In most cases, the mental health of someone we are dating or falling in love with is not something we consider. They may tell us about their issues, but it’s rarely going to be something we dedicate much time to. There’s too much good stuff going on as we merge our life with this other person for it to be too much of a concern.
By the time you get to marriage, however, you’re going to have to confront the realities of living with someone with a mental health problem. This is not an inherently bad thing. Mental health conditions are, as discussed, extremely common – but it’s just as damaging to think it’s not an issue as it is to think it’s too big of an issue. You wouldn’t ignore thoughts and concerns about someone’s physical health, so it’s important to see mental health as no different.
How you negotiate the tricky problems that mental health conditions can bring to a relationship will be a test of your patience and flexibility. However, if you love someone and are willing to make things work, then you already have almost all the ingredients you need. All you need is a few nudges in the right direction.
Don’t Make Assumptions
If you are mentally healthy, then trying to say you understand what your partner is going through is a one-way route to big problems. Just because you have been sad doesn’t mean you understand depression; just because you have panicked on occasion doesn’t mean you understand the toll of chronic anxiety. So while you sympathize, you can’t empathize.
It’s important not to fall into the trap of seeing coping mechanisms through your own point of reference. Just because you could “snap out of it” or feel the benefit of going for a walk doesn’t mean it’s the same for someone whose brain chemistry is prone to fritzing on occasion. React to the situation and the person, not how you expect that they should be.
Forget What You Think You Know
When we live with someone and get to the point of considering marriage, it’s usually safe to say that we know them pretty well. It’s at this point that you may become more aware of their illness, which you see day-in-day-out as you share your home with one another.
When confronted with the everyday reality of mental health conditions, you may find yourself seeking a frame of reference in what you think you know about these problems. Sadly, the “common knowledge” about mental health conditions is… well, it’s terrible, and it’s often wrong. Despite years of work, there remains something of a stigma when it comes to these problems. This, in turn, leads to established falsehoods that can make trying to understand PTSD violence, make sense of the intrusive thoughts of those with OCD, or comprehend why someone might be anorexic, almost impossible.
The only way to manage this is to forget absolutely everything that you think you know. You are now Jon Snow, and you know nothing. Don’t rely on potentially incorrect assumptions that are thought to be common knowledge; instead, talk to your partner and understand the realities that they face in their experience. After all, nothing else matters but their issues, rather than what society thinks their issues are.
Learn Warning Signs
If someone with chronic anxiety is having a particularly bad day, over time you will be able to pick up the signs of this. For example, they may be less communicative, show signs of nervousness, or be quick to anger. All of these signs become a warning sign to you to be careful, and to give them the space they need.
Sometimes, your partner may not want to talk about the fact that they’re having a bad day. It’s vital that you take this at face value. It’s not your partner trying to shut you out or wanting to wallow in their problem; sometimes, talking just isn’t going to solve anything. So they want to be able to close off from the issue rather than delving deep into it. If you push to help them when they have said they would rather deal with it for themselves, then you’re not helping. Over time, you will be able to learn when you should back away and give them the space to manage it in the best way you know how.
You might not be the one with the health condition, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have to live with the problems they cause. If someone you care about is suffering from depression, PTSD, anxiety issues, or any of the other mental health conditions, then you should seek a support group for family members. This is an open space where you can discuss your issues without having to worry about offending your partner, and gives you the valuable space you need to be heard.
If they suffer from a more severe psychiatric illness, then in addition to this, talk to their care providers and ask for coping tips. Sometimes you need a professional to help outline strategies and goals to ensure you’re doing the right things.
Making a life with someone with a mental health condition can be wonderful, provided you are both willing to be open and to listen when the other person speaks. They’re just them, the person you fell in love with, and this is but one bump in the road that leads to your eventual, happy destination together.