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Loving Someone with a Mental Illness
Ask anyone who’s ever been in a relationship: it’s hard work. Choosing the same person day after day through their ups and downs really tests a person. But what about when the person you love mostly experiences downs? Or when their ups and downs are unpredictable? That makes it that much harder.
Likely you fell in love, not because, but in spite of their challenges. Or maybe you fell in love before they developed their illness. Either way, understanding how to love and support someone with a mental illness can seem overwhelming and exhausting.
Here are some insights to help you on your journey:
1: Validate and empathize.
In our world, we dole out empathy only if it’s the worst we’ve heard. We can show kindness and grace to someone as long as they’re worse off than the person down the street. Or we can admire someone’s struggle only if we haven’t overcome something similar ourselves. In reality, this is not the way empathy is supposed to work.
Empathy looks more like “I don’t know what I can do to help, but I am so sorry you’re hurting,” not, “I’m sorry you’re having a hard time. But it could be worse! At least you’re not homeless.”
If you can show empathy without comparing your loved one’s struggle to someone else’s, they will feel more loved and supported. Additionally, they’ll feel more secure and more open to being vulnerable with you. The other way you can help your partner is through validation.
Validation looks like affirming what your partner is thinking: “I understand that you’re feeling angry. That must be really difficult.”
Acknowledging these emotions will allow your partner to accept what they’re feeling, and then move on.
2: They’re already “trying harder”.
You wouldn’t say “try harder” to someone battling cancer or recovering from a broken bone. But somehow, when we think of mental illness, we think of something that people can just “will through”. This is flawed logic. Your loved one’s mind is valuable and vital – but sheer grit is not the only thing they need.
If someone is diagnosed with cancer, what do we do? We act fast and get them the medication they need, and teach them how to take care of themselves. Mental illnesses are scientific, psychological disorders and they need to be treated with the same respect as a physical issue.
3: Don’t take the symptoms personally.
There is a part one to this: know the symptoms! Each mental illness is unique, and education is power when it comes to dealing with each one. Do your research and learn about what your loved one is going through.
Symptoms can range from difficulty focusing, to shaking, to even memory loss. No matter the symptom, your loved one can control it just about as much as they can control sweating or an eye twitch (hint: it’s not at all). If you look at these symptoms as choices, you will pile on pressure and guilt to your partner.
Dealing with these symptoms can be annoying at the best of times, which is why it is important that you find a network of supporters who can help you deal with your emotions about the symptoms. You don’t want your feelings of frustration getting in the way of your ability to show compassion.
4: Look into treatments.
Because mental illness is real, dealing with it often requires a treatment plan and professional help. Since you know that your partner’s symptoms aren’t things that they are choosing to do to hurt you, you can come up to them and say, “I’m sorry you’re having a hard day. I love you.” And then you can present some research you’ve done on treatment options. You can do this, only because you’ve worked hard to make your relationship an atmosphere of healing, trust, acceptance and empathy.
With support and the right treatment plan, tremendous breakthroughs can be made. And hopefully, the quality of life can increase for everyone.
5: Don’t put a deadline on it.
Becoming whole doesn’t work on a timeframe. With mental health, there will be an ebb and flow that could maybe last a lifetime. And believing that your partner ‘should’ be better soon sets everyone up for disappointment. Everyone’s journey goes at a different pace. So make the choice to love your partner through each step and each phase. Even when their symptoms become out of control, if you can choose to love them, you’ll show them that they are valued as a person and that they are not the sum of all their hurts.
The person you fell in love with is still there, and when they get better they aren’t suddenly ‘new’. When they are hurting and struggling, they aren’t monsters. Mental illnesses are illnesses, and sometimes they can change personalities, or spirit, or interests for a time but the person you love is still there. Use ‘person-first’ language so that you don’t define your loved one by their illness, and to help you stay focused on hope.