Written by Writer’s Corps member Amanda Phillips
It can be hard to talk about mental health in our society, and even more so with someone you’re excited about dating. I’ve dealt with depression and anxiety most of my life and received a Bipolar Type II diagnosis at age 22 which gave me an explanation for why I felt so down some days and high-strung on others. Finally, I was able to connect with the tools I needed to balance all of that out but I felt like I couldn’t talk to my partner about any of it. What if they couldn’t handle it? What if it scared them off?
Despite how common mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression are, mental illnesses are just as stigmatized today as they were years ago. I cannot count how many times I’ve been labeled in a way that felt diminishing yet familiar all at once.
“Amanda, you’re acting crazy,”
“Ugh, why are you such a basket case?!”
Whether the people that said this knew it or not, casual remarks like these kept me from advocating for my needs in most of my relationships and kept me locked in unhealthy romantic relationships because I believed my mental health conditions made me a burden.
It took me years to understand my mental health conditions did not define me, and that a better understanding of them could help me and my partner love each other better. The secret to balancing a healthy relationship and mental health condition? Figure out what you need to stay well and talk to your partner about it — because everyone deserves a healthy relationship. These 5 tips will help you learn the ingredients of having a healthy relationship while dealing with a mental health condition.
1. Learn to Love Yourself Better
I’ll let you in on a little secret: mental illness does not make you undateable, though the world can trick us into thinking our mental health conditions are a barrier to having a great relationship with a loving partner. Just like someone with a physical disability or illness, people with a mental illness have to take care of themselves differently, which is not a bad thing! It’s an invitation to get to know yourself and your needs really well and be thoughtful in meeting those needs, whether it’s scheduling extra time with a counselor when you’re having a tough time, or skipping a party to recharge at home.
2. Monitor Negative Self-talk
There is still a ton of stigma associated with people that have mental illnesses, which can make it really tempting to keep it a secret. Eventually, the stigma associated with mental health illness caused me to develop negative self-talk about my conditions, which often kept me from speaking up about my needs in my relationships. I figured a partner would lose interest in me once they learned I battled depression, since the rest of the world had already given me that impression. To alleviate this, Child Mind Institute psychologist Dr. Alexandra Hamlet suggests reframing any negative thoughts related to your mental illness. “Make it less black and white,” she says. The truth is, “your mental health condition is one piece of you — not all of you. A healthier way to think about it would be, ‘I struggle with mental health and I’m worthy of having a healthy relationship.’ Both are true!”
3. Practice [Healthy] Communication
Getting on to the same page with your partner can be difficult — even for the most loving couples! But people in truly happy and healthy relationships know that making open communication the heart of their relationship is key to both celebrating the good moments and getting through the tough stuff.
Healthy communication means that you and your partner are comfortable speaking freely and honestly about the good, the bad, and the ugly of your relationship without fear of being judged or shut down by each other. This is especially crucial when you have a mental health condition because your wellbeing may depend on being able to speak up when you need help, need some space, or just have something on your mind.
None of us are mind readers! Letting your partner in on things can help them help you. Though your partner rushing to a problem-solving technique or assuming they understand what you are going through can “make you feel invalidated,” Dr. Hamlet says, it is a classic mistake people make when trying to support their partner with a mental health condition.
When this happens, you have to “do your best to have patience with them if they need you to explain and clarify things so that you can build a deeper understanding with each other.” Supporting someone with a mental health condition may be a whole new world for your partner, which is totally okay! It just opens up a new way for you to learn and grow together.
4. Embrace Your Independence
It’s healthy to have a life that doesn’t revolve around your partner! Dr. Hamlet says, “Independence and doing your own thing can help you avoid unnecessary stress in your relationship, especially when you need extra support because of your mental health.” Of course, finding an inner balance between independence and a healthy connection with your partner is key.
Know that having your own life doesn’t mean you aren’t devoted to your partner. Having a therapist and support team isn’t a handicap, but your partner trying to be all of that could turn into one. Caring for yourself and your mental illness is a team effort, and rightly so! There may be hobbies you need to do to stay balanced that aren’t your partner’s vibe. You may need to go on hikes to clear your head, while your partner may be more “indoorsy.” That’s okay! Again, having different ways of recharging doesn’t mean you aren’t compatible; it just means you’re two independent people learning to live life together.
5. Have a Support Plan
Your partner may be a really fantastic, supportive person but they shouldn’t be your only support. With a mental health condition comes an invitation to figure out what helps you get through difficult moments. I call this my wellness plan and it includes everything from getting pep talks from my best friends via group text, to going to hot yoga and therapy, to programming Alexa to remind me to take my medication in the morning. Dr. Hamlet calls this “emotional regulation” — she says it’s important to make sure that you have ways to balance your feelings rather than always turning to your partner to solve every problem.
“They can’t be on call to neutralize every negative emotion, and it’s not fair or healthy for you to expect them to,” says Dr. Hamlet. In other words, think of doctors, therapists and other helpers (like friends and family) as members of your personal network of support. They are there to support you in ways that your partner simply may not have the tools for, like helping you tell if your medication is helping you the way it is supposed to, or teaching you coping skills that will help clear your head if you’re having a hard time with anxiety.
Thrive in Your Relationships
The wise sage Drake once said, “Know yourself; know your worth,” and it’s good advice when it comes to navigating relationships. Even if your partner can’t relate to having a mental health condition, they can still support you in taking care of yourself, and you can contribute wonderful things to the relationship as well!
Whether it’s OCD, depression, a mood disorder or something else that challenges you in some way, you can have that and a relationship with a partner who supports you with care and compassion. Maintaining a healthy relationship takes work and effort for all of us — mental health is just one of many things we may deal with in life, so try not to see it as something that will prevent you from being able to thrive.
Things like depression and anxiety are extremely common in society — so know that you’re not alone in trying to figure this out! Your mental health may be frustrating and throw you curveballs every now and then, but it certainly doesn’t mean you and your partner can’t learn how to knock your relationship out of the park!