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Managing mental health in relationships

Mental health problems can often take their toll on relationships, but if handled in the right way this needn't be the case

by Katherine Weir

Mental health can be a difficult thing to manage on your own, but when you put it in the context of a relationship it adds a completely different dimension. On the one hand, you have someone who will support you when things get tough, listen to you and help you out in the same way that you do for them, but on the other hand it can be tricky to navigate someone else’s low mood, depression or anxiety. So what’s the best way to manage mental health problems when you are in a relationship?

Communication

As with many difficulties in relationships, mental health struggles are best addressed with copious amounts of communication. Research from Mind has shown that being open with your partner about your mental health problems is central to overall wellbeing, and that the majority of partners react in a positive way. Even if this communication isn’t necessarily positive, it’s much better than awkward silences or being shut out. If you are struggling with your own mental health, be sure to communicate your thoughts and feelings to your partner on a daily basis. This will reassure them, make them feel closer to you and prevent issues from bubbling up over a long period of time.

If it is your partner that is struggling with mental health problems, try gently encouraging them to share their worries with you, but be patient as this may be difficult for them. When they do communicate with you, listen to them without judgement and try to understand what they’re telling you. Don’t take things personally or attribute it to your own failings; remember that they have an illness and it is neither their nor your fault. As Relate advises, break down the details of the problem with your partner and try to understand what they're going through. 

Focus on health

Many people forget to treat mental health problems like the illnesses that they are, often falsely believing that it is the sufferer’s responsibility to ‘fix’ it. Whether it is you or your partner, or both, who struggles with their mental health, remember that this is not something you can just stop feeling. Often a medical professional is required to make a full recovery, just as with many other illnesses. If it helps, think of the illness like a broken leg; would you tell someone with a broken leg that they should just ‘get on with it’ or ‘toughen up’? Would you judge them for resting in bed or not going to work? Remember that the brain is a very complex organ and there is much about it that we still don’t understand.

Find balance

Managing mental health problems within a relationship can be a very intense and sometimes stressful experience. If you live with your partner or otherwise spend a lot of time with them, make sure you take regular breaks so that you both feel some sense of independence. This will give you time to breathe, relax and see things from a different perspective. This is particularly important if things start to take their toll on your relationship and you find yourselves arguing or otherwise not getting on. Although your urge might be to cling on and fix things immediately, often a little bit of space is all you need.

Whatever your situation, be sure to treat your partner with patience, respect and love. If you find yourself becoming judgemental or impatient, reflect on this and see if you can change how you are thinking about your relationship. You mind find that you can make things much easier simply by examining your own thoughts and feelings.

Photograph: iStock