It’s an easy trap to fall into: “I’m bipolar”….”My partner is OCD”….”She’s anorexic”….”He’s borderline”…

Describing your partner as the illness, instead of as having an illness, can make a subtle (or sometimes not so subtle) impact on both your and your partner’s perceptions of them, their capabilities, and their hope for recovery. It implies that the illness is woven into the fabric of your partner’s being, and that things will never improve.

Saying your partner has bipolar, has OCD, has anorexia, or has borderline personality disorder, etc., puts the situation in perspective: they have an illness, and in many cases, the illness can be cured or at least put into remission.

As a clinician, I can tell you that everyone who is somehow touched by mental illness makes this error regularly–patients, family and friends, and clinicians (I even did it myself a few posts ago, with the title “What Your Depressed Partner Would Like You to Know“…oops!). But with mental illness, given the stigma and shame that often comes with a diagnosis, it’s important to separate out the illness from the person. After all, there is more to your partner than their illness, even if that is hard to remember sometimes.

Benefits of changing your language regarding your partner’s diagnosis

  • Remembering the other positive qualities of your partner: Your partner has likely not always had the illness they are experiencing now. There are many, many other qualities that attracted you to them in the first place, and while those qualities may be masked or muted by the illness, they are still there somewhere. If the things you love about your partner are hidden, what can you do to bring them out? If they are still clearly apparent in your relationship, be sure to remind your partner how much you love their ________: sense of humor, compassion, generosity, intelligence… This helps to also remind your partner that despite their illness, they are still a person capable of being loved and cared for.
  • Putting the situation in perspective: By calling your partner by the name of their illness, it makes it seem as if there is nothing else that is important in your partner’s life, that the illness is who they are. The illness may be overshadowing everything else, but it is not their identity.
  • Reducing stigma and shame: If we’re ever going to make a dent in reducing the stigma and shame around mental illness, we all need to change our language. If other people hear you referring to the illness as something your partner has, versus is, you just may have a positive impact on someone’s perception of mental illnesses. And given the prevalence of mental illness, the ripple effect of your words and attitude may affect the perceptions of someone who has an illness themselves or also has a family member with an illness.
  • Reducing the power of the illness: By calling the illness exactly what it is–something that is external to your partner’s core being–its power diminishes. As I previously mentioned, by saying your partner is the illness, it implies there’s an inherent problem that is beyond help, and that is usually not the case.