We often think about mental health in personal terms, and we work to minimize the impact of mental struggles on our personal experience. However, mental illness isn’t limited to our personal lives. Conditions like anxiety, depression, and PTSD can often affect those closest to us as well. In romantic relationships, for example, the effects of mental illness can be felt strongly on both sides of the relationship without proper care and management.
If you or your partner experience difficulties with maintaining your mental health, you might find that symptoms can translate into relationship struggles with time. However, it’s important for both members of a relationship to manage their mental health while supporting each other without changing the expectations or boundaries of a healthy relationship. A healthy relationship can mean many things to different people and different couples, however people should remember that their partner is not necessarily their therapist.
Negative Impacts of Mental Health Issues on a Relationship
For anyone that had personal experience with mental health issues, either firsthand or through their relationships, it’s not surprising that it changes your day to day life. Being involved with someone romantically, those effects can naturally extend to the relationship, which may cause strain or stress on one or both partners. Many couples are able to continue a healthy relationship while also managing their mental health, but it’s also equally common for a condition to disrupt a relationship.
There are numerous ways that a mental health challenge can influence a relationship, and unfortunately some of them are negative in nature. For example, working through a mental health issue is often a complicated emotional experience. The same could be said of relationships. Compounding the effects of a mental health issue with the ins and outs of a relationship can be particularly challenging, more so when the mental health in question isn’t being appropriately managed either by a professional or through healthy personal practice.
In terms of how this impacts the people in question, it could vary as much as the people or the mental issue in question. That said, one of the most common issues is how mental health is treated within the relationship itself. Beyond the direct impact of the mental health issue, communication is an obvious, significant factor. It’s not uncommon for routine relationship issues to be grounded in poor communication, and with mental health a lack of communication or an inability to adequately understand your partner or their experience could lead to difficulties in the relationship.
Guilt, shame, an urge to hide or alter aspects of one’s self for the sake of their partner. These are all incredibly common feelings that coincide with mental health struggles. The afflicted person may feel an excess of pressure to be better or make changes that simply aren’t realistic in certain time frames or without professional help, while the person on the other side may feel helpless or resentful of challenges that they don’t fully understand. Feeling disconnected, or coming to associate the negative emotions with your experience in a relationship can lead to unhealthy habits and relationship structures.
If you find yourself on either side of this situation, it’s crucial to remember the basics of a healthy relationship. Communication is key, so if something feels off about communication, work to improve or seek professional help. A therapist or psychiatrist may be able to help depending on the issues in question, and identifying underlying causes of additional stress in a relationship can really help develop healthier habits. Relationships are best built on a foundation of two sound and capable people, while having a more healthy relationship with yourself and your own mental health may not magically produce a perfect relationship, it will certainly create the right environment for progress.
When the Relationship Gets Toxic
As we’ve mentioned, strong communication skills and a consistent effort to support and understand your partner are key elements of a healthy relationship. Self care is also necessary, however, and it shouldn’t be overlooked. Healthy relationships are entirely possible, regardless of each partner’s mental state, but there are times when certain behaviors and actions are not healthy or appropriate, even if a person’s mental health is the cause. Typically when it comes to mental health, a toxic relationship is the byproduct of mismanaged mental health, incompatibility, or more severe issues.
Mental health should never be used to excuse abuse, for example, whether it’s verbal, emotional, or physical in nature. It’s not unusual for people to brush off aggressive or abusive behavior as a result of a person’s mental health. Things like stress, depression, anxiety, and other high emotional states are certainly a rich environment for outbursts, but part of maintaining a healthy relationship is knowing where to set appropriate boundaries.
If a person comes home and, as a result of their anxiety, retreats into themselves and is less communicative than usual leaving their partner to feel abandoned or lonely, it’s not ideal but there is room to work on that. If a person comes home and physically abuses their partner, children, or themselves as a result of that same stress or anxiety, it starts to lapse into very toxic territory and should not be written off as a passing emotional phase.
These issues are, of course, intensely complicated. Emotionally, culturally, and socially there are influences constantly shaping people’s view of how a relationship and how people in a relationship should function. Even within a relationship, slightly different views on how a relationship’s dynamics work can cause a great deal of turmoil. People should remain vigilant and aware, and should you suspect abusive behavior, consider consulting friends, family, or professional counselors for a third party perspective.
It’s an unfortunate reality that we are often blind to our own situations to some degree. Even the most reflective individual may find it difficult to discern between abusive or manipulative behavior, and the presence of a known or unknown mental health issue could further increase that difficulty. Beyond that, many people struggle with their views on intentional versus unintentional abusive behavior. Most people are more than willing to discourage intentionally abusive behavior, but have trouble condemning the same behavior that they perceive as unintentional or as “something they can’t help”.
The truth is that abuse is abuse. Whether it comes from a mental health issue, malice, or some other source, there’s no excuse for it. Making an excuse for it can be wildly unhealthy, and it’s unfortunately a very common experience for people living in unhealthy relationships. Every experience and situation is different based on the unique individuals involved, so it’s hard to give solid advice that applies to every single reader. But on the issue of mental health? We can say definitively that mental health does not excuse toxicity, and it’s a sign that a couple or individual should seek some manner of professional help to deal with the mental struggles leading to extreme negative behavior.
As a final note, not all negative behavior as a result of mental health in a relationship is so readily apparent. One of the more common, but less easily recognized risks is that of codependency. In a codependent relationship, both sides are performing in an unhealthy role. One partner will enable the other’s mental health, and vice versa. While being supportive of your close and loved ones is good, codependency goes beyond the boundaries of healthy. If a person is only capable of functioning through the presence or enabling of their partner, or when self-worth is determined solely on the relationship, healthy begins to lapse into dysfunctional. Again, this calls for real, professional intervention as it’s easy for people to either completely miss or be trapped by these heightened emotional experiences.
Maintaining a Healthy Relationship
There are much healthier ways to overcome the obstacles of mental illness in a relationship. With education, cooperation on agreed-upon expectations, and a high level of quality communication, you can set your relationship up for success. While it isn’t always easy, mental illness does not have to be a barrier to a healthy and happy relationship.
Many of the problems in a relationship complicated by mental illness may be due to nothing other than a lack of understanding. Confusion about symptoms can lead to frustration. A lack of knowledge about your partner’s mental illness can make it difficult to relate. Until both members of the relationship have the necessary information, they may not be able to come to terms on how to best support each other through the mental health situation.
One of the best things you can do if you or your partner has a mental illness is to learn about the condition together. Become educated on the causes, symptoms, and treatment options. With the help of education, you will find that mental illness isn’t so confusing and that there are many possible ways to address it.
One way to approach mental illness, at least where it impacts your relationship, is to establish guidelines and expectations. Both sides need to be able to communicate what they will accept in the relationship, regardless of how mental illness changes things. You cannot demand that your partner behave as you would expect of someone without a mental illness. At the same time, you shouldn’t use your mental illness as an excuse for overstepping a partner’s established boundaries.
The most important aspect of maintaining a healthy relationship, under any circumstances, is communication. When a mental illness is part of things, prioritizing communication becomes even more important. It is not enough to assume that they understand what you’re going through, that the mental illness isn’t a barrier to meeting what you expect of them, or that your message is coming through clearly past the interference of mental illness.
You need to not only communicate with your partner, but work to ensure that you are heard and that they also feel heard. This can be done by establishing a relationship of open communication and making some changes to the way you speak. Employ active listening by asking clarifying questions and maintaining engaged body language. When your partner can tell that you care what they have to say, working through issues together will become a much smoother process.
Additional Support for Mental Health
All of these things may help to prevent your relationship’s deterioration. However, a mental illness can often be too serious for two people to handle on their own. Professional support, whether through couples counseling or individual therapy, could be beneficial for you both.
The ADHD Wellness Center is one option available to you. While we specialize in ADHD, our resources and support are offered to anyone dealing with a mental health condition. If a mental illness has become too much even for the two people in a relationship, reach out to us at the ADHD Wellness Center.