A Port in the Storm: Supporting a Partner with a Mental Health Disorder
When Mark Lukach married his wife Giulia at 24, he did not picture himself sitting next to her in a hospital bed while she told him about her talks with the devil. He did not anticipate checking under her tongue to make sure she had swallowed her pills, or hosting members of her therapy group for dinner, or fighting over whether or not staying up late painting furniture was a sign of mania. And yet when those things came to pass, from the confusion and pain emerged a deeper understanding of love–informed by the dynamics of being married to someone with a mental illness. In his beautiful essay, My Lovely Wife In the Psych Ward, Lukach writes:
When we sit down together to discuss medication dosages, or a timeline for getting pregnant, or the risks of taking lithium during pregnancy, we are essentially saying, “I love you.” My exact words might be “I think you’re rushing things,” but the subtext is “I want you to be healthy and fulfilled, and I want to spend my life with you.”
When your partner suffers from a mental health disorder, your relationship needs special nurturing to fortify you as both a couple and as individuals. Many couples struggle, as their ordinary relationship patterns are disrupted, and overwhelming, sometimes frightening, emotions demand their attention. Not surprisingly, people with mental illness have significantly higher divorce rates than the general population. At the same time, social support from loved ones is proven to enhance resiliency and health outcomes and can be a major factor in your partner’s recovery. By drawing on the strength of your partnership and incorporating new coping mechanisms, you can help your partner heal and shelter your relationship.
One of the most simple and profound things you can do for your partner is to listen. Create a loving space where she can share her feelings without shame or judgment. What she is feeling is very real and powerful and she needs to be able to process her emotions, talk about her anxieties, and express her pain without fear of rejection or invalidation.
Be Realistic and Respond to that Reality
It is vital that you have a realistic understanding of your partner’s current needs and prognosis. Overestimating his abilities and underestimating the timeframe for healing can put unnecessary pressure on him, adding to his stress and setting both of you up for frustration. Through open and honest communication with your partner and his care provider, get a complete picture of your partner’s symptoms and limits and what you can do to support him. For example, if your partner can’t manage his own treatment at this time, take over setting up therapy appointments, accompanying him to his doctor’s office, and picking up prescriptions. Compensate for your partner’s limitations and allow him the room to focus on his well-being and restored function.
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Allow Your Partner to Have Control
One of our deepest instincts is to rescue those we love from pain. Often partners, with the best of intentions, feel a strong desire to take total control of the situation to shepherd their loved one back to health. For the sake of both your partner and your relationship, resist. It is crucial that people with mental health disorders feel empowered and engaged in their own treatment–and that includes making their own choices regarding their health. Just as important is ensuring that your loved one has a voice in your relationship, and does not feel silenced due to her illness, setting up a pattern that can do lasting damage to a partnership. This does not mean that you are not involved; you can absolutely be an active participant in your partner’s treatment and her strongest ally. However, be the co-pilot, not the captain, on the way to recovery.
Find Effective Treatment
While your partner ultimately has control of his treatment decisions, he may need your help to identify his therapeutic requirements and connect with resources. Often people in the midst of psychological crisis do not have the capacity to evaluate their own needs, and this is particularly true when their distress has reached levels that require more than their current care can provide. Acknowledging when things have progressed past the point of outpatient treatment and finding a safe, comfortable environment for your partner to start recovering can be a tremendous gift. You can guide the treatment process by reaching out to residential facilities with the ability to offer complete, compassionate care to relieve your partner’s suffering. At Bridges to Recovery, we are often contacted by partners of people with mental illness who are looking for options to help their loved one recover. We recognize that this is a profound act of love, and draw on our extensive experience and empathetic practice to support both you and your partner on the path to healing.
Make space for your own needs and emotions to ensure they are not subsumed by your partner’s mental health disorder. Create a support network of friends and family to find solace and relief when your partner is unable to bear the weight. Individual and couples therapy can be a source of great comfort and help you navigate the territory of mental illness and its impact on your relationship with the guidance of a compassionate professional. Bridges to Recovery can connect you with the resources you need to explore your own experiences and be there for your partner in healthy, meaningful ways.
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Nurture Your Bond
When mental illness arises, its scope can be so vast that it seems to consume everything in its path. However, it is important to view the illness as part of the larger context of your relationship, nurture the foundation of your partnership, and find joy in being together. By spending time together, communicating in a healthy way, laughing, and enjoying each other’s company, you are relieving the stress of illness while strengthening your bond. Research tells us that the keys to relationship happiness and longevity are kindness and generosity, and finding expressions of these qualities in your everyday life is invaluable in protecting your partnership and weathering the storm of mental illness. The challenges mental health disorders present may require specific actions and coping skills, but the emotional generosity and loving interaction that buttress your relationship on an everyday basis are the same framework that will guide you through this trying time.
As Mark Lukach found, the process of dealing with a mental health disorder can bring new opportunities to give voice to your love and support for each other and serve to solidify your relationship as you move toward shared stability and well-being.
Bridges to Recovery offers an immersive treatment experience focused on providing personalized care using the most effective treatment methods available. We have a keen understanding of the value of family support and encourage partners to be fully involved throughout the treatment process. We offer Family and Couples therapy to guide people with mental illness and their partners as they create more fulfilling relationships. Contact us for more information about our program and how we can help you and your loved one.