupt the nature and quality of a relationship. It comes with a lot of shame, guilt and resentment, but it can be successfully navigated.

That sense of shame because of the stereotypes that come with mental illness can contribute negatively if your partner doesn’t have full comprehension of what a mental illness means or looks like. This is why psycho-education is a crucial first step in navigating a relationship with a partner with a mental illness.” 

READ MORE | Rachel Kolisi talks about her battle with depression and suicide attempt

The stigma 

Living with a mental illness is difficult, and the stigma attached to it adds a layer that makes it hard for people to disclose and be honest about their state of mental health. The partner with the challenges might hide their symptoms because of what people perceive around mental illness. This is especially so for mental illnesses, such as personality disorders, that have a lot to do with your way of being and can be traced all the way back to childhood. These behaviours can put a strain on the relationship, which may lead to feelings of disappointment, rejection and disconnection.

As the partner of the person with a mental illness, you may start to derive your self-worth from the degree that they need you

Guilt and shame

How do you love another person when your heart and mind are a tangled mess of bad thoughts? The mind can play tricks. You then try to untangle these knots by journaling and seeking therapy. You discover that your turbulent moods and inexplicable emotional distancing from loved ones are associated with the shame you harbour from unmet educational milestones. So, you seek professional help.

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Symptoms you can identify in your partner, alongside a sudden change in behaviour, could include: 

  • Low mood
  • Irritability
  • Insomnia
  • Anxiety and irrational anger
  • Emotional instability
  • Being disinterested in sex

But, your partner still struggles to understand that it isn’t her fault, and that your shame is compounded by guilt. Instead of communicating your difficult feelings, you distance yourself in order to “protect” her. This complicates your relationship further because she only feels neglected and abandoned.

Treatment

Siswana is not surprised that the treatment process can present complex intimacy problems. “Treatment can make you disinterested in sex. This is either as a result of the condition itself or treatment process. For instance, if you’re on antidepressants, there are great chances of a decreased libido, a common side effect.” People with mental health conditions often feel inadequate, and carry a lot of insecurities. This contributes to difficulties in terms of intimacy. For both partners, this can lead to decreased chances for bonding, and result in unmet emotional needs, such as spending quality time together.

The diagnosis 

Because you’re in the relationship, you may not spend a lot of time trying to spot symptoms in your partner. Additionally, it’s easy to miss them because you may not have an understanding of mental illnesses. These illnesses require a professional to conduct a proper diagnosis. Some people may feel judged if their partner points out issues that affect the quality of their relationship.

READ MORE | Dealing with emotional black tax 

Thabang Thobejane*, a 25-year-old digital marketer who is dating a woman with clinical depression, is optimistic. “It frustrates me, to be honest. Trying to support someone who is depressed is hard work, but it’s also a test of our love. I don’t believe that you can love just anyone – everyone has their people. And, she is mine. Love is so strong that you can’t wake up one day and say, ‘I no longer love this person because they are depressed’. That only means you never really loved them. If you truly love someone, love will overcome whatever barriers stand in-between you.”

In extreme cases, you realise that co-dependence can increase the risk of abusive behaviours, including name-calling and other negative dynamics

Co-dependency

Thobejane offers a beautiful sentiment, but Siswana still encourages healthy boundaries and a deliberate self-care routine for people with partners who have a mental illness. “Mental illness can introduce the risk of co-dependent behaviours. Co-dependency is a form of an unhealthy relationship that manifests in different ways. For some people, it is addiction. As the partner of the person with a mental illness, you may start to derive your self-worth from the degree that they need you,” Siswana explains.

“These behaviours add a factor in the strain of the relationship. In extreme cases, you realise that co-dependence can increase the risk of abusive behaviours, including name-calling and other negative dynamics. So, knowing how to distinguish the need to encourage and support your partner from the co-dependent nature of managing their personal anxieties will help a lot,” he concludes. *Not his real name

Remember the following:

Siswana says you can successfully navigate a relationship with a partner struggling from a mental illness if you both invest in psycho-education to support each other. Remember the following: 

  • There is always hope.
  • It is possible to have a healthy, loving and long-term partnership with someone who has a mental illness.
  • This is a condition, and does not define one’s being. Much like a physical illness would not change your essence.
  • Be aware of the unique challenges that your partner may face as a result of the condition. Use resources that would allow you to grow and nurture your relationship. Read books on mental health.
  • Seek help if you or your loved one is struggle with mental health. Also, empower them to constantly see the need to get help, and create a climate for them to understand mental health without judgement.
  • Some disorders are very difficult to deal with. But, do help your partner to understand your symptoms, triggers and episodes.Share your treatment process and state of being. That will significantly improve the quality of your relationship.

This article was originally published in the July 2020 issue of TRUELOVE 

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