There is perhaps nothing more important in this life than building strong, healthy relationships with the people we love. But in order to do that, you first need to build a strong, healthy relationship with yourself. For many of us, that means learning to practice self-care by prioritizing our own spiritual and mental well-being.
Addressing Your Mental Health
In fact, there is perhaps no greater gift that you can give to your spouse or partner than the gift of a healthier, happier, and more fulfilled you. This article examines the role of mental health in a relationship and discusses how your relationship can benefit when you put your mental health needs first.
A Difficult Triad
When we’re in the first blush of new love, it often feels as if everything in life has magically become perfect, as if every hurt has healed and every obstacle to happiness suddenly evaporated.
Eventually and inevitably, though, those heady days of infatuation pass and life settle into its old, familiar patterns. And for those who are faced with mental health challenges, the emergence or reemergence of symptoms in the aftermath of new love’s high can feel like a crushing defeat.
You may have thought that you would not have to experience depression, anxiety, or the residual effects of trauma again. You’ve found your person, the one who makes you feel safe and happy. What could possibly make you feel sad, worried, or afraid?
The reality, though, is that if you have a mental health condition, no person, and no relationship, will provide the cure. And that’s okay. In fact, it’s better than okay, because if you rely on someone else for your health and healing, that not only puts an untenable amount of pressure on them but it also leaves you in a woefully vulnerable, highly dependent position.
The good news, though, is that it is possible to cultivate a healthy relationship while also managing a mental health condition. The key is to neither hide nor deny your illness. Wishing won’t make it go away and shrouding it in a veil of silence will only create a destructive barrier between you and your partner.
Accepting and Integrating Your Illness Into Your Relationship
To be sure, addressing your mental health challenges is essential if you want to build a healthy and enduring relationship. The process begins, though, by learning to integrate your mental health care into your relationship. Your partner cannot begin to love you completely without knowing you wholly.
This requires you to be open about your mental health challenges. Communicate with your partner candidly. Listen to their concerns and share yours. Allow your partner to feel what they feel and give yourself the same right.
Maintain Perspective and Practice Kindness
Though it is essential to acknowledge and integrate your mental health needs in your relationship, that does not mean that your challenges must define you or your partnership. That is why it is imperative that you and your partner find the right balance to ensure that support does not mutate into codependency.
It is vital that you both remember that you are far more than your mental illness and that the bonds you share far exceed any diagnosis or disorder.
Maintaining such a perspective is also fundamental to cultivating respect and kindness in your relationship. Never allow yourself, or your partner, to fall into the trap of thinking that your condition is a burden or a deficiency in your relationship. It is simply another facet of your partnership, no better or worse than any other attribute that you and your partner bring to the table.
You wouldn’t stigmatize your partner for a heart condition or mobility impairment and so you shouldn’t be stigmatized for having depression, anxiety, or some other mental health issue.
Learn to Understand Triggers in Your Relationship
One of the most formidable challenges in managing a psychological disorder is in understanding its origins and its triggers. Many psychiatric conditions originate from childhood trauma. Even the experience of prolonged stress in the home, such as that relating to parental conflict or financial hardship, can manifest in mental illness in adulthood.
The problem, though, is that you may not even realize that you are experiencing the lingering effects of adverse childhood events (ACE) until something in your relationship triggers a harmful trauma response.
Indeed, unresolved trauma and poorly managed mental illness often take their most profound toll on personal relationships. The more attached you become to your romantic partner, the easier it is to fall into a cycle of panic and paranoia, particularly if pathological fear responses have been ingrained in you since childhood.
You may find yourself withdrawing from your partner or, conversely, clinging to them obsessively. You may become jealous and controlling, hypervigilant for signs of infidelity or the diminishment of their love. You may become hyperreactive to perceived slights or insults. You may catastrophize every disagreement as the harbinger of the inevitable end of your relationship.
Recognizing these emotional responses for what they are — the manifestation of trauma, depression, or an anxiety disorder — can help you and your partner learn to manage and respond to triggers in a healthier and more productive way.
It’s also important to remember that negative emotional reactions don’t always have to be related either to past trauma or present mental illness. Some physical conditions, as well as common pharmaceuticals, can contribute to mental distress. Chronic pain conditions, for instance, can often be linked to anxiety and depression.
Even for healthy individuals, popular prescription and over-the-counter drugs routinely impact mental health. Over-the-counter seasonal allergy medications, for example, can increase blood pressure and heart rate, leading to anxiety and agitation.
Likewise, many women experience significant, and even debilitating, side effects from oral contraception, side effects that range from chronic migraines and weight gain all the way to diagnosed mental illnesses. Protecting your mental health from these quality-of-life-compromising treatment complications may well require collaborating with your healthcare provider and your partner to find a birth control solution that works best for you.
When it comes to managing your mental health while also nurturing your relationship, practicing self-care is key both for you and your partner.
This means that both of you must schedule time away from one another, time for solitude and self-nurturing. After all, no matter how much you may love one another, you are still individuals with your own unique interests, goals, and pleasures.
Your partner, for instance, might be an avid hiker while you prefer the peaceful confines of a yoga studio. In other words, spending time in nature may well be how your partner finds the gratification that leads to happiness. For you, connecting with your senses and your body through gentle exercise and movement may be a principal source of gratification.
Rather than trying to meld the two, take time every week to pursue separately the things that calm your mind, nourish your soul, and revitalize your spirit. Not only will you both feel better, but when you come together again you will do so with renewed energy, zest, and joy.
Additionally, your and your partner’s self-care strategies should also include careful monitoring of your physical, spiritual, and mental status. Significant changes in the ability to focus, a sudden loss of motivation, or difficulty in regulating your emotions could all indicate that you or your partner are suffering from mental fatigue and that it’s time to prioritize self-care.
Boosting Mental Health Through Quality Time
As important as it is for you and your loved one to spend some time apart, nurturing your independence and relishing the activities that you love, it’s equally vital to enjoy quality time as a couple.
One of the best ways to do this is to get out and discover new hobbies and pastimes that you can enjoy together. Not only will sharing new experiences strengthen your bond as a couple, but it will also enable you both to benefit, physically, spiritually, and mentally, from a bit of recreation. You will be learning, engaging, and growing as individuals and as a couple, and there are few things more stimulating for the mind or enriching for the soul than that. So look for activities that speak to both of your interests. These could include:
- Yoga/Meditation: Yoga and/or meditation are both great activities that require skill as well as patience. Centering yourselves together can feel freeing and gratifying at the same time. This is not necessarily the most ideal activity for particularly chatty couples, though cultivating moments of grateful silence between yourselves may be a good skill to learn!
- Going on walks: Walks help clear the mind and get the blood pumping. They also can make for great conversational experiences, as the body and mind are simultaneously stimulated. Try walking to places in and around your immediate area that you’ve never been to before. New places, even if they are a short distance away, can feel fresh and adventurous.
- Gardening: Tending to a garden with your partner can give you both a project to focus on and a retreat away from life’s stressors. Your garden can be as simple or complex as you’d like, and watching plants grow as a result of your labor may remind you what it means to nurture love together in a relationship.
- Metal detecting: if your partner enjoys spending time in nature and you enjoy learning about history, why not take up a hobby like metal detecting? You will have the rare pleasure of spending quality time, learning about the world, and making new discoveries together. And, who knows, you may even dig up a buried treasure!
- Swimming: If you’re really looking to up your physical activity, consider swimming with your partner. This can be particularly beneficial for your health, as no matter how hard you’re going — swimming laps or treading water leisurely — you’re still going to be engaged in stimulating physical activity.
You’ll notice that many if not all of the above activities can be done outdoors or in nature. Sunlight and fresh air are good for the body and soul — why not enjoy that together?
Whether you have been diagnosed with a mental illness or you have experienced episodes of depression and anxiety in the past, the reality is that mental health challenges should never be ignored in a relationship. Attempting to do so isn’t just futile, it’s also detrimental to your partnership. However, when you take care to address mental health both as an individual and as a couple, both you and your relationship will be stronger, healthier, and happier than ever.