Relationships are hard. They require commitment and are complex. When one partner is diagnosed with a mental illness, life becomes complicated. Each partner is faced with their own unique set of challenges, especially when a new episode happens. These events can range anywhere from mild, lasting a day or two, to catastrophic, lasting as long as one month or longer.
It is very important to have a safety plan especially if you have young children in the house. Being aware of the worst case scenario and having a plan arranged ahead of time is important because during a mental health crisis, stress can impede the decision making process. My husband and I worked together to make our safety plan during a period of wellness. We both had input and decided together what was best for everyone. We discussed the plan with our kids and everyone was satisfied and knows what to do “just in case.” Personally, I spend far too much time worrying about all the “what-ifs” that it interferes with the daily functioning of our marriage and that’s definitely not good.
Effective communication is also very important. Being able to express your thoughts and feelings accurately and timely is significant. Letting a bad idea fester can only end badly. On the other hand, sometimes a bad idea will go away on its own given adequate time and space. Learn which battles are worth the fight.
Stress management and self-care are two strategies that are so vital during the ongoing support of your loved one, and also things I am not so good at. Some partners are not that involved in their loved one’s care and other people are heavily immersed, being the primary caretaker. Many people find this role fluctuates with how well their partner is doing. We all know what we are capable of and know when we need a break; however I do not need another person suggest I try yoga. Seriously. I have come to realize that yoga is actually a lifestyle commitment and not a one-size-fits-all cure for everything. Sorry yoga folks, but making a lifestyle change during a severe mental health crisis just isn’t possible. Self-care means different things for different people. During an intense mental health crisis, a partner often reverts into survival mode. Simply surviving IS self-care. This is a difficult concept for some people to understand.
Being part of the support team in whatever capacity it may be requires stamina. Episodic events can be predictable, but no matter what they are still difficult to get through. Depending on the nature of the illness, partners are often the target of anger, frustration and general moodiness. It takes stamina and patience to continue living in an unstable environment. Genuine forgiveness is also required and often difficult to maintain. Episodes often occur over and over and over again! We tell ourselves it will pass. We remind ourselves it is not really our partner talking, it’s the illness. We excuse our partners for bad behaviour. We are expected to forgive and forget but it isn’t always so easy. Remaining genuine can be a challenge. It often takes time to heal these emotional wounds and sometimes they simply get forgotten before being forgiven.
That’s why finding and using local support services can be so useful for survival. Often talking to other people who know what you are going through helps lift some of the burden. There is always someone out there who has a story that is worse than yours. It sort of keeps things in perspective and is a way of relieving some of the stress; however support groups are not for everyone. Some people prefer one-on-one counselling, or look to their spirituality for guidance. Whatever works for you, find an outlet. Mental illness is tough on couples. Maintaining your relationship is difficult, but that doesn’t mean people don’t still have very rewarding relationships. They can and do, it’s just really challenging. Like I said, relationships are hard.
About Marion Gibson
Marion is the author of Unfaithful Mind, a memoir detailing her family’s journey through a significant mental health crisis. She is an advocate of mental health awareness working to break down the stigma of mental illness. She is now pursuing an education in mental health and addictions and working on her second book. Marion lives in Victoria, BC with her family. You can follow Marion at the HMC Supportive Minds blog here or on Facebook and Twitter.