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Nurturing Relationships through Recovery
Having a mental illness shouldn't keep you from enjoying fulfilling relationships of all kinds, from close friendships to romantic relationships and even marriage. Mental illness is fairly common. In reality, there are many people with mental health conditions in loving and nurturing relationships who share their lives with their partners, often raising families with them. Romantic relationships can be enriching, delightful and meaningful, but negotiating the ups and downs of such relationships can also be a major challenge, especially for those with a mental illness.
No relationship, no matter how loving, is problem-free. One partner may have a poor credit score, making it hard to find a place to live or lease a car; the other might work the night shift, making it difficult to schedule events during normal times; and couples who appear to get along perfectly may have disagreements over the smallest matters. Despite the difficulties that can occur in a relationship when one or both partners have a mental illness, relationships can thrive when both partners learn how to communicate and compromise.
Each partner brings many things, both strengths and limitations, to their relationships. Living with a mental illness may be your particular challenge. You are wise to be concerned in advance how you might affect your partner, but it is important to realize that hard times are a part of all relationships. Partners who care for each other can grow from facing difficulty.
Whether or not you are ready to enter a relationship largely depends on you. While it is true that many people harbor prejudices - a 2004 study showed that while 71% of people would be friends with someone with a mental illness, only 12.8% would be willing to marry.1 Yet, as long as you are taking good care of yourself and are willing to nurture another person, you have a good chance of finding a loving partner and developing a successful relationship. You must keep in mind, however, that relationships are two-way streets, and you will have to be prepared to take on the responsibility of having a significant other in your life. Their emotional needs must be considered as well as your own. The more active you are in managing your condition and caring for your health, the easier it may be for you to maintain a relationship.
- Perrone, Kristin. "Attitudes regarding interpersonal relationships with persons with mental illness and mental retardation." The Journal of Rehabilitation. 1 January 2004.
Knowing when to bring up your mental illness can be a very difficult decision, but the choice is always yours.
Some people choose to be completely up front about having a mental illness. Others are more tentative. If you are casually dating, you may not want to bring it up on the first date. Many people expect that first dates are about small talk, and sensitive personal subjects like religion, politics, family history, and illness shouldn't be brought up. If you have been dating a while, however, and are starting to become exclusive or serious, or if you're talking about moving in or getting married, you should definitely talk with your partner about your mental illness if you haven't already. Keeping a mental illness a secret from a romantic partner may harm your relationship in irreparable ways. If your illness is out in the open, you and your partner can work together to improve your life.
Your partner's reaction to your mental illness can vary from day to day. Below are brief descriptions of some of the feelings that he or she may experience:
Confusion - Your partner might think that the symptoms of your mental illness represent a major change in his life; it may take your partner some time to realize that having a mental illness doesn't change who you are.
Hurt - Your partner may be hurt if you have been keeping a secret or if your behaviors while unwell are damaging. She may feel betrayed or lied to. Sometimes, this can come across as anger.
Relief - If you have been struggling in your relationship for some time, fighting over small things or withdrawing into your corner, your partner may be relieved to hear that it is a new or changing symptom of your illness, not a problem with you.
Sadness - Your partner cares about you, so he may be sad to see you unwell.
Support - Your partner may be overwhelmingly loving and supportive.
Ignorance - Some people still do not understand what it means to have a mental illness. You may run into people who will never believe that your brain can be affected.
Unless your partner is a behavioral health professional, she probably knows little about mental illness, and what she does know may be based on incorrect assumptions or stereotypes. By educating your partner, you can better help him or her understand what you are going through and make it easier for him or her to cope with the symptoms and effects of your illness.
Talk to your partner about your disorder. It may be helpful to answer the following questions:
- What are the symptoms of the disorder?
- What are some common behaviors that people with this disorder exhibit?
- What are the treatments for the disorder?
- What are the side effects of the treatment?
Think about how your disorder could affect your partner. Symptoms of some mental illnesses or common behaviors associated with those conditions may have an impact on your interpersonal relationships. If you spend your entire paycheck in one day during a manic phase, for example, you may lie to your partner about it and create trust issues. If you are constantly worried that your partner will leave you, you may engage in clingy behaviors to try and constantly validate yourself.
Talk to your therapist or seek support from others who have been in relationships and learn how to understand your mental illness and how it impacts your relationship. Learn how your reactions to your symptoms and your behaviors may affect another person. It may be helpful to step back when you are well and make a list of all the behaviors you exhibit when you are unwell and think about how those are related to your condition.
When you are well is an especially good time to discuss your insights with your partner. If you know that withdrawing from the world is a sign of depression and you are prone to withdrawing, help your partner understand why you do it. He may assume that you do not like him, when it's the opposite - you like him too much and are worried that you will bring him down.
Be prepared to offer constructive suggestions to your partner - and take suggestions as well. For instance, your partner may think he is helping you manage an eating disorder by following you into the bathroom after you eat, but you feel uncomfortable and violated. Instead, suggest that you both take a 30-minute walk after dinner so you aren't tempted to purge. Or you may be embarrassed by your ill behavior when you are feeling well. It may be a sensitive subject and hard to hear about the things that you said or did when you were ill. Nonetheless, you will still need to listen to what he says.
Your therapist or your peers can be an excellent source of communication strategies. There are also a lot of people who are like you asking questions on the Internet.
Caring for another person is both motivating and rewarding, but it can put a lot of stress on a partner, especially if you are very ill for long periods of time. Always make sure to remember that a partnership goes both ways. You should make sure that you take time to acknowledge your partner because your partner may be worried that talking about his or her problems will burden you if you are not well.
Stay as well as you can: eat well, exercise regularly, have good hygiene, follow the correct treatment course. When you have a romantic partner, you are not just staying well for you-you're staying well for her. Your partner may expect you to stay on your treatment course in order to stay in the relationship. You also may need to be prepared to take some time apart.
If you are struggling in a relationship, there are many therapists who do counseling specifically with couples. Some people will be happy to go to family counseling. But while your partner may be comfortable with your treatment, he may be reluctant or opposed to going to counseling. You can find Family & Marriage Counseling at http://www.aamft.org/.
If it's OK with your therapist, you can invite your partner to a counseling session so he can understand more.
Even if your partner won't go to counseling with you, you can always talk about your relationship to your therapist. Your therapist or counselor can teach you coping and communication techniques and help you understand what another person is going through.
Encourage your partner to seek support
There are numerous support groups for people whose loved ones have mental illnesses or addictions. A support group or online community of other friends and family members can provide a great place for your partner to talk to others.
Not all relationships are enriching and fulfilling - some are violent, harmful and damaging. You should know how to recognize whether you are in an abusive relationship; find the signs to look out for here. Seek help immediately at the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 (TTY 1-800-787-3224) or visit the National Domestic Violence Hotline website at http://www.thehotline.org/. If your computer or phone use is being monitored, access this information from a secure site. If your life is in immediate danger, call 911 immediately. Trust your instincts when dealing with an abusive partner; abusers are frequently charming and appear sorry after periods of abuse.