Compassion Recovery Centers and Joint Commission

How to Care for Yourself When Your Significant Other Has a Mental Illness

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If you’re in a relationship, your spouse’s mental health effects that. A mental illness can result in extra stress, extra chores, taking on that person’s responsibilities, or even dealing with emotional ups and downs. That remains true whether they’re struggling with depression, borderline, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia.

While most of us will initially take steps to take care of our spouse, that’s often not the most important thing. In fact, selflessly dedicating yourself to taking care of your spouse is bad for you, bad for your relationship, and bad for them. Instead, it’s important to take steps to compromise, to build a good life for yourself, and to add care for them in around that. Not doing so puts you at risk of burnout, added stress, and even mental health disorders like codependence.

Learn About Mental Health Problems

Learning about your loved one’s mental health problems can put you in a much better position to actually help around it. For example, if you know how their mental health disorder affects their life, their brain, and how they process things, you can react to their actions and behaviors in much more helpful ways. This research should involve learning about the general disorder, talking to your and their doctor, talking to them, and asking them about their lived experiences. You can’t achieve this all at once – instead, it has to be part of an ongoing learning experience, a two-way conversation between you and your significant other, where you ask the “how”, “why”, and “what” questions to figure out what’s actually going on, so you can react to that.

It’s also important to pick up books or documentaries about their specific problems. Read them together if you can. And, make sure you listen to your partner and involve them when they say that something is not their experience – because mental illnesses differ for everyone.

Set Boundaries and Keep Them

Setting boundaries is an important part of self-care and it holds true even if your partner is breaking boundaries because they can’t do otherwise. Boundaries look like establishing guidelines for yourself that allow you to live in a happy and comfortable way. For example, “I won’t take on your half of the housework because I will become physically exhausted, and I will burn out”.

Good boundaries should involve respectful discussions around what each of you can do and how each of you will pitch in, help out, and take care of themselves. For example:

  • I expect you to do X task most days but on the days when you cannot, I will pick it up for you
  • I will listen to you be anxious and help you work through problems, but I have to focus on work first and that cannot get in the way
  • I will help you with chores, but I need you to contribute by at minimum putting clothing in hampers, moving plates to the sink, etc.
  • I get depressed when my partner is in bed all day so I will spend a few days out of the house if you are unable to get out of bed

These kinds of boundaries should be straightforward, respectful, and built around what you are and are not comfortable with, what you can handle, and what you have space for. This becomes more complicated if you have children who need care no matter what, if you have drops in income because of a mental illness, etc., but the goal should be to create a comfortable and workable environment for both of you.

Make Time for Yourself

It doesn’t matter how much you love your partner. If they have a mental illness, they are imposing additional stress and work on you. That’s fine. You opted into it when you chose to be or to stay their partner. There is nothing wrong with your partner needing more than they give. However, it’s important that you take time for yourself and take time to relax. That includes taking time to do fun and relaxing activities with your significant other. This time might include things like taking an hour to have a bath before bed, reading with your partner on the couch, playing board games with them, going for walks with them. The important thing is that you have consistent and reliable downtime, where you do not have to stress or take care of anyone, and where you can enjoy each other as partners.

Get Help if You Need It

Living with someone struggling with mental illness can be difficult. It’s important to pay attention to your own mental health and wellbeing. If you’re struggling, becoming more stressed, or are stressed more easily – it’s important to reach out and get help. If you’re taking care of someone, it imposes stress on you. Managing that and getting help you need to do so properly, can help you to continue being part of your significant other’s life, and for much longer. For example, studies show that when caretakers are stressed and don’t get help, they frequently end the relationship – even if they still care about their loved one. Of course, managing that stress is also about your quality of life – because getting therapy and learning coping mechanisms or learning how to reduce stress is significantly better for your physical and mental health and wellbeing.

Communicate and Compromise

Any relationship should be an ongoing process of two-way communication and compromise. If your loved one isn’t healthy enough for that, you should be getting them help. Compromise can look like taking on extra chores or responsibilities while your loved one goes to treatment. It can mean them going to treatment and putting more work into therapy and family therapy. It can also mean having an ongoing conversation about what each person is capable of on any given day. The key to any good relationship and care for each party is communicating how you feel, why you feel that way, and what you need for it. Sometimes that will work well, other times it will not, but in most cases, communication from both sides will help you to reach a happy or a best-case-scenario compromise.

It’s important to pace yourself in any relationship. That’s even more true if your significant other has a mental illness. Hopefully these tips help you as you navigate that relationship and hopefully treatment and therapy.

If you or a loved one is struggling, help is there. And, it can help you to get back to normal. If you need help with mental health treatment, drug rehab, or alcohol rehab Compassion Recovery Center is here to help. Contact us to ask about our mental health programs and how we can support your specific requirements as you move into treatment.

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