Discovering that you have a partner with a mental health issue can be scary, frustrating, and overwhelming.
That’s probably how they feel as well. While they are ultimately in charge of their own mental health, there are several things you can do to maintain balance, partnership, as well as mutual love, respect, and romance if you’re both willing to work together.
Here are a few things to remember when you have a partner with a mental health issue:
Be Present without Trying to Fix
Watching a partner with a mental health issue struggle can be excruciating, especially when you feel so helpless. Traditionally, men “fix” things and we’re often most comfortable when we can be actively working on a problem—our own, or someone else’s. But having a relationship with someone with an anxiety or depressive disorder–or something more serious–is challenging because there is so little for a partner to do.
In fact, what those who are suffering often say is that they really want you to just be there. There’s an annoying phrase that’s actually helpful here:
- “Don’t just do something, stand there!” (I know–eye-roll)
Let them know that you’re present for them. And this is difficult for most of us who wan to help the person solve their issue. But it’s important, and hopefully relieving, to know that often they’re not expecting you to make them feel better. They want to know that you won’t abandon them in the middle of a crisis, and that you will be reliable. Let your partner know where you’ll be and how you can be available if need be. Don’t over-promise anything (especially if you won’t be able to keep that promise.)
Make a Plan During Less Stressful Times, Not in the Heat of the Moment
Often relational dynamics move in cycles and the mental health issue of one member of a partnership is no exception.
During a critical moment when the issue is at its most acute, there is the earnest question, “What can I do?” Unfortunately, this is the worst possible time to ask this question to a partner with a mental health issue.
What happens in the cycle is that when there are moments that are filled with non-anxiety/depressiveness/etc there is often an unspoken hope that the issue has simply gone away. There may even be a fear that talking about the difficulties while things are going well will jinx it. Sadly, though, the problem rarely just disappears and the time to talk and plan is when no one is in the throes of crisis.
Some questions you can ask during less symptomatic times are:
- “What would be most helpful to you during these times?”
- “Should I stay with you? Should I leave you alone?”
- “How can I check in with how you’re doing without making it worse?”
If your partner is up for it, consider having a joint therapy session with them and their therapist. (If your partner is in therapy, that is. If they’re not, that’s another conversation to have when things are less stressful between the two of you. You should not become their de facto mental health treatment: this can lead to resentment and enabling (see below) and will not help your relationship.) The joint session would not be couples’ therapy—which you may also consider—but for you to ask some of the questions above and to come up with a plan for times when your partner is struggling.
Don’t Let Your Partner Become Their Diagnosis
This may seem strange to say, but if so much of your relationship is defined by your partner’s mental health issues and concerns, it can be easy to see them as an “Anxious Person” or a “Depressed Person” instead of the person you chose, the person you love, the person who is a parent to your children. Your partner who has been struggling and suffering with mental health issues.
If you fully define yourself as their caregiver it will become harder and harder for you to see each other as partners. Remind yourself what you love about them. What drew you to them initially and why you stay with them.
Just don’t stop seeing them as a whole person.
Enabling is NOT Helping
Most people are more familiar with the idea and language of “enabling” when it comes to loving someone with a substance usage issue.
It still works here.
It’s important to remember that it is not helpful for you to be a martyr. Don’t define yourself as the person who takes care of your wife/husband, boyfriend, or girlfriend. Recognize that you may be getting a lot from that role: It may feel important, special, and strong, but it will only feel that way up to a point. It may make you feel like you are fulfilling your job as protector and that you are the one who is keeping your partner going in the midst of so many people who have abandoned them and treated them poorly. But you are still their partner and that means that there needs to be an equality between you.
Without that you may end up resenting them and being consistently down with yourself for not being able to heal or save them. You can empathize deeply with them while still holding them accountable for how they take care of themselves, how they talk to you, treat you, or for not keeping their word. You will need to consider what is unacceptable to you and hold to that.
Take Care of Yourself (It’s not Being Selfish)
This idea gets yes’ed to death, but rarely is it acted on.
You’re not going to be any help to anyone, least of all your partner, if in the long run you end up putting all of your energy into them without focusing on you.
You’ll know best about what you need, but really take stock on how often you’ve been doing things that bring you joy.
Are you still making time for friends with and without your partner?
Have you identified friends or family members who you can talk to about your partner’s issues? Yes, you can respect their privacy, but keeping all their (and your) struggles a big secret is not helpful for anyone. Don’t lie to your partner, but let them know that you’ll need to talk to others.
This may mean seeking professional support. You don’t need your own mental health diagnosis to seek and benefit from therapy. I work with many men who feel they have nowhere else to go with the issues that their partner is facing. And there may come a point where you want to really consider how healthy this relationship is for you. Of course, this is probably the last thing you want to hear and it’s not the place we start at, but if you’ve done a lot of the above and you are still feeling that there is little that you are getting (or giving, if everything feels so stuck) you are allowed to disconnect.
You’ll do it in the most loving way—for both of you—but it is something you may consider. Yes, there will be guilt. Yes, you will feel bad. And that doesn’t mean that you should or shouldn’t do it.
Having a partner who is struggling with a mental health issue can be draining and difficult. It can seem an “invisible” problem that is certainly difficult to understand or empathize with if it’s not something with which you’ve had direct experience.
Yet your relationship should not become all about managing their issues. And this doesn’t mean that you can’t have an equal partnership. You’ll want to feel confident that they’re doing all they can to take care of themselves—not expecting you to do that work while, at the same time, you’re taking care of yourself. You’ll want to avoid getting into a space where you’re constantly putting their needs in front of yours.
The person you’ve fallen in love with is more than their diagnosis and while it may be a part of your relationship dynamic, it doesn’t have to be what defines your relationship.
If you’re struggling with a partner with a mental health issue–or with a mental health issue yourself–please don’t hesitate to contact me for a free phone consultation to see if it would be beneficial for us to work together.
Justin Lioi, LCSW is a men’s mental health and relationship expert. He is a Brooklyn therapist (as well as also seeing clients online throughout New York State and internationally.) He received his degree from New York University and has been working with men and their families for over 10 years. Justin is on the Board of the National Association of Social Workers and writes a weekly column for the Good Men Project called Unmasking Masculinity. He can be found on local and national podcasts talking about assertiveness, anger, self-compassion, all with the goal of becoming the man you want to be.