How do you support your partner when you both have mental health issues?

Contrary to what some might have you believe being a registered Counsellor and Psychotherapist doesn’t make you any less vulnerable to human suffering than anybody else. I’ve been very vocal about my recovery journey from complex PTSD which I see as something I will need to manage long-term as opposed to eradicate completely (wishful but unhelpful thinking!).

Whilst I’m now much more adept at managing my difficult periods and taking immediate action (self care, reducing commitments, listening to my needs, reaching out) what happens if your usually supportive partner is also dealing with some heavy stuff?

Depressive and anxious episodes in others can sometimes feel triggering if you already have a sensitivity towards experiencing those states. Trying to be an anchor for your loved one when you’re in a dark space yourself can feel frightening and overwhelming. Here’s my top-five tips for riding out the storm together.

1. Be there for yourself

Whilst this might sound counter-intuitive in helping your partner, trust me, it’s not. As the old saying goes, ‘you can’t pour from an empty cup’ and it’s essential that you find healthy ways of getting your own needs met without depending on your partner. Draw up a list of good friends you can talk to, reach out to a group, a wider mental health community or therapist if you can afford it. This will help you in the long-run by allowing you to hone your recovery independence skills and help prevent your relationship from falling into co-dependent habits.

2. Set reasonable expectations

When you can hardly get out of bed in the morning it’s fairly unlikely that you’ll have the energy to invest in your shared responsibilities such as cooking, cleaning, shopping or planning. When both of you are struggling it can help to co-write a list of key essential tasks that need doing and mutually agree responsibilities, essentially playing to your strengths as a team. But never expect more from your partner than you’d be able to give yourself. If neither of you can manage your responsibilities think creatively – shop online, ask a friend to help with chores, contact a volunteer or caring centre, ask a neighbour to walk your dog. Every. Little. Helps.

3. Show up for your partner

Although you might not have the energy to speak or even think clearly, you can still show up. Cuddles, hand-holding, a surprise cup of coffee, running a bath, hair-stroking – these are all non-verbal ways to show you care and that they’re still in your heart. Sometimes simply being quiet together can be just what the other person needs – no stressful conversations, no trying to ‘fix’ things, just being present.

4. Team Black Dog

Feeling at rock bottom can seem like the loneliest place in the world. Being at rock bottom together means that you already have someone to empathise and share your experience with. Try taking conversations in turns using this active listening technique:

  • Person A shares what’s going on for them
  • Person B listens and clarifies what they’ve heard
  • Person A responds to person B’s interpretation (making it even clearer), and finally –
  • Person B clarifies again and asks how you might work through this together.

Then swap over and repeat the exercise.

This method can really help to deepen an empathic connection and perhaps even allow you to come up with some positive solutions.

5. Remember, This Too Shall Pass

When you’re in the thick of it it’s difficult to keep perspective and remember a time when the relationship wasn’t as hard. You might even find yourself questioning your partner or blaming them for your unhappiness. Remember that their current negative feelings aren’t who they are. Write down the things you value about them the most. Own your own emotions (it’s OK to be hurting) without judgement and try to hold on to the fact that this period will pass – it isn’t how it is, it’s just how it is now.

@StephJonesMBACP

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