By Alexa Ashworth, MFTC
I believe a topic that is very important and worth exploring in today’s society is how couples manage mental illness together. Whether one person or both have mental health concerns. Through my personal experience working with couples, people often feel as though they are doomed and incapable of a romantic relationship when bringing up a mental illness one has struggled with most of their life. The simple statement “I have a mental illness” automatically discredits an individual’s worth, value, and relational strengths. It is as though one is saying “I will never be in a healthy relationship”.
How do I talk about my mental health with my partner?
The focus of this article is validating that people with mental illness actually have strong relationships and are very capable of growing with the person they love. Let’s be honest, anyone that has or is currently suffering from a mental illness feels like taking care of their own body and mind is a full-time job.
This is true; however, it does not have to be our only job for the rest of life. I believe that if an individual seriously takes it upon themself to tend to their own mental wellness, tap into self-compassion and intentionally seeks support outside a relationship, one can absolutely thrive in a romantic relationship.
So, how do we start having conversations with a romantic partner about mental health concerns? A nice place to start is recognizing what your personal narrative around mental health stigmas has been. Are there misunderstandings? Fears? Or worries? When reflecting on the messages that have been engrained through society or your ancestry, you may find some information does not align with how you think anymore.
We have to undo certain messages told to us growing up and validate what we are capable of now. Starting these conversations may feel as though you may hurt your loved one more. In reality, you are providing a new path for both of you to grow stronger and have a deeper understanding of how to support one another. You are breaking generational curses and choosing not to stay silent anymore.
Whether you are currently in a long-term relationship or just starting to date again make sure to discuss each other’s intentions for discussing mental health concerns. Set intentions of what each person is willing to try and willing to explore. Being open and honest about what you are willing to learn or try for the other person or yourself will set a nice foundation for when it is time to put a new mindset and practice into action. Remember, you are sharing insight into your daily challenges and allowing space to validate one another’s experiences.
Healing in relationships
I recently read a relational thread on Instagram by Sheleana Aiyana, founder of @risingwoman. She states, “We heal our relationships *in* relationship and that’s why if we wait until we are “fully healed” we’ll never be in relationship”. I love her raw truth and comfort in acknowledging that the time is now and you can continue to heal, even in a relationship.
If we live in a state of mind where there is always more work to do and we have to be “fully healed” until entering a new relationship, we will continue on with the belief that love is not possible. I strongly believe we learn more about who we are in relation to another person. No matter anyone’s health history we are all deserving of a loving, healthy relationship.
Different layers of our past may surface in relationships and this is OKAY. When this happens, it is always the perfect opportunity to lean in, recognize how things use to be, and actively choose a healthier way of handling the pain that has surfaced.
What does couples therapy look like?
As I continue to support couples on their journey toward building new strengths and finding supportive ways to comfort one another in times of crisis, I have learned keeping things simpler is better. Couples typically come in wanting better communication, to comfortably share the same space again, or be less defensive with one another.
What I find to be a common thread through many of the concerns couple’s voice, is “how each person responds to the other through frustrating moments”. It does not matter the scenario discussed, what matters most is our personal reactions toward the one we love. Therefore, I focus on the words, phrases and language one another uses with each other as conflict arises.
As I tune into this, I am navigating opportunities between the couple where moments for embracing their struggle, showing empathy or validating hard experiences have been lost. I am passionately driven to help couples who are experiencing mental health concerns to find ways to empower one another. To set personal emotions aside when appropriate and show up for the one they love and build inner-confidence in the areas that have been fearfully unknown. The relationship is not lost, it is the strengths of the relationship that have been muddled, so we lose our way when trying to bring life back into a healthy romance.
If you found any part of this article impactful, I encourage you to continue seeking outside support that is right for you. You are and can be valued and loved as a whole person. It’s time to talk.