It’s Friday, and you’ve had a long week. You have been looking forward to going out with your partner and friends tonight to kick off the last holiday weekend of the summer. But when you get home tonight, your partner who is experiencing _________ illness says that they don’t feel like going, and just wants to lay on the couch and watch tv tonight.

What do you do? Do you cancel your plans and stay home? Or do you go anyway, alone?

Those questions sound simple, but it’s not that easy when your partner has a mental illness, is it?

When you have a partner who is ill, you sacrifice a lot. Your partner likely has periods of time when they are not themselves, can’t participate in daily activities, may not be working, and just generally are not upholding their end of the relationship bargain. However, you’ve decided that you are staying by their side, and will weather the storms of mental illness with them.

This doesn’t mean giving up everything that’s important to you, though. You have the right to have a life.

Defining your boundaries

You may be doing all you can to help your partner as they experience their illness, and you need to acknowledge this for yourself. If you feel as if you should be doing more, but you know in your heart that there are just not enough hours in the day, or enough energy left in your body, honor your reality. Then set the limits and discuss them with your partner. Without clear boundaries about what you can and cannot do for your partner and for the relationship, you are likely to stretch yourself too thin. Lack of clear boundaries can lead to increased stress, depression, anger, low self-esteem, addictive behavior, and burnout.

Recognize that you are not superhuman

Recovery from a mental illness generally takes a long time: it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Most people who run marathons stop for breaks at water stations along the way, and those stations are strategically placed every couple of miles. The journey to wellness with your partner needs similar respite breaks, too. That might come in the form of something like a weekly group run with friends, or a scheduled time to go to a class or engage in a hobby. Or maybe a weekend away, by yourself or with family and friends, without your partner, every few months (although I would definitely still schedule regular small respite breaks in between.)

Understand that your partner can survive without your constant help

Helplessness can often come along with a mental illness diagnosis, especially early in the recovery process, as everyone figures out what comes next. But chances are that your partner is not so severely compromised by their illness that they need all of your attention all of the time. They may make you feel as if that’s the case, but as adults, they haven’t forgotten how to do the basics of life. Not answering every beck and call of your partner can remind them that they are capable, and empower them to do their own work. On the other side of the coin, guilt or a tendency towards codependency on your part may be making you feel like it’s your duty to relieve your partner of any stress. In that case, it’s time to find a good therapist and support group to help you figure this out.

Find the “yes”

So maybe tonight you opt to go out with your friends, as planned, without your partner. Have fun and try to avoid the guilty thoughts. Perhaps a way to do that is to explain to your partner that you need this time to have fun, but that you will do whatever they want tomorrow. Relationships always involve compromise, and having a partner with mental illness doesn’t change that.

More resources on how to say “no”

7 Simple Ways to Say “No”

Stress Relief: How and When to Say “No”

How to Say “No” to People

Why Almost Everyone Has Trouble Saying “No”

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