Relationship challenges: What to do when your loved one is experiencing mental health challenges
How mental health affects relationships
Mental health issues of a loved one can have a huge impact on your relationship and your own mental health. Healthy relationships take a lot of work to maintain and require good habits and behaviours from all involved. However, for people experiencing mental health problems, it may be difficult to maintain good relationships. It is common for the loved one experiencing mental illness to withdraw in order to avoid burdening others. We are social animals so not feeling close to our significant others can cause emotional distress. When the unwell partner withdraws, it may leave the other to feel abandoned and alone. Sometimes anxiety or depression can cause people to become snappy or moody, making others around them feel as if they are walking on eggshells. You may be concerned about the unwell loved one and suggest ways they can get better, which seems to only anger or annoy them. You may feel lost not knowing what to do or even become resentful, feeling as if your partner or family member is dragging you down with them.
Here are some tips to help you cope when your partner or loved ones are going through mental health issues, such as depression or anxiety.
Do Less of:
When you see your loved one distressed, your instinct is to want to help them get out of it as soon as possible. You may feel the urge to share with them information about their ailments and flood them with advice. This is not helpful as it tends to trigger their sense of inadequacy and would feel overwhelming. People with depression struggle to even come out of bed. Everything takes so much effort. Giving them more things to do will usually make them feel even worse about how incapable they are.
You might have given your loved ones some tasks to do, either to better their mental health or improve your relationship that is suffering due to their mental health. You might have the urge to give an ultimatum thinking that if they cared enough about you and the relationship they will do what you ask. This may backfire as your loved one may often already feel they don’t deserve you and that they are causing you pain. There is a lot of guilt and shame around their own inadequacy.
Do more of
Educate yourself as much as you can about their condition. As you understand more about the conditions and their symptoms, you may understand what your loved ones are going through and be less resentful or judgemental about how they are behaving. For example, by understanding that people with depression may find it hard to keep personal hygiene, you may understand it as part of a symptom rather than a flaw in their character.
Use “I” statements instead of “you” statements
Even if the information seems the same, it can have different impacts depending on how you package it. Using ‘you’ statements such as “you haven’t done ____. You are _____.” can be very triggering for people to hear as they can come across as criticisms or attacks. They probably already know what they are doing or not doing but feel helpless to make positive changes. When approaching your loved ones to address their mental health issues, it is better to use “I” statements. For example, say, “I am worried about you.” “I would like you to consider finding support, such as counselling.” It is easier to hear than “You should ….” statements.
Seek support for yourself
Living with loved ones who are in a dark place isn’t easy for other family members. It is normal for you to sometimes react to them in ways that may not be helpful. You may also feel stressed and annoyed at your loved ones even if you know that they can’t help how they are feeling. It’s normal to feel frustrated at your partner when you see piles of house chores you are left with because your partner is sleeping all day. It may be hard to understand your partner who avoids paying the bill on time or making important phone calls due to their anxiety. You may be forced to pick up the pieces or clean up their mess because you cannot bear to see them suffer the consequences of their mental health issues. Before you know it you are burnt out and miserable and don’t know what to do.
Set healthy boundaries
When you love your partner or other family members, it is natural for you to want them to make the best decisions for themselves and want to see them thrive. It is also natural that you would want to do everything you can to get them out of any painful situations. So what do you do when your loved ones seem to be unable or unwilling to get themselves out of a painful situation? You might try to take responsibility for your loved ones, such as organising their therapy for them, reminding them to attend, making sure they are doing their exercises, etc. Despite your best intentions and efforts, this does not help your loved ones to feel empowered to take charge of their own recovery.
So what can you do to get them to seek the help that they need?
One useful way of having the conversation is to frame it as them helping you. You are struggling due to the worries of your loved one. Invite them to a session with you that might help you to manage your symptoms better. Family therapy may be an option to start therapy that will not pathologize one person but will help the whole family support each other.
Give them the options and resources to seek help for themselves. Give them some useful numbers such as Kids Helpline, Beyond Blue, LifeLine to get used to help-seeking behaviour and to familiarise them with counselling experience. It may open the doors for them to seek help.