1. Externalize the mental illnessWhen a couple is dealing with a mental illness in a relationship, especially when it has been going on for an extended period of time, it can be hard to separate out the person from the illness. Instead it can feel like the caretaker is doing all of the heavy-lifting, while the person suffering from the mental illness, is taking up all the space and energy in the relationship. Sometimes this is true and other times it can be helpful to treat the mental illness as an intruder in the relationship. As if it is you and your partner vs. the mental illness. This helps to depersonalize some of the behaviors associated with the mental illness and can help you and your partner operate more effectively as a team. Consider the two questions below:
- How would I (we) feel differently about this mental illness if we externalized it?
- How are WE going to deal with this mental illness?
- What is OUR plan when an episode hits?
2. Develop a plan for dealing with mental health episodes + emotional escalationOne of the most important things a couple can do when dealing with mental illness in the relationship is seek support from professionals. This is an incredibly hard issue to handle alone as a couple. In counseling, it can be helpful to develop a plan of action for things like:
- How are we going to handle your next (depressive, anxious, manic, etc) episode differently than before?
- How can I approach you when I have needs without sending you into an episode or escalating the conversation?
- How can we better care for each other when you are not having an episode?
- What is our plan for repair and recovery following an episode?
- What extra supports can we integrate into our recovery plan?
3. Evaluating the futureWhen you are the partner of someone with a mental illness, there can be a moment, or many, where you experience frustration around being caught off-guard. Or feeling like you did not sign up for a lifetime of dealing with these tough emotions and situations. When having a partner with a mental illness, you may need to evaluate your future and whether or not you are willing and able to remain in the relationship. This is especially relevant if you’re currently separated or if serious misdeeds or betrayals have occurred. If you do remain in the relationship, you may need to grieve the loss of the relationship you once imagined. Some questions to consider are:
- Is my partner willing to work on their mental illness or are they resistant to change/help?
- What growth have I seen in my partner?
- Does my partner need medication? Have we tried all the resources that may be helpful?
- What support do I have outside and within my relationship? Is this enough?
- Can I handle the limitations in my relationship?