March 22, 2017 Fiona O'Connor

Having a Healthy Relationship with Someone Dealing with Mental Illness

I check my phone again, taunted by the blue text bubbles that still don’t say ‘read.’ They say: “Hey wanna hang out tn?” “I need pizza rolls,” and, “Girl’s gotta eat ¯_(ツ)_/¯.” My daydreams about hot squares of cheese are interrupted by a low buzz. 

“Hey, sorry I’m not feeling great,” I read, watching the little dots alternate as she typed. “I just switched my meds and it’s been messing with my mood a lot, I think I’m just gonna stay in tonight and watch Seinfeld with my mom,” and, “Next week tho!” followed shortly. I feel a twinge of disappointment, followed by a wave of compassion. I tell her that it’s more than all right, to take care of herself, and that she has my love.

You see, my friend Helena has social anxiety. She’s had it for years. In middle school, we would eagerly make plans with our friends to go to the mall and not buy anything, you know, just to chill (ah, the golden years). But often, about an hour before we were supposed to carpool she’d send a thrown-together excuse explaining why she couldn’t make it. It was confusing for me, I didn’t know what social anxiety was or how it affects people. I didn’t understand that for people who have it, social interactions carry a lot more stress than for most, accompanied by feelings of embarrassment, self-consciousness, and a pervasive sense of unease and helplessness.  When she finally told us about it, we had to learn how to accommodate her social anxiety and support her. And it wasn’t always an easy task.

A relationship with someone who has mental illness, be it a friendship or Facebook-official true “luhve,” is often quite difficult and poses problems that healthy-minded folks don’t have to deal with. So what happens if you’ve never really been close to someone who suffers before, and now you’re trying to hit curve balls you’re not prepared for? 

I’ve outlined a few pointers to help anyone who has a person in their life who struggles. Whether it’s a new relationship or an old one, learning how to be supportive in a healthy way will always make it stronger.

Accept that some things are about to get a bit complicated

Perhaps the most unnerving part of being a friend to someone with mental illness is that the things they do often don’t make any sense. Mental illness leads people to do things that simply defy reason, which can be difficult to understand as a bystander. Explaining a ‘logical’ answer to them will likely only leave you unsatisfied, because for most people who suffer, they already know they’re acting irrationally. Mental illness capitalizes on urges more primal than logic (like feelings of fear, distrust, helplessness, and shame) and causes certain behaviors that serve to alleviate these negative feelings. 

For example, a person with OCD experiences certain obsessions, such as repetitive thoughts or images, that cause a good deal of anxiety and stress. In response, they enact compulsive behaviors and rituals to relieve that anxiety and address the obsession. Let’s say Juan is quite worried for the health of his sick mother. He spends his day in a state of agitated confusion, and desperately counts every step as he walks, having the sense that if only he could do it perfectly, she will be alright. Or Hannah, who experiences paranoia about germs and contamination, will wash her hands after every meal for the duration of two ‘Happy Birthday’ songs. On the outside, these behaviors may seem odd, but for those who suffer, they are functional and contribute to a sense of safety and security. 

Often, people with mental illness respond viscerally and intensely to problems in their relationships. High-stress situations like fighting and yelling can trigger emotional and often subversive responses. A situation is triggering when it elicits distress by reminding someone of a certain traumatic experience. Relational stress between partners or friends can evoke a fight or flight reaction in someone who has faced similar traumatic stress, and often a triggered person finds theirself unable to cope, effectively halting any productive discussion about a problem. As someone who cares, you must be prepared to abide by the boundaries they set for you. Try to keep an eye out for symptoms of distress, which may manifest in their being quiet and seeming ‘tuned out,’ or in agitated behaviors like leg-shaking or nail-biting. Above all, be respectful and accommodating of their needs.

Don’t take responsibility for their mental health

While it is important to accept the intricacies of your loved one’s struggle, it is crucial that you do not take it too far and assume the role of their personal hero. This mentality can lead to overwhelming guilt and frustration on both sides. Your partner or friend may notice your efforts to help them but, upon finding it impossible to heal on wishful thinking alone, will experience feelings of disappointment. This is harmful for someone who already struggles with mental illness because adding another level of shame and helplessness will only make things worse. 

Furthermore, this savior mentality can lead to just as much defeat and irritation on your end. When you take on the responsibility to ‘fix’ a part of someone’s personality, which may not be inherently bad or even under that person’s control, you actually create a perceived flaw. And when your attempts to magically heal their mental illness fall flat, you may start to blame them. Take Susie, for example, who has bipolar disorder and has been going through a depressive period. She hasn’t been able to get out of bed, and her boyfriend Joe is a little bit concerned. Thinking that he can cheer her up, he brings her a pint of Half-Baked Ben and Jerry’s. Susie, however much she appreciates the gift, still can’t get out of bed, and Joe feels a little bit miffed.

While it’s good to be supportive and caring to your partner, you must remember that it’s not your job (or even realistic) to try to save them. There is absolutely nothing wrong with doing something thoughtful for a partner who’s having a rough day; the problem emerges when your expectations for them are impossible for them to reach. Are you imagining that your gesture will change their day and snap them out of behavioral patterns that have been ingrained in them for years? Or, better, are you predicting that they will appreciate your kindness, knowing that they are trying their best?

Practice Self- Care

While it is easy to understand how relational stress can worsen someone’s symptoms, the impact had on the partner is often overlooked. Handling a relationship is hard enough, but dealing with the ups and downs of someone’s mental illness can throw them into a tailspin. It’s important to take a step back once in a while and take care of yourself. In order to remain a supportive and engaged partner, it’s crucial to occasionally disengage. Take some space, read a book, pursue a hobby, just do anything it takes to get in tune with your feelings and regain a sense of peace. It’s healthy to go through periods of closeness and distance, and this cycle allows for a relationship to breathe (A+ to my therapist for that analogy!).

Get Educated

Finally, the last and most important step to sustaining a healthy relationship with you and your loved one is choosing to educate yourself about their mental illness. So many false assumptions go unnoticed in the collective understanding of mental health, and I will bet you 5 monopoly dollars (broke college kid here) that doing a little homework will uncover something that changes how you think about it. A huge hurdle in rebuilding a relationship that has been strained by mental illness (or any other stressor for that matter) is learning how to understand each other again. The symptoms of mental illness can be so subtle and indirect that they are often the undetected source of strain in relationships. Making the choice to spend time familiarizing yourself with the signs and causes of your loved one’s mental illness not only betters your ability to help them, but also communicates to them that you’re on their side. And together, you can overcome your weakest moments and support each other with grace (and pizza rolls!).


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Comments (7)

  1. It’s challenging to find well informed individuals on this topic, but you sound
    like you comprehend what you’re talking about!

  2. This is a very great hints especially to those new to blogosphere,
    brief and exact info… Thanks for sharing this one.
    A must read post.

  3. Dad

    nice thoughtful observation you have put together on the issue in dealing with somebody who stresses out on life and therefore becomes helpless in facing the world, and especially knowing your own strategy on how far you can go ; to try to alleviate a dear friend. Very mature insight.

    love you, from Dad.

  4. Anonymous

    Fiona, This is so well written. We are so proud of you for taking these steps to help others.
    Love, Mom

    • Anonymous

      I love this, so helpful for anyone dating someone with mental illness. Thank you for writing

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