What does it mean to be a “supportive partner” to someone who has a mental illness? There are many ways you can help your partner, both during times of acute illness and when life is in in “maintenance mode.”
Here are ten ways you can be a supportive partner:
1. Listen carefully and listen well.
Listening well is a skill and takes practice. However, the benefits of being a good listener will serve your relationship well, no matter what is going on at the time. Review these strategies for being a good listener.
2. Ask questions and show interest.
If you are wondering about something, ask! Your partner probably has a lot going on inside, and may be afraid to share their feelings about their illness and its impact on your relationship. Asking questions–and actually listening to the answer–shows you care. Pretending the illness isn’t happening will lead to problems.
3. Educate yourself about your partner’s illness.
This tip will serve you both in many ways: you’ll know more about what you’re dealing with, you’ll be able to recognize warning signs earlier, and you’ll have information about treatment options. The internet has a plethora of information about mental illness, but not all of it is good. I recommend you start here. You may want to consider purchasing a book on the illness to have as a reference as well.
4. Be involved with your partner’s treatment.
If your partner is reluctant about treatment, having a caring person drive them there or meet them afterwards can make a big difference. It can also be helpful to the clinician to have collateral information about what’s going on with your partner. Know the names and phone numbers of your partner’s treatment team, and have a list of the medications your partner takes handy in case of an emergency, including drug names, dosages, and how often they take them. Update the list often.
5. Get your own counseling.
I know, you’re thinking that it’s your partner who has the illness, not you. But this illness is going to affect you as well, and having a professional help you sort out your thoughts and feelings about the situation is beneficial. The sooner, the better—don’t wait until there’s a serious problem in your relationship before reaching out.
6. Know the warning signs and have a plan to intervene.
This is part of the education about the illness. Familiarize yourself with the common symptoms of the illness, and make a plan with your partner—while they are stable–about what they would like to have happen if an acute episode occurs, as well as if you notice that their mental health seems to be declining, but it’s not an emergency yet.
7. Respect your partner’s boundaries.
It might be tempting to take over everything because of fear. Talk to your partner about what responsibilities you can take over that would relieve their stress, but still allow them to contribute in ways they feel they can handle. In addition, remind yourself that recovery from the illness is your partner’s journey, and it’s impossible for you to truly know what they are going through. They may have different ideas about what’s going to work and what does work for them. It may not be the way you want. See tip #5 if you’re struggling to accept that, and read this blog post about boundaries in a relationship when there is mental illness.
8. Practice self care.
Get a life, if you don’t have one already. If you have one already, great: keep it. Maintain or create friendships, engage in hobbies, exercise, do whatever makes you feel good, and don’t feel guilty about time away from your partner. Not only will you be a better partner, but you’re setting the example for your partner to engage in self care as well, which is vital to mental health.
9. Be flexible.
There will be times that your partner’s illness suddenly gets in the way, throws you for a loop, does something unpredictable. Recognize it for what it is, and be willing to go with the flow.
10. Remember that everyone involved is doing their best.
That includes both you and your partner. When you find yourself starting to feel judgmental about either your behavior or your partner’s, re-read the first nine tips!
Photo by Steven Sim, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.