It can be challenging when you’re with someone who’s struggling with mental illnesses like anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, or any other condition—especially if you’ve never experienced any of these symptoms yourself. If you’re not familiar with the traits associated with these conditions, many people can underestimate the impact they can have on relationships. In many cases, you might not even know what your partner is experiencing, which can lead you to misinterpret their feelings for you—among other miscommunications.
Knowing what to expect from a partner suffering from one of these common mental illnesses is key to making your relationship last. That’s why we talked to experts who know from experience what kinds of things can help (or hurt) your relationship when you’re with someone facing a mental illness. Here’s their top advice:
Understand the Condition
When your partner is feeling relatively good and not overly anxious or depressed is the best time to talk to them about their condition, says Clinical Psychologist Dr. Piper S. Grant. “Open up a conversation about trying to understand what they’re experiencing, what happens in their body, and what goes through their mind.” Do some research of your own to educate yourself better about their disorder.
Learn Their Triggers
Grant advises that while having this discussing, ask about things that might set them off. For example, what leads them to an anxiety attack? “Is it certain places, certain situations, when you’re around certain people, or when particular life circumstances are happening? This will allow you to know if something may be coming up for your loved one,” says Grant. It will also help you avoid these trigger situations or prepare for the possibility of an anxiety attack or other reaction.
Keep a Cool Head
Telling them to calm down, cheer up, or stop doing a compulsive behavior that bothers you is not always the best approach. Licensed therapist Katie Krimer says that due to people’s own discomfort with others’ suffering, your tone can come off as flippant or dismissive of your partner’s experience. “There can be a lot of shame and embarrassment one experiences if they suffer from these disorders. In a panic disorder, for example, people can actually develop a fear of having panic attacks in public situations, partially for fear of how they will be evaluated.” Expressions of compassion and validation—and keeping a calm and gentle tone—are often the best way to help someone feel understood and less alone in their experience.
Have a Support Plan
When discussing your partner’s condition, come up with ways to handle any symptoms that might suddenly arise, like a panic attack or extreme bout of depression. “That might mean coming up with a soothing word for your loved one or leaving the room together, or maybe it’s understood that your partner does not want you to touch them when they’re anxious, but rather just sit in silence with them,” says Grant. These are the times when communication is the hardest, so planning ahead can ease a tense situation.
Don’t Take It Personally
This is often easier said than done. For example, avoidance can be common with anxious or depressed people. They may not be avoiding you, but perhaps a situation that can trigger a reaction. “Don’t assume he or she is upset with you,” says licensed therapist, Kayce Hodos. “The biggest challenge you’re likely to face is feeling frustrated that you can’t fix things. You can offer support, but your partner is responsible for managing their symptoms.”
Consult a Therapist
Hopefully, your partner has a good therapist, but you may need to find one, too, says Hodos. It’s normal to get frustrated with your partner’s symptoms at times, so having a professional to speak to about how you’re feeling (and who won’t take sides), is important. “After all, you both need to be taking care of yourselves for your relationship to be healthy,” she says.
The bottom line is that, despite challenges, a partner who is suffering from a mental illness doesn’t mean you won’t be treated well or that the relationship is doomed. Understanding your partner and taking the right steps to deal with their particular personality and condition is key to having a healthy relationship with anyone struggling with mental illness.