Helping a partner recover from a mental health problem can be difficult and can place extra strain on a relationship. But what happens when you are both suffering from different mental health conditions? How can you learn to understand each other and recover as a team?
According to Mind – The Mental Health Charity, 1 in 4 people suffer from a mental health problem each year. If you’re in a romantic relationship, the chances are high that at some point you or your partner could experience a mental health issue.
Mind and Relate surveyed over 1000 people who experienced mental health problems in their romantic relationships. The impact can be serious, especially with regards to intimacy. 80% of people surveyed felt that their mental health issues had affected their sex lives.
When a romantic partner is suffering from a mental health problem, they can feel unattractive, self-conscious and experience a loss of libido. Sometimes the need for proof of commitment can also cause sex to become aggressive and pressurised, adding more strain to a relationship.
Peter Saddington, relationship counsellor for Relate, says that there are a few key issues seen amongst couples experiencing mental health problems. According to Peter, there has been an increase in adults reporting self-harm and suicidal thoughts. This can lead partners to think – If I say the wrong thing, will it prompt my partner to harm themselves or kill themselves? Peter says, “This is an increasingly common and difficult problem to deal with.”
There is also an issue with increased aggression in relationships where partners experience mental health problems. “Aggression can lead to domestic abuse,” says Peter. “It also leads to increasingly volatile arguments which can escalate situations.”
Drugs and alcohol are also an issue in these relationships. Peter says these are used as “self-medication and coping mechanisms, either by the partner who doesn’t have mental health problems as a way of surviving, or for both of them.” According to Peter, “Drugs and alcohol are used as a way to regulate and manage a relationship that is becoming increasingly stressful and difficult to manage.”
Another way of partners coping is to look for support outside the relationship. This can lead to infidelity. “Betrayal and a breakdown of trust can add another problem on top of all the other problems they are trying to manage,” says Peter.
Often, couples don’t have the tools in place to support themselves or each other during a mental health issue. But a serious problem comes into play when both partners in the relationship suffer from separate mental health conditions, at the same time. Especially where symptoms of their individual conditions clash.
Peter says, “One of the biggest problems is that they could both be in very different places. One partner could need more support and be struggling more than the other one.” According to Peter, partners can get “wrapped up in their own issues” which makes counselling problematic.
Couples need to be realistic about their therapeutic support. Sometimes individuals need to focus on their own therapy or medication adjustments first, in order to lift the situation. They may then be able to access some basic support from a couple’s counsellor. According to Peter this could help couples “manage on a day-to-day basis without making big changes.”
Peter believes that the key to recovery as a couple is hope. Couples need to talk about transition. “Just because they’re in a bad place now, doesn’t mean that it’ll be like that forever.” Peters says that couples need to feel hopeful that they can get to a place where their relationship will work again. “If you’re both motivated to stay in the relationship and work at it, we can work with you.”
Top Tips for Recovery
Establish Safe Conversations
Before you can start resolving your relationship issues, ensure that you have established a safe place, without fear or aggression, to start your recovery conversation.
Individual and Couple Therapy
Every couple’s situation is different, and the prioritisation of treatment might differ per situation. Relate offer specialised counselling for couples with mental health struggles. Consider talking with a therapist to support your relationship recovery.
Be Honest About Your Mental Health
Once you have established a safe place to talk, discuss your mental health condition honestly with your partner. This will help them learn more about it and understand your needs.
It’s easy to start raising your voice when you don’t feel heard by your partner, but shouting can have a negative effect on the thinking and behaviour of a person with a mental health condition. Become aware of shouting behaviour and try to take a step back before it escalates.
Set aside time for yourself each day. Even if that time is to have a shower, a cup of tea or a walk around the block. Built that time into your daily routine as self-care is essential for recovery.
Maintain Physical Contact (but not necessarily sex)
Talk openly about the impact of your mental health conditions on your sex life. Consider other forms of physical contact to build up your partner’s self esteem and re-assure them of your commitment. Hugging and holding hands are excellent forms of intimacy and provide a physical connection without the pressure of sex.
Recovering from a mental health condition can take weeks, months, years or sometimes a lifetime. Rushing a partner to recover will only cause more stress and pressure in the relationship. Find patience.
Although many mental health problems can increase risk of destructive behaviour, the illness itself should not be used as an excuse for abusive behaviour in a relationship. Emotional and physical abuse should not be tolerated, regardless of your partner’s mental health condition.
By Nikki Blissett
Nickki is a freelance journalist specialising in mental health. She also writes about her mental health experiences on her Digital Butterfly Blog.