The uncertainty of Covid 19, the presidential election, racial tension and the economy has everyone looking for mental health support. Mental illness and stress greatly affect our relationships. Guest writer Luke Smith shows us how we can fortify them to withstand the ups and downs of turbulent times. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
Image Source: Pixabay
Building Strong Mental Health Support Into Relationships
Most of us grow up dreaming about the perfect romance, the kind of fairytale love you see in movies or read about in storybooks. We envision bluebirds and red roses, rainbows, and unicorns. We imagine breathless adoration, perfect understanding, transcendent bliss.
But then we grow up, and we realize that real life is far different than fantasy. Its victories are more modest but that’s what makes them so meaningful. Instead of wafting from one rapture to the next, we discover a quiet, more substantive love, the pleasures of care and nurturing from one day to the next. We experience the gratitude of growth following love’s inevitable conflicts.
We grow up, in other words. And if we have the strength and maturity to learn the lessons our relationships are meant to teach us, we come to understand what love really is.
But when you love someone who is living with a mental illness, or if you are living with a mental illness yourself, then you know that love’s lessons can be particularly challenging. When you learn to accept and grow from them, however, the rewards for both you and your partner can be that much greater.
Why It Matters
It is estimated that approximately half of all adults will experience some form of mental illness at least once in their lifetimes. And that means that adds are, mental health will play a role in your romantic relationships at some point in your life.
Unfortunately, couples are rarely prepared to understand, let alone to effectively cope with, the impacts of mental illness on their relationships. And when these issues go unrecognized and unaddressed, they tend to exacerbate, leading to codependence and comorbidities. This might include secondary mental illnesses in the partner, ranging from depression to anxiety, resulting from their spouse’s original diagnosis.
Partners of those living with mental illness may easily lose themselves in the caretaking role. And when such nurturing is not reciprocated by the partner to the best of their ability, or when it is not combined with consistent and extensive self-care, then the caregiver is all but certain to experience burnout.
That’s not only harmful to the individuals in the relationship, but it could also cause irreparable damage to the relationship itself. Partners may have developed such unhealthy coping mechanisms and patterns of interaction with one another that there is simply no energy left to build on. Partners may lack the will or the resources to heal, to repair.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Unity Without Dependence
When mental health challenges are a factor in a romantic relationship, it is imperative to ensure that neither partner becomes lost in the diagnosis, defined only by the illness or by the caretaking role. This is tempting, however, because the illness becomes a sort of emotional escape hatch.
It becomes a reason for partners to avoid confronting other challenges in the relationship or their individual lives. And, in the end, this only allows the problem to grow and fester, as partners refuse to confront the issue, one another, or even themselves. The diagnosis, the patient, and/or the caregiving role became the easy receptacle for blame and resentment. Thus, partners can use the illness to deflect from other and perhaps even more challenging problems while allowing both to escape accountability.
A Safe Space
Avoiding the temptation to deflect and deny personal and relationship issues means, inevitably, that there will be conflict. And that’s okay. It’s a great thing because with conflict comes mutual growth, as well as growth within the relationship itself.
But that can only happen if the conflict is managed effectively, with maturity and purposeful intent. Both partners, for instance, have to feel safe in expressing their authentic selves, their truth. And that will mean having the security to give and receive respectful criticism, without having to fear rejection or abandonment.
It means knowing that neither partner will be attacked, belittled, or invalidated, that boundaries will be respected. It means making conflict safe by knowing that, no matter how intense the disagreement may be, at the end of the day, your partner will still have your back and you’ll still have theirs.
It’s the Little Things
Cultivating a healthy relationship, whether romantic or platonic, is about learning to nurture and to be nurtured. It’s about caring and self-caring.
And that involves small acts of kindness rather than grand gestures of self-denial. Putting on your partner’s favorite TV show and making their favorite snack to enjoy while they watch is a small gesture that shows your loved one they are known and cared for.
Likewise, allowing yourself to be nurtured in return is an assertion of equality in the relationship. There are no martyrs here. Only two valuable and valued individuals giving and receiving the loving care they deserve.
For example, when your loved one is facing a mental health challenge, or when you are confronting such a challenge yourself, an ideal way to mutually nourish one another is to cultivate a garden together. This is a pleasant pastime for anyone, of course, but for those with mental illness, plants can provide incredible therapeutic benefits. Best of all, cultivating a garden together can be a profoundly unifying, deeply caring experience, a shared pleasure, and a strong bonding activity.
Romantic relationships are challenging in the best of circumstances. They can be even more so, however, when one or both partners is living with mental health challenges. However, some strategies can be used to transform a potential problem into a significant source of power, provided that care is taken to ensure the needs of both partners are being met.
Luke Smith is a writer and researcher turned blogger. Since finishing college he is trying his hand at being a freelance writer. He enjoys writing on a variety of topics but relationship topics are his favorite. When he isn’t writing you can find him traveling, hiking, or gaming.