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Navigating a Relationship When You Both Have a Mental Illness

Mental health is always an important part of relationships; some relationships are bad for your mental health, and some are good. And that is, I daresay, one of the most important things to consider about relationships, romantic or otherwise. The equation becomes much more complex, however, when we consider mental illnesses. Most of us either have a mental illness or are close to someone who does, and that’s getting worse as people my age are paid less and less while prices for college and housing and all other necessities gradually rise, which spikes the rate of things such as depression and anxiety. So, it’s very believable that you’ll either be in a relationship with someone who suffers from a mental illness, or both you and your partner(s) will suffer individually from illnesses.   

So what happens when both of you have mental illnesses? Ideally, the answer is that you support them while they’re struggling, and they support you while you’re struggling. You heal together and are stronger for it. But, inevitably, there’s going to be times when you’re both struggling. Should you lay your problems aside to help your partner process their emotions? Perhaps. Should you focus on yourself, and let them sort themselves out? That’s also a valid option. There isn’t a straight answer here; If you find one, I’d love to hear it.  Truthfully, this is something only you can decide based on the situation in which you find yourself. The only solid advice I have is to be clear; tell your loved ones when you can’t spend time with them, tell them when you’re also struggling.  And, when possible, trust your loved ones. Even if you’re having thoughts along the lines of “they’re lying so they can go hang out with someone else,” “they just don’t want to be with me,” or “I’m ‘too much’ for them,” trust your partner over your anxiety-driven thinking errors. If you can’t trust them to be honest with you, you probably shouldn’t be in a relationship with them in the first place.

Don’t suffer in silence! Relationships have a buddy system literally built in, communication is your most powerful tool. Tell your partner when you’re struggling, tell them when you’re having bad thoughts, especially tell them when you need reassurance. Mental illnesses have a habit of spiraling; sometimes you’ll end up thinking that someone who loves you actually hates you because of the tone of their voice. Much better to let them know, nipping the spiral in the bud before it’s out of control. Thinking errors are important to know and acknowledge for anyone suffering with mental health issues (and everyone else too.)

We generally strive to preserve relationships that improve our mental health, and end relationships that do the opposite. Unfortunately, many relationships are one-sided—meaning one person drains the other’s mental health exclusively, providing nothing in return. This is, as most things, a gendered issue as well; women are expected to care for and be patient with the men they interact with, and men very often seek women to throw all their problems on, because there is taboo in discussing problems, especially those that cause vulnerability, with other men. By no means is this always the case, in fact, most of my relationships with friends and lovers alike have been one-sided in favor of them, simply because of my empathetic nature. However, the expectation and socialization cause enough problems that this cannot be discussed fully without mentioning gender.

So, what are we to do? End every relationship with anyone who drains us? I wouldn’t necessarily blame you for taking that approach, but you may become quite lonely quite quickly. Again, the answer isn’t simple. Yes, in theory you should certainly end solely one-sided relationships, just like you should end abusive relationships. But in practice, it’s not that easy. I personally have a desire to help everyone I can, and this can leave me exhausted when everyone I know is struggling with problems, because I’m always the coolheaded friend they come to for advice, I’m always the one who grounds people when their anxiety gets the better of them. Sometimes, I feel as if I’m not allowed to panic, and not allowed to have a breakdown. But I don’t want to end those relationships; many of them need a friend and I’m glad to be that friend. I simply have to also have friends on which I can rely, and I also must open up enough to tell them about it. I’ve found that the reason many of my relationships are one sided is because I just don’t tell them my problems! Many people who you care for would love to help you deal with your problems, or at least discus them. The trick is in learning to be vulnerable enough to allow them in.

When you’re both struggling, have the maturity to let them know when you need to step back and do some self-care. Learn your boundaries, set them, and enforce them, even if it sucks. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, the people who rely solely on you will be fine without your help while you take care of yourself. They may even learn to rely on themselves a bit more.

In general, find friends and lovers who help you grow and learn, and encourage them to do the same. They don’t have to help you as much as you help them. This isn’t a zero-sum game. You can enrich the lives of others while they enrich yours, the trick is finding the right people, and, even more difficult, allowing yourself to be vulnerable enough to truly voice your problems and concerns to them. No one is fully self-sufficient, and it takes courage to ask for help when you need it.

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Jacob Westwood is a senior at the University of Utah, who loves animals, the outdoors, and hands-on work.
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