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Reaching for help—and helping your partner—in a healthy relationship

A good partner is your best friend, your confidant, and at the very least, someone you trust. And for those of us with mental illnesses like depression and anxiety, they’re often someone we lean on when we need support during tough times.

It’s healthy to communicate your thoughts, feelings, and struggles with someone to whom you’re deeply committed. But it can sometimes be difficult to navigate the blurred line between healthy communication and dependency, the latter of which places a lot of undue pressure on your partner. Fortunately, there are many ways in which you can safely lean on your partner for help without affecting the integrity of the relationship—and if your partner is the one struggling, there are plenty of ways to extend a helping hand.

How to lean on your partner in a healthy way:

Be honest. Your partner can’t help you if they don’t know what you’re going through. Whether this is a newer relationship or you’re celebrating your nth wedding anniversary, you need to have an honest conversation about what you’re experiencing and what you think you’ll need to come out on top. Your S.O. may need a bit of direction on how to help, but a good partner won’t judge you for a mental illness that isn’t your fault.

Encourage open communication. It’s super sweet of your partner to say that they’ll always be here for you, but “compassion fatigue” is a thing, and it can have harmful long-term effects on your overall relationship. Your partner needs to be able to speak up when they don’t have the capacity to help, whether it’s because they’re limited on time or because they’ve simply run out of emotional energy. And it’s important that you don’t resent them for saying they need a break. In fact, that will be a good time for you to reach out to other parts of your support system, which leads me to . . .

Build a strong support system outside of your partner. Bluntly put, your partner has a life outside of you, and they can’t be your single source of support 100 percent of the time. Make a mental list of people you can go to when things are tough: friends, family members, mentors, mental health professionals, or even online communities formed for people with mental illnesses. Your partner can be your #1 cheerleader, but there still need to be other people encouraging you from the stands.

Take advantage of healthy coping mechanisms. In an effort to relieve myself and past partners of the time spent on an exhaustingly emotional conversation, I’ve successfully used coping mechanisms to mitigate my depressive episodes. (This is a fancy way of saying that sometimes I clean my whole apartment and I feel better and I not only get to avoid talking about deep things, but I also have a clean apartment.) It’s a great idea to have a list of healthy coping mechanisms on deck to practice when you think you could pull yourself out of a scary or frustrating place. Listening to music, exercising, watching a funny TV show (or for me, Vine compilations), and journaling are just a few ideas.

Remember that mental illness is not an excuse for hurtful behavior. No one is perfect. Inevitably, we all make mistakes in our relationships; recognizing this is vital to our growth both individually and alongside partners. But mental illness can really only be a reason for certain behaviors—not an excuse. With or without a mental illness, you’re still accountable for your own actions, and you still have to put some metaphorical elbow grease into self-improvement.

Recognize that a partner cannot replace the services of a mental health professional. It’s easy to avoid seeing a therapist because you already have someone to talk at length with at home. But in the end, a significant other is unable to view your situation from an objective lens and offer clinical advice that could seriously help you long-term. It’s okay to chat with your partner about what’s bothering you, but if you suspect that a professional could do a better job at helping you fix the situation, you’re probably right.

How to support a partner struggling with mental illness:

Check in often. In an ideal world, everyone would feel comfortable speaking openly about their own experiences with mental illness. In this world, however, it can be incredibly difficult for your partner to come clean about just how much they’re struggling. Check in frequently with the person you love, and let them know (both explicitly and through subtler actions) that you’re there to listen without judgment.

Recognize common triggers. Different people have different triggers. (For instance, certain sad songs can launch me into hours-long spirals, so I avoid them like the plague.) Similarly, different people show that they’re struggling in different ways. Learn to recognize the things that could potentially set your partner back, as well as the signs and signals that they may be going through a particularly tough time. If you can’t quite tell what these things are, ask! It’s just another way of practicing that sweet, sweet communication.

Offer to help your partner secure professional help. If you know me, you’ve probably heard me say, “It’s 2018—everyone should have a therapist!” Your partner’s situation doesn’t have to meet a certain badness threshold to benefit from counseling. If they’re [understandably] reluctant to look for professional help, however, you’ll win S.O. brownie points by helping them with their search. Schedule a time to sit down together and search for a therapist or psychiatrist who meets their needs, and if they’re particularly nervous, offer to sit in the waiting room with them before their first appointment.

Create a resource list together. During an especially difficult time, your partner may struggle to remember that there are people and programs out there to help them. A handy resource list is an easy fix for this. Whether it’s on paper or in an online doc, you can draft up a list of common helpers: friends, mental health professionals, coping mechanisms, self care routines, and even crisis lines. For a partner in a deep depressive episode, it may be beneficial to create a “crisis plan” together; this is a document that outlines warning signs, calming exercises (like breathing or mindfulness activities), emergency phone numbers, and community resources that may be used if your partner is stuck in a really bad place.

Don’t be afraid to take breaks. It’s lovely that you want to be there for your partner all the time, but you can’t pour out of an empty cup. It’s okay if you’re emotionally tired and need to say, “Hey, I know you’re in a tough place, but I’m not sure if I can give you what you need right now.” A respectful partner will understand and appreciate the honesty.

Celebrate small victories. Recovery is never linear, especially in the context of mental illness. It’s easy for someone with depression or anxiety to think they haven’t made much progress when they’ve really made huge strides toward mental wellness. A big part of checking in often is recognizing your partner’s progress; if your partner reveals that they’ve overcome an internal struggle or managed to get out of bed on time every day for a week, celebrate!

Regardless of which end you’re on, it’s important that you and your S.O. don’t lose sight of the overall relationship and your respective happiness. Continue to work on yourselves and celebrate each other in ways outside of situations related to mental health, and you’ll grow in the same direction. How have you maintained your relationship while striving for mental wellness? How have you helped your partner do the same?

I do not claim the expertise of a trained mental health professional. The advice above is collected from personal experience and research.

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