Your partner isn’t with you when you show up to the party, again. People ask where they are, and you wonder, “Do I tell the truth, or do I say something else?” This is not the first time you’ve been in a position of feeling as if you need to make an excuse for your partner’s absence, and it’s getting old.
Deciding whether or not to be honest about your partner’s illness is a personal decision. Like any secret, not being open and honest can eat away at your self-esteem, and leave you feeling isolated. On the other hand, is this a privacy issue, especially since you are not the one with the illness?
Although much media attention has been given to mental illness, the truth is that there is still stigma around it. And although advocates say that mental illness should be regarded just like any other chronic illness, it’s not. People still react differently to the news that someone they know has cancer versus depression, even though both illnesses are devastating on many levels.
Like most topics around mental illness, there’s no one right answer for how to handle telling others that your partner is ill. In addition, it’s not just about you–your partner is the one who is ill, so they need to be part of the discussion as well. On the other hand, if they have a different perspective about appropriate levels of disclosure, this might necessitate some compromise.
Some things to consider when deciding whether or not to disclose your partner’s illness:
- What is the purpose of the disclosure?
- What kind of relationship do you have with the person you are telling, and how might that person use the information?
- What benefits are there to you and/or your partner by telling this person? What disadvantages are there?
Let’s look at the first one: the purpose of the disclosure. You may have many valid reasons for wanting to tell someone about your partner’s illness, including wanting support from family and friends, needing an employer to be flexible, or just because it’s not your nature to keep secrets.
But what if your partner says they don’t want family and friends to know? After all, those people may be their family and friends as well.
This is where discussion and potential compromise comes in. On one hand, your partner has a right to privacy. On the other hand, you have a right to be supported.
Having a discussion about why you would like to tell people may help your partner understand your point of view. But you should give consideration to your partner’s reluctance as well, as they may be afraid of judgment, rejection, or mistreatment, which may also be valid, depending on your partner’s history with the people you would like to tell. A possible compromise would be to select one or two people with whom both of you feel safe knowing what’s happening, and slowly expanding the circle as your partner gets more comfortable with the information being public.
The second point, regarding what kind of relationship you have with the person you are telling and how they might use that information, ties to the first point. For example, telling your employer, who does not know your partner, may feel less threatening than your telling your partner’s mother, who has historically been critical of your partner, or telling your best friend who is wonderful, but has a bad habit of gossiping. Again, there may be valid reasons for telling these people, such as your partner’s mother regularly visits and will notice a change in behavior, or you communicate daily with your best friend and she knows something’s up. Again, discussion and compromise may be in order: can you communicate to these people that something is indeed going on, but limit the amount of information disclosed? Or is this truly a situation where keeping quiet and finding other outlets will be in everyone’s best interest?
Finally, the third point is also linked to the first two: what are the benefits and the disadvantages to the disclosure? Only you and your partner can answer this one, and you may disagree about them. An advantage to you may be a disadvantage to your partner, and vice versa.
Bottom line: you and your partner need to discuss levels of disclosure about the illness, and come to an agreement that is fair for both of you. If you aren’t able to compromise on your own, couples counseling might help. In addition, joining a support group or an online forum discussion may be useful as well.
How have you handled telling others about your partner’s illness? What tips do you have for others?