How to Navigate a Relationship When Your Partner Struggles with Mental Illness

A therapist shares a roadmap to best support your loved one while still taking care of yourself.

Spend enough time swiping left or right and you can end up learning some intimate information about people: Rachel's "most irrational fear" is swallowing a cherry pit, Jamal's "overly competitive about" boardgames, Alex's "fun fact that surprises people" is that he can't snap, and so on. One detail that online dating profiles often don't include? Your most vulnerable moments or history with mental health challenges and therapy. Even more shocking — and maybe this is just to me as a therapist — is that many people frequently never disclose any past psychological struggles to their partners.

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Just the other day, a client explained that her boyfriend of eight months broke up with her after he witnessed her experiencing a panic attack for the first time. When I probed a bit further, she admitted that despite suffering periodically from panic attacks for nearly a decade, she never shared this with her boyfriend. She worried that if she did reveal her mental health struggles, it would scare him away. But as it turns out, not sharing these details might've contributed even more to the demise of their relationship.

Over the past 18 years as a clinical psychologist, I've conducted many sessions in which the focus was primarily on how to share with a partner that the client was struggling with their mental health. This fear of sharing mental health status is directly related to the stigma around mental health. Thanks to the stigma, revealing your mental health status with a partner can feel, for many, as if they're admitting a failure within themselves or even in the relationship. We tend to be obsessed with looking "good," and mental health stigma makes having an issue appear anything but that.

In this article, I'll discuss how you can show up for your partner and yourself when dealing with mental illness in a relationship.

How to Support a Partner with Mental Illness

Educate Yourself

Take the time to learn more about their mental health disorder. Mental illnesses are just that: illnesses. If you were dating someone who had diabetes, you'd likely work to find out all you could about the foods to avoid and the treatment options. You'd encourage them to take their insulin and to manage their disorder accordingly. And the same should be true when it comes to mental illness.

Get to know more about the specific disorder your partner experiences. Start by asking very open-ended questions to your partner such as "I know everyone with panic attacks experiences them differently, how does your body feel during one?" Open-ended inquiries can make the listener (your partner) feel more at ease and less judged — as if you're simply curious to understand their experience. This way of questioning allows your partner to know you just want to learn more about their experience rather than putting your thoughts about mental health on them. (

Think of yourself as a curious interviewer trying to understand the intricacies of this one person. If your partner seems to wall up or get closed off when you're asking questions, pause your line of questioning and simply say, "Let me know when and if you want to share more. I can do some research on my own about it." Then spend some time reading more about the disorder on reputable websites, such as those of the National Institutes of Health, National Alliance of Mental Health, and American Psychological Association.

See Your Partner As More Than Their Mental Illness

We're all complicated, multi-faceted beings. Mental illness does not and should not define people. Unfortunately, however, in our culture, once someone is diagnosed with mental illness, it often changes how people see them. In fact, many clients have talked to me about being defined by their struggles rather than strengths. But, remember, your struggles are simply a part of who you are — and the same is true for your partner.

Notice times when you're looking for confirmation that your partner is only expressing behaviors congruent with their mental illness. Strategically make sure you look for examples of them being different than you would expect. For example, if your partner has OCD and rigid rules about cleaning the kitchen, pay attention to the moments in your day when they can be flexible, such as when they let you pick the Netflix movie. Recognize that while they're often inflexible, they're not always that way. This will help you react less intensely to the behaviors that frustrate you because you won't be thinking, "they always do that." (

Remember Mental Illness Is a Marathon, Not a Sprint

Even when your partner is having a bad day, that doesn't mean they've suddenly lost their ability to manage their symptoms. Think: if you have anxiety about how others perceive you, then you will likely be increasingly stressed, irritable, and frazzled before a work presentation. If you are going through a family tragedy, your capacity to manage your work stress might be gone entirely because so much of your emotional energy is being spent on managing the crisis. It is important to keep this perspective when your partner has a mental illness because it will keep you from reacting impulsively to changes in their mood. It will allow you to have more perspective and compassion when your partner is in an acute phase of distress. Signs of an acute phase of the illness are an increase in maladaptive behaviors (e.g. ruminating, checking, skin picking) or a decrease in overall functioning (e.g. missing work, avoiding social situations, sabotaging relationships).

It can be hard not to react quickly and try to fix it. Many partners think they will be able to help their partner heal and get over their mental illness (more on that later). With therapy and support, many people's symptoms do lessen, but they can also reappear over time, so expecting the person to simply change right away is unrealistic. That said, it is essential that your partner see a licensed clinician who specializes in their mental illness (L.C.S.W., L.M.H.C., Ph.D., or Psy.D.). Many therapists claim to treat all disorders, but there are research-supported treatments such as cognitive-behavioral therapy that should be used with specific disorders, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, major depression disorder, panic disorder with agoraphobia, among others. As their partner, one of your best courses of action is to encourage your loved one to look at resources such as the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies' website to find the right practitioner. (

Most people who struggle with a mental illness will have ebbs and flows of symptoms. Stress exacerbates symptoms of all mental health conditions, so keep in mind that when you're going through a stressful time, your partner might display more intense behavior. It's helpful to ask them directly how they are managing the heightened pressure and support them in stress-reducing activities.

Know That Love Is Not a Cure

Partners really do not like when I say this, but here's the deal: You cannot cure or change another person's mental illness. Your love, no matter how deep and devoted, will not be able to change your partner. Your love will support and encourage them, but ultimately they are the ones who can bring about change. They are the ones who need to make an appointment with their doctor, such as a PCP or therapist, call LIFELINEor another hotline, attend the self-help group, or write in a journal. You can encourage them (once or twice only), but then you must leave it to them. Asking more than once or twice becomes nagging and you can be pretty sure that if they were going to take your advice, they would have after the first two times of mentioning it. We often repeat our requests to reduce our own anxiety even if it is not helping the other person.

Now, as a recovering codependent (someone who likes to fix people), I know how hard it can be to step back and let someone find their own path to healing, but you simply cannot move someone along. They have to go at their own pace. Allowing someone the dignity to get the help they need on their own time doesn't mean you excuse unacceptable behavior. I recommend you are clear with yourself and your partner about which behaviors you will not tolerate from them even if they are related to their illness (i.e. berating you, lying, stealing, cheating) and be very clear on your no's. You must keep your boundaries clear. Even though we know your partners' intentions might be good the intent of breaking your boundary is not acceptable. (See: How to Set Boundaries with Anyone In Your Life)

How to Get the Support You Need to Help Your Partner

In order to be your best self in any relationship, you need to make sure you have time for yourself. Many people think that love means spending all of your waking moments caring for and thinking about the other person. However, a huge part of a healthy relationship is knowing your needs, wants, and desires so you can accurately communicate this to your partner. If we do not take time to understand our feelings then they can come out sideways (think: anger, resentment, or jealousy) and make navigating a relationship with mental illness increasingly difficult.

Put Your Oxygen Mask on First

Anyone who has ever taken an airplane has heard this announcement. In order to best care for another person, you have to make sure you are taking care of yourself first. What does this mean? Start with this easy assessment. Draw a circle on a piece of paper. This represents the time in your day. Next, delineate on this circle how much of it you are analyzing, talking about, or researching your partner's struggles. Now, write down how much of your day you are thinking about your own mental health struggles, growth, and desires. If you are like most partners of people who suffer from mental illness you spend way more time thinking about helping the other person than doing so yourself. Well, that stops today. Write down two things you can do this week to improve your wellness and set times to get them done (such as meditation, going for a walk, calling a friend, watching a comedy).

Moreover, it's easy to neglect sleep, healthy eating, exercise, and socialization when your partner is struggling, but this avoidance of your own needs will only add to their pain. You won't be able to help anyone unless your cup is filled. So, please don't stop filling your cup.

Stop Seeing Your Partner Around Every Corner

When a loved one suffers from mental illness, it's hard to not become hypervigilant and worry that your partner's mental health will negatively affect everyone around you. But doing just that can often do more harm than good. See, when you become hypervigilant, you essentially tell your nervous system to be on guard, ready to take on a perceived threat at any moment and trigger the fight-or-flight response. Because there's truly no one specific threat, however, you can end up staying in this high-alert state for too long, which, in turn, can be incredibly taxing on your brain and body. You can become more irritable, reactive, and even experience a weakened immune system.

"Your son is not your husband" is a phrase I have repeated many times in my office. When your partner suffers from a mental illness you might be worried that your children will display the same behavior. Anxiety and worry put us on high alert. This means you are looking for confirmation that your child is, in fact, like your partner, and you can become closed off to the other parts of them that make them unique. For example, a client of mine whose husband suffered from episodic depression was panicked when her son started spending more and more time in his room with the lights off. She was convinced that her son would have the same trajectory as her husband. I helped her see, by challenging her thoughts, that her son was acting age-appropriately by wanting more time alone and quiet. We worked on how to separate her son's experience from that of her husband. This way she allowed her son to move through his developmental stage without shaming him or projecting her worry onto him. By seeing your child as a unique individual separate from their parents you will help you from feeling like you need to be on high alert to make sure your partner's illness does not negatively impact others.

Know Your Boundaries

Just because your partner struggles with mental illness does not mean you always have to bend to their needs. Your needs are just as important as theirs. For example, I have a client whose partner was suffering from PTSD after a sexual assault. Sexual intimacy was challenging in their relationship due to recurring flashbacks, hypervigilance, and anxiety related to the attack. My client was ready to accept that sex would never be part of the relationship. We talked about what needs my client would be sacrificing and how it might lead to resentment toward her partner. My client decided to ask their partner to pursue couples therapy work with them focused on healing sexual intimacy after an assault. They have been doing this work for about a year now and have been able to reconnect sexually. My client was clear about their needs while also honoring their partner's emotional space. (

By being clear on your needs with your partner you are giving them an instruction manual for your heart and mind. You are being clear about what you need to be happy and content in the relationship — all while still respecting their mental health challenges.We can only succeed at helping others if we know exactly what someone else needs.

Allow Yourself to Let Go

I work heavily in the divorce space and many clients of mine feel deeply guilty when they decide to exit a relationship with someone who has mental health issues. They often wonder, "if I waited longer, would they have gotten better?" I understand this line of inquiry and really value the hope people have in one another. However, if you have tried to make a relationship work by talking with your partner, getting outside guidance from a licensed marriage and family therapist, and have been flexible in your thinking and behavior but you are still unhappy, you can (and should) give yourself permission to let go. It is not your job to fix anyone besides yourself. There might be guilt and even regret, but if you need to leave to take good care of yourself then you must. There is no award for "sticking around the longest." This is your life, you must live it in the best way possible for you.

The best gift you can give anyone else is to live a full and satisfying life. Knowing that it's time to let go is never a huge movie moment, but rather the culmination of a lot of small whispers. You will know when the whispers get loud enough, but only if you are tuned in to hear them. This means taking time in quiet, slowness, and ease regularly to gain a better self-awareness (think: developing a meditation practice, nightly journaling). You might want to sit quietly and write about your experience, sit in meditation or ask a trusted friend to reflect on how they see you acting.

Falling in love requires us to put all of us — strugglesand all — on the table. Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn't. But love is about vulnerability and trying our best. Loving someone with a mental illness can be challenging, but also deeply rewarding.

Elizabeth Cohen, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist specializing in the treatment of anxiety and depressive disorders and the author of Light at the Other Side of Divorce: Discovering the New You, which debuted at #1 in Psychology on Amazon. Cohen is the CEO of the Center for CBT in New York City and offers an online course that teaches women how to heal, grow, and thrive after divorce, no matter how difficult the process has been.

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