Did you know, 1 in 5 Canadians are personally affected by some form of mental health condition every year? Although there is an individual component to mental health and illness, it can also manifest into romantic relationships causing tension and uncertainty for many couples.
Whether you’re the person who is experiencing a mental health condition, such as anxiety, bipolar disorder, or depression, or the person who is seeking guidance on mental health and relationships and how to support your significant other, this article is for you.
By recognizing the warning signs of mental illness in your relationship, both you and your partner are better prepared. You will be able to address your challenges before it significantly impacts the foundation of your relationship.
Follow along as we uncover how mental illness can impact relationships in terms of affecting intimacy, instilling feelings of guilt, shame, or helplessness, and in some cases, causing couples to act out due to resentment, frustration, or temptation. Find out the 5 most important tips to help you support yourself and your partner through these difficult times.
How Mental Health Affects Intimate Relationships
With mental illness comes various unique challenges within a romantic relationship. Here are some common warning signs that mental health may be influencing your relationship.
Intimacy is a necessary part of healthy relationships. It helps people feel safe, comfortable, respected and supported by their partner. Psychologists have gone as far as describing intimacy as “significant for individual well-being”, with supporting research to prove how intimacy fosters greater relationship satisfaction.
One of the most common experiences in those who struggle with mental illness is the fear or hesitancy to become intimate with their partners. On one end, fear of emotional intimacy can stem from the uncertainty to disclose personal information – especially due to the stigma that surrounds mental illness.
What will my partner think? Am I causing a burden on them by telling them this? Will they treat me differently after I talk about my mental health condition? Will my relationship change if my mental health is better?
On the other end, fear of physical intimacy including cuddling, kissing or sex can manifest as a common symptom of many mental health conditions. Dr. Jennifer Payne, director of Women’s Mood Disorders Center at Johns Hopkins Medical Insitute mentions that changes in sex drive are often key indicators for depression (e.g., loss of interest in pleasurable activities, fatigue, low self-esteem, and performance anxiety).
Oftentimes, those who are struggling with mental illnesses will feel the need to hide from the truth of their experiences. Rather than being forthright with their partner, guilt and shame can steer them towards becoming more avoidant in their relationship.
In many cases, avoidant behaviour can seep into other aspects of your life. Thus, making it difficult to accomplish basic tasks, maintain employment or engage in a healthy social life. Without healthy communication, these behaviours can put an incredible strain on a relationship. Then the potential is to lead to an even greater disconnection between you and your significant other.
As time goes on, both you and your partner may be experiencing a sense of helplessness – although for different reasons. While one person wants to offer their support, the other is becoming closed off from accepting support. Failing to seek support can contribute to even greater feelings of helplessness and isolation.
Codependency, also known as “relationship addiction” is a common issue that can arise in any committed relationship where one or both partners struggle with mental illness. A codependent relationship involves one person being the “giver” or “caretaker” while the other is the “taker”.
Common traits of codependent behaviour include:
- Lack of boundaries
- Poor self-esteem
- Hypersensitivity or reactivity
- Poor communication
- Seeking approval and validation
- High relationship stress
Oftentimes, the partner of someone struggling with mental illness may begin to derive their own self-worth from the degree to which they feel “needed”. Codependent relationship dynamics are not healthy since they tend to be one-sided and in some cases, emotionally destructive and/or abusive.
Feeling the need to act out is a common trait of most mental conditions. For example, research has shown that men tend to express their symptoms of depression in an outward manner. This can be seen in actions such as drinking excessive alcohol, becoming aggressive, committing relationship affairs, or purposefully shutting a loved one out of their life.
Without seeking support or accepting help from others, these behaviours can significantly impact the health and well-being of your relationship.
1. Educate Yourself
Mental health is a unique and independent experience. Although not one of us can fully understand the true depths of what someone else is experiencing inside their mind and body, the first step towards a better understanding can begin with education.
There is an abundance of information available in the world. We are now able to seek credible resources on mental illness to improve our ability to support our loved ones more effectively.
Along with researching the signs, symptoms, myths, and causes of mental illness, it is also beneficial to seek guidance on how to listen and learn about mental health, set healthy boundaries with our partner, and engage in open communication through difficult moments – more on this in a moment!
- National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)
- Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
- MedlinePlus (National Institutes of Health)
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)
- National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)
2. Communicate Often
Healthy communication is an important factor in any successful and fulfilling relationship. Oftentimes, mental health can introduce a significant barrier to communication between you and your partner. When communication breaks down, those experiencing mental health struggles can feel even more lonely, isolated, and unsupported by their significant other.
Unlike the common cold or flu, mental illness is not a “seasonal issue” but instead is a chronic and persistent issue. For this reason, it’s important to be willing to talk to your partner about their mental health condition as often as they feel is necessary.
Some beneficial tips to help you and your partner communicate regularly include:
- scheduling a time for open and honest conversation
- creating a distraction-free space to discuss (e.g., setting phones aside)
- and reinforcing that you are there for them when they need you
3. Be a Good Listener
As an essential part of communication, listening can help strengthen relationships. It’s a great way to show your partner you’re attentive, caring, and have respect for what they are sharing with you. Setting aside your agenda to offer your undivided attention can transform any relationship – especially those with mental health involved.
While your partner is struggling to open up to you during these challenging times, it’s important to never assume how or what they are feeling. Mental illness affects every one of us differently. It’s essential to listen to understand your partner’s unique perspective and related emotions in order to provide effective support. Understanding the impact of mental health and relationships is key!
Helpful Listening Skills to Practice for Better Mental Health
- Be fully present when your partner opens up to you
- Listen to understand, rather than to fix or offer an opinion
- Reflect back on what you heard to clarify things that you may be uncertain about
- Ask questions to better understand their experiences
- Express empathy throughout the conversation
4. Engage in a Self-Care Routine
When we stop taking care of our own mental health and well-being, it becomes nearly impossible to support our loved ones. Find balance in your personal life by setting time aside for yourself to engage in a fulfilling self-care routine.
Making a conscious effort every day to maintain your own interests and passions can go a long way. By staying on top of your own health, you’re likely to have more patience, be more engaged, empathetic, and have a willingness to support your partner the way they deserve to be supported.
5. Consider Couples or Individual Counselling
Counselling is an excellent resource for those who are both struggling with symptoms of mental health in or outside of a relationship, as well as for those who are supporting someone experiencing mental health challenges. Working independently or with your partner in couples therapy can help bring healing to your relationship.
Your therapist will help you and your partner to…
- Explore each other’s thoughts and emotions
- Strengthen communication skills
- Understand your own wants and needs
- Identify and address destructive behaviour patterns and unhealthy dynamics
- Determine the best strategies to support one another
At On Your Mind Counselling, our team of highly specialized counsellors have the skills and experience necessary to develop a unique treatment plan to help support you on your journey to healing.
No matter your concerns, we are here to make you feel safe, provide support, and offer beneficial coping skills and strategies to address any type of relationship conflict. Using a variety of evidence-based treatment methods including Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, Emotionally-Focused Therapy and The Gottman Method, our team of counsellors are committed to helping you and your partner strengthen your bond and rebuild your relationship.
- Experiencing mental health challenges can influence whether someone feels capable to interact and connect with others.
- Mental health can significantly impact many relationships by causing intimacy issues, creating feelings of guilt, shame, or helplessness, and increasing the risk of codependency.
- Overcome these relationship challenges by educating yourself on mental illness, communicating with your partner, strengthening your listening skills, practicing self-care, and considering therapy for additional support.
- Find support through therapy and receive individual or couple-based treatment options for yourself and your partner.
Written by Tori Mudie BA, MA, RP, CCC