Being in a relationship with someone struggling with mental illness

    Today, the number of people affected by mental disorders, also known as mental illness, is rapidly increasing, especially due the social isolation caused by the pandemic. According to “Our World in Data”, in 2017, one in ten people lives with a mental disorder, globally. This represents 10,7% of the world’s population. The most common mental disorders that affect the population are depression, anxiety, substance use disorder, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder (BPD), eating disorders, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), schizophrenia etc. A scientific brief released by the World Health Organization stated that Covid-19 triggered a 25% increase in the prevalence of anxiety and depression worldwide in the first year of the pandemic.

    Seeing how common mental illness is among people, we should also know that it is as serious as any other physical illness or disease and should be treated with equal attention and care. “In high-income countries, meta-analyses suggest that up to 90 percent of suicide deaths result from underlying mental and substance use disorders.” (Our World in Data)

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    Especially in the last few years, people have been raising awareness regarding mental disorders, showing the raw, unfiltered truth behind a mentally ill mind. We have all the resources necessary to inform ourselves and get educated on this matter: social media, movies, books (although the representation in the media may not always be 100% true). We always get to see the life of the person that is dealing with poor mental health, but what is rarely shown is the struggle of the loved ones impacted by it and the difference between treated and untreated mental illness.

    What is the truth behind being in a relationship with someone struggling with mental illness?

    Violeta Gudană , psychological counselor and psychotherapist for kids, adults, couples, and families, says that mental disorders like anxiety, depressions, eating disorders and personality disorders, are affecting the relationship we have with ourselves, above all. “As we know, the relationships we have with the people around us are guided by the ones we have with ourselves. Therefore, in cases of mental issues, the behavior can be highly modified, so it can ensure our survival. By doing so, it can also disintegrate our connections with the people around us. For example, people suffering from depression will tend to isolate themselves, which leads to ghosting, low empathy and what looks like lack of interest towards the other person.” According to her, anxiety comes with a frequent need for checking on the other person and an excessive need for control while bipolar disorder and BPD are usually defined by hard to handle impulses. In the case of PTSD, the person deals with symptoms similar to both depression and anxiety.

    Violeta Gudană believes that the list could go on and on, but more importantly, we should remember that behind every mental disorder there is a lot of suffering: “At some point, something was too much to handle for that person. Therefore, the chance of having an internal space of safety and security was taken away from them. Without that safe space and without the necessary resources, it is quite difficult to maintain healthy relationships.”

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    Mara is a 21 years old college student who had a relationship with a man suffering from borderline personality disorder, which was never treated. BPD, which may not be as common as anxiety and depression, is a mental disorder that severely impacts a person’s ability to regulate their emotions, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). “People with borderline personality disorder may experience intense mood swings and feel uncertainty about how they see themselves. Their feelings for others can change quickly, and swing from extreme closeness to extreme dislike. […] They also tend to view things in extremes, such as all good or all bad. “(NIMH)

    “To be in love with someone suffering from BPD is probably the hardest thing I had to go through in my life up until now, emotionally,” Mara states. “When you’re young and don’t have much life experience, you might fail to understand that the person next to you is struggling with a severe, real issue. You end up emotionally drained, without even realizing, and you just find yourself in the middle of it all, without knowing how you got there. At least, that’s what happened to me at 18.”

    Mara found out, a few years later, that her partner had untreated BPD. That’s how she realized that he had no malicious intent – he was just suffering from an illness he did not even know about or was able to control it (or know how). “The hardest days were the ones I wanted to go out without him or just hang out with my friends in general. Every time I brought it up, he instantly felt sick and started to guilt trip me into cancelling to stay home with him. Long story short, he made me feel like the worst partner ever because I wanted to spend time with other people. At that point it felt like manipulation, and maybe it was, but now I can also see what made him act this way.” These were not the only rough situations that Mara dealt with. “He would constantly change his perception of me. One day he loved me with his whole heart, the other he would hate me with passion and blame me for everything that was not right in his life. His feelings were never steady. If I did one thing that set him off, I would instantly become the worst human alive for him .”

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    Psychologist Violeta Gudană believes that someone suffering from mental illness could definitely lead to this kind of negative behavior. “The poor connection with our own needs will eventually become unsatisfied needs, frustration, bad temper, intense emotions, or even no emotions at all. The key to identifying what are the symptoms that are born from the disorder is to take a step back and look at ourselves. We have to make sure that we use a clear lens, so that we do not project our own values and beliefs onto the other person.” The specialist affirms that if we look at a person’s life, apart from their behavior towards us, we can discover lots of links that explain why the person is doing certain things. “For example, if you notice that somebody is making rude comments and has a negative attitude regarding life, and you link these issues with their ongoing insomnia, you can conclude that this person has high anxiety.” Of course, a therapist could also help you see things more clearly.

    Eventually, Mara had to end the relationship since it had started to impact her mental health too. “Now, after some years have passed, I can say that I understand. He was feeling really strong emotions and he actually believed that the little things I did were horrible, and he could no longer love me because of them.”

    Self-care is necessary even in a relationship

    Sometimes, we sacrifice our own happiness and get pushed down by our loved ones without even realizing. What can we do to not let this happen?

    “We have to take care of ourselves first,” Gudană says. “If we find ourselves in a relationship that makes us feel this way, then it is possible that our focus might have changed from ourselves onto the other person. This means giving up my own personal needs, betraying myself, trying to protect the other person more than I am taking care of myself, taking their pain and, eventually, becoming them. It means losing myself in the relationship.” This is what usually happens in co-dependent relationships, in which the partners establish their identity through their relationship with each other. Ultimately, not the other person is bringing us down. We are. We are doing so by repeatedly sacrificing our happiness for them. “As adults, we are 100% responsible for our lives. If we put the responsibility for our moods on other people, we lose our ability to control our emotions, ending up in a position of helplessness. The moment you build a strong connection with yourself is the moment you can set your boundaries and take full control of your emotions.”

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    The key to a healthy relationship

    This leads us to one question: can we manage a relationship with someone suffering from mental illness without compromising our own mental health? Is it attainable?

    Delia (19 years old) is a college student suffering from major depressive disorder (diagnosed) coupled with traits of borderline personality disorder- as her therapist says (not diagnosed with BPD) , mostly due to her fear of abandonment and unhealthy coping mechanisms. “I’ve been dealing with my issues since 2015 and have been going to therapy on and off ever since,” Delia states. “Currently I’ve been in therapy, specifically doing DBT (dialectical behavior therapy – helping people with BPD change their behavior patterns) for about a year.” Delia found out that therapy helps her manage her issues better and keeps her from self-harming. “Whenever my fear of abandonment sets in –and it can do so from the most basic things – I have techniques to ground myself until I can think rationally.” Her past relationship had been affected quite a lot by her mental issues, but with her current boyfriend, she knows how to deal with her fears in such a way that would not lead to a breakdown and self-harm or other dangerous behaviors.

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    A profound relationship with someone suffering from mental illness will most likely bring along with it suffering. “When one of the partners in a couple has depression, for example, then the other one will also feel powerless,” Violeta Gudană adds. “Self-care is the only thing that can keep our relationship healthy, even in tough times. When I feel the pain of seeing my loved one struggling, I should know that it’s time for me to process my emotions, to look for support and to try to satisfy my own needs. If I do not take care of myself, I will not have the resources to offer help.” Also, we can search for a delicate way to tell the other person to get professional help. It is a sensitive subject, that’s why it’s important we find the necessary empathy to propose something like this. “We can even share what we feel, what we notice and what we need in the relationship. If all of it leads to nothing, another option would be getting out of the relationship. Even if it is very painful, sacrificing our mental health for another person does not benefit anyone, nor does it bring anyone happiness .”

    Of course, with the right treatment and the strong will to get better, a relationship with someone suffering from a mental disorder can work out just fine.

    Delia’s boyfriend, Paul, who is also 19 years old and a college student, found out about Delia’s mental health issues and her diagnosis one week before their relationship became official. This did not change at all the way he looks at her or the way he treats her. “Even though my perception of her remained the same, I am very careful with choosing the right words, so I do not unintentionally trigger a breakdown. Her mental disorder does not reflect upon our relationship, and I am certain it is because she learned how to cope with it in therapy.” Paul does not feel like his own mental health has been affected directly by Delia’s issues because, even though they are in a relationship, both keep their lives separate to a certain extent, being two different individuals, as a healthy relationship should be. “Some of the things that I do to make her feel supported and understood are giving her a lot of affection, learning her love language, applying it in my behavior towards her and, most importantly, validating her feelings. Being in a relationship with someone suffering from mental illness has shown me that communication is key.”

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    Gudană agrees with Paul. If we want our partner to feel understood, we have to listen. “When we want to be by their side, it is important that we are actually present and available. If you feel too tired, moody, stressed and yet you state that you are available, it is possible you may not actually be what your partner needs at that particular moment. Maybe you will criticize them and give unsolicited advice as a way of removing yourself from the situation, and as a result hurting the person that you love, when you could have just set up clear boundaries from the beginning.” As stated by Gudană, if we want to support our partner, we can repeat what they are saying in other words (I can tell it is frustrating/ annoying/ sad/ tiring etc.) to validate their feelings, we can tell them we understand them, we believe them, and we can ask questions. “Also, someone suffering from mental illness can also face difficulties when opening up. Too many or too intrusive questions might shut down the other person. Make sure you keep a relaxed atmosphere and show how you feel, too. Connection is the most healing power. Connect with your loved one and let it flow.”

    *The names of the people who told their stories have been changed to conceal their identities.

    If you feel depressed or have suicidal thoughts, do not hesitate to open up to someone close to you or call these numbers to talk to a specialist:

    • Romanian Anti-Suicide Helpline: 0800 801 200
    • Romanian Depression Helpline: 0800 0800 20