Articles by Alex Ryder, Mental Health

Relationships and mental illness

Overlooking mental illness can put a real strain on your relationship.

The personal struggle for someone experiencing mental illness is now more widely acknowledged in our community. However, what is sometimes overlooked is the strain the mental illness can put on a relationship.

When mental illness is present in a relationship it can be pervasive. It can affect social life, intimacy, sex, finances and everyday functioning of the household. Add to this pervasiveness, the unknown of how to manage the illness, societal stigma, and sometimes denial on the part of the ill, and it is little wonder that a relationship in which mental illness is present is much less likely to last.

There is only so much stress and strain a relationship can handle without help

When you add an external stressor like mental illness to a relationship, the dynamics of the relationship change. The extent to which mental health affects a relationship depends on a great deal on how the person suffering ill-health deals with it. Acceptance and seeking help can save a relationship from a huge portion of the possible burden mental illness can bring to the relationship.

When mental illness goes unrecognised, ignored or avoided the relationship bears the full burden of the illness.

Then there are times when mental illness may not be recognised by the affected person. They might be ” flat’, ‘detached’ or ‘exhausted’ but not really aware that they are unwell. it is often during this period that the unwell partner will question the relationship and attempt to self-medicate through alcohol, drug use, or an affair in bid to simply feel happier not realising they are actually unwell. the unfortunate part of this is that, when well again, they report much higher levels of enjoyment in their relationship, but if they self-medicated during that period, damage to the relationship may have already been done.

Mental illness may also be denied by the affected partner or kept within the relationship for numerous reasons including stigma of seeking help; or belief by either partner that the unwell should just be able to ‘snap out of it’.  If mental illness is unrecognised, ignored or avoided it is often the supporting partner who takes on responsibility for the relationship. They tend to commence an over-functioning role, trying to meet their own needs, the needs of the partner and the needs of the relationship all the while tip toeing around the problem so as to not exacerbate things for their partner. Over time a pattern of over-functioning / under-functioning can develop, leaving the well partner exhausted by the extra load they are carrying and frustrated by the avoidance. This sometimes turns to guilt because they feel conflicted about the pain in the relationship, and where the root of that lies.

Good news. We have some answers.

Many people live with depression for years only to one day finally seek therapy or go on the right medication, and say they feel like a heaviness or fog has been lifted. They see the world differently – with new clarity and wonder. They also see their partner and their relationship with the same newness. Often they say they wish they had sought help sooner, and did not realise that what they had been living with had been as bad as it was.

Here are some tips to help you deal with mental illness when it enters your relationship.

Dos Don’ts
Maintain close friendships outside your relationship, and find time for your own interests. It is important that you look after yourself.


Burn-out – over functioning in the relationship is common when caring for someone with mental illness. Do not allow it to consume you.
Manage your emotions and be responsible for setting boundaries that ensure your care is sustainable.


Take responsibility for how your partner feels. You cannot control how your partner feels and trying to do this will only leave you both feeling worse.
Tell your partner you have noticed a change. It is important that communication is as open as possible and the illness does not become taboo in the relationship. Get frustrated. Your partner can not just ‘snap out of it’. Don’t tell them to ‘calm down’ or ‘keep their chin up’. Part of the recovery process is about your partner understanding what is going on for them. Give them space to do this without trying to make them feel better.
Encourage your partner to seek practical help from a therapist and or doctor. Ignore it, or assume it will just get better. The longer mental illness is experienced without help, the more likely symptoms severity will increase.
Communicate verbally about how you are feeling. A mentally unwell partner might interpret your normal end of the day tiredness as being their fault. Enable avoidance. Most mental illnesses are self-sustaining. Support your partner to face fears and challenges in a warm and comforting way. The things they do and don’t do will shape their life. Help them to expand their repertoire, not limit it. But also be attuned to the difference between challenge and overwhelm for your partner.


Encourage your own and your partner’s autonomy. We tend to feel more motivated and better about our lives when we feel we have a degree of control or choice. Help your partner demonstrate control/autonomy to himself or herself by exercising choice in little things, then build momentum from there. Judge, blame or use guilt as a motivator. This adds to the stacking that is already occurring. Positive reinforcement and encouragement works best for your partner and your relationship.
Talk with your partner. Recovery is correlated with relating with people rather than isolation. Spending time in conversation and inter-relating helps your partner out of the mental illness.

Have patience. Recovery may take time.

 Unburdening your relationship by seeking external help will relieve stress and strain in the relationship and help you to relate more lovingly with your partner. Share the load and get your relationship back.

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