Nearly half of adults experience a mental illness at least once in their lifetime. Research and practical experience tells us that mental illness can cause a person to have decreased quality of life, decreased productivity and employment, and even impaired physical health.
A mental illness—including post-traumatic stress disorder, major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and alcoholism—can also affect a person’s relationships. There may be no relationship more affected by mental illness than the intimate relationship between partners.
The good news is that it’s completely possible to be in a healthy, loving, and long-term partnership with someone who has a mental illness. If this is relevant to you, being aware of the unique challenges you and your partner may face, and utilizing resources and strategies that will help your grow and nurture your relationship is key.
3 Ways Mental Illness Can Affect an Intimate Relationship
The following issues are common within couples affected by mental illness, yet no two relationships are the exact same, so it’s important to take into context your unique relationship so you’ll be able to identify where you may need additional guidance:
- Shame, guilt, and resentment. Having a mental illness is hard enough, but the stigma associated with mental health conditions can add an extra layer of stress for both people in a relationship. The person with a mental illness may feel shame, embarrassment, or guilt about their condition. They may try to hide their symptoms or fail to seek the help they need. Meanwhile, their partner may feel confused or frustrated by their inability to help. In some cases, a person with depression or anxiety for instance, may find it difficult to follow through with household tasks, have limited emotional availability, struggle to maintain employment, and lack the desire to socialize. For their partner, these behaviors and challenges can put a strain on the relationship which may lead to feelings of disappointment, rejection and disconnect.
- Intimacy problems. Having a mental illness can make a person disinterested in sex—either as a result of the condition itself and/or as a result of their treatment (decreased libido is a common side effect of antidepressant medications). Many people with mental health conditions may feel inadequate, have performance anxiety and low self-esteem. For both partners, this can lead to a decreased opportunity for bonding and result in unmet needs.
- The risk for codependent behaviors. Codependencyis an unhealthy relationship pattern that manifests as one partner enabling another person’s poor mental health, addiction, and/or coping strategies. The partner of a person with mental illness may start to derive their self-worth from the degree to which they are “needed” or how much they are able to “take care” of their loved one. In extreme cases, codependency can increase the risk of abusive behaviors, including manipulation, name-calling, and other unhealthy relationship dynamics. Knowing how to distinguish the need to encourage and support with the co-dependent nature of managing the other person’s symptoms will help.
Having a person affected by a mental health condition can be navigated in a relationship if both partners have the necessary skills, tools, and awareness to cope and communicate these unique challenges.
This is why a paradigm shift is needed: people should feel empowered to seek help if they or their loved one is struggling with mental health. Mental illness is not a character flaw nor a moral issue. Yes, people need to be held responsible for their actions and behaviors—but they also deserve context, understanding, and support so they can learn how to manage their well-being, heal from past trauma, and honor their partner’s experience.
When Your Loved One Has a Mental Illness: Helpful Tips for Partners
- Educate yourselves. Learn about your mental health condition together. This helps you gain a better understanding of the condition and clue you in to how the symptoms show up in your marriage or partnership.
- Practice your communication skills. Speak openly and honestly about your feelings, needs and concerns. Use “active listening” skills like seeking understanding, asking clarifying questions, and using engaged body language (eye contact, a gentle touch and interest).
- Commit to excellent self-care. By taking good care of your physical and mental health, you’ll be better equipped to support each other and your family. Beneficial acts of self-care include regular exercise, healthy eating, a consistent sleep schedule, journaling, and doing hobbies and activities you enjoy.
- Seek professional help. Use whatever resources are relevant to you and within your means. Both couples counseling and individual counseling may be appropriate.
- Have realistic expectations. You can’t demand someone to change who they are nor expect them to meet all your needs at all times (as this is true for all relationships!). Equally, you shouldn’t have to violate your boundaries in order to maintain the relationship. Find a way to compromise and grow so both of you feel safe and supported.