How to Support a Partner Suffering From Mental Disorders

What “in sickness and in health” really means

Updated 06/12/17

Courtesy of Instagram/brownpaperparcel

As an awareness of mental disorders (anxiety, depression, etc.) has been brought more and more to the forefront lately, it's interesting to look at an Instagram post last month from Jane the Virgin star Gina Rodriguez. In the 10-second video captured by a photographer friend, she wears no makeup, her hair is pulled back and hidden by a New York Yankees cap, and it’s clear she’s struggling to hide her discomfort. In her caption, she wrote, in part, “I suffer from anxiety. And watching this clip I could see how anxious I was but I empathize with myself. I wanted to protect her and tell her it's ok to be anxious, there is nothing different or strange about having anxiety and I will prevail.”

Approximately one in five adults in the U.S. deal with some kind of mental-health condition in a given year, yet in 2017 people still don’t talk about it. Why is this alarming? Well, for starters, a multinational study that came out in 2011 found that a sample of 18 mental disorders, ranging from social phobia and PTSD to depression and anxiety, actually increased the likelihood of a couple getting divorced. Yikes.

That’s why it’s so important to be proactive about dealing with this kind of issue with your partner. Carrie Cole, a master certified trainer and the director of research at the Gottman Institute (a nonprofit working to strengthen relationships), says many people don’t really stop to consider what the promise of “in sickness and in health” could truly mean. Too often, people equate “sickness” with physical distress, such as being debilitated by a car accident, but don’t consider what toll mental distress may also take on a relationship.

“When people are starting out their life together,” she says, “there’s a couple of things they’re working on: trust and commitment. The question is, ‘Will you be there for me, not just in the good times but in the bad times?’”

For people who are living with a mental disorder, it’s important to disclose that to your partner long before you’re picturing the color scheme of your wedding. “If somebody has some kind of struggle, like depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder, their partner needs to know what they’re in for. Everybody has quirks,” Cole says. “When you sign up for a marriage or a committed relationship, it’s kind of like buying a house: There are good parts and then there are bad parts about every house. And so, you have to accept the bad with the good. Usually, the good really outweighs the bad (by a lot). But there are going to be those times when somebody is not at their finest.”

An explainer from the National Alliance on Mental Illness on addressing mental health in romantic relationships suggests people who are ramping up to have this discussion with their partner consider using the “sandwich” strategy: “Start by saying positive things about your relationship,” the Web page reads. “Tell your partner that because of your love and support, you have to share something potentially difficult. After describing your mental health condition, finish on a more positive note by describing what treatments you’ve followed, what has helped you, and what you’ve learned about yourself and other people as a result of mental illness.”

Cole says another way to broach the topic is to ask some open-ended questions about mental health—such as “What do you believe about mental health?” The goal, she explains, is to see if your partner considers these issues to be legitimate health concerns. “And that’s something to take seriously, especially if a person is prone to something like anxiety and their partner is dismissive of that. That’s not going to be helpful for that person, and they’re going to end up feeling emotionally abandoned through the hardest times in their lives.”

The good news is that most people find that having these hard conversations with their partner strengthens their relationship. And if you’re talking about tying the knot, here’s even better news: A recent study found that getting married provides a mental-health boost for both men and women.

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