dealing with depression, anxiety in a relationship

Dealing With Depression, Anxiety in a Relationship

Pop culture often tells us it is better to be single while coping with our mental health struggles; being single allows us to prioritise ‘working on ourselves.’


But as with most pop culture translations of mental health, this message has no basis in fact. 


Relationships are complex dynamics that require time, effort, and energy to maintain, but managing mental health struggles within a supportive partnership is very possible. Still, balancing mental health struggles and a relationship comes with some considerations.


How depression, anxiety can affect relationships


While not all relationships are affected in the same way when one partner struggles with depressive or anxious feelings, there are some common challenges to maintaining a healthy relationship. Any time a partner struggles, the following relationship areas tend to become more complicated: 


Communication: Mental health struggles often lead us to withdraw from the world, which can result in a communication breakdown with a partner. In addition, a partner may feel as if they need to censor themselves more in order not to add to what we’re going through. Such assumptions can compound the tendency to isolate, often leading to misunderstandings and conflict.


Care: Our partners might feel as if they must de-prioritise their needs in order to support us as we struggle. They may also need to pick up additional household activities or relationship-building efforts, if our symptoms include demotivation and difficulty following through. This inequity in care and labour can cause resentment to build over time. On the other hand, when we are struggling, we might feel resentment if our partner seems distant or does not understand our experience.


Identity: Mental health struggles can lead us to rely on our partners to calm anxious feelings, make us feel safe, motivate and cheer us during periods of sadness, or counter our insecurities. Some partners, in providing this, may start to derive a significant chunk of their self-worth from these activities and feel validated by their ability to make us feel better. This can lead to an unhealthy dynamic in which partners’ identities are dependent on each other, and conflict often follows.


Intimacy: For a variety of reasons ranging from trauma to medication, when we experience mental distress, our interest in sexual and intimate activities tends to lessen. This can lead to resentment and lack of satisfaction in a relationship, especially if healthy communication is compromised. 


Mental health struggles tend to come in waves across long periods of time. Each wave may affect a relationship differently, making it difficult to recognise what, exactly, is causing the challenge.


Being a supportive partner to someone with depression, anxiety


When we struggle with mental and emotional distress, our partners typically want to help by giving extra care and affection. That’s a good intent, but often to be effective, these efforts require a little more consideration. Being a supportive partner to someone with depression or anxiety often involves:


Discussing what type of support we need. Attempting to offer support in specific ways, without prior discussion, might worsen our mood, thoughts, and symptoms. Asking us how we want to be helped is a great way to foster strong communication and give us the right, unique support we need amid our distress.


Being careful not to dismiss our distress or use over-the-top positivity. Dismissing our struggles, no matter how small they seem, can make us feel diminished – which can compound our mental and emotional distress. On similar lines, while maintaining an optimistic, forward-looking mindset is helpful, being overly positive risks overlooking our very real difficulties. 


Empathising without taking over. Empathising with our struggles can make us feel less alone. However, striking a balance between talking and listening is critical. Talking too much about one’s own experiences, even if they’re relevant, might shift the conversation in a less supportive direction. 


Seeking support outside the relationship. Speaking to people who also support someone with mental health struggles can help partners feel less isolated. Whether this is an informal group, an online forum, or a formal group therapy arrangement, social support from others with similar experiences can be a powerful way to preserve the partner’s own mental health.


Consulting a therapist, too. People can’t always spot when they’re in the midst of unhealthy and destructive relationship patterns – so oftentimes it’s best to be proactive about caring for a relationship. Working with a couples or marital counsellor can help build a joint ability to navigate one partner’s mental health struggles, ease both people’s stress levels, and provide a clear framework for future support.


Being honest about needing a break. When both partners are emotionally drained or distressed, taking time away from a relationship can help a couple get their bearings – first individually, and then as partners. This is only helpful, however, if mutually agreed upon, if the goals of the break are clear, and if both people intend and want to reunite. 


How to manage depression, anxiety and maintain a relationship


No matter what, our partners will be affected by our mental health struggles. Most of us want to minimise the effects, however, and continue to be good partners throughout our mental and emotional distress. But often, we not able to live up to our own standards.


That’s okay; depressive and anxious feelings force us to put most of our energy toward simply surviving. The best way to continue being a good partner through our struggles is to:


Be honest. In any serious relationship, our partner needs to know about our mental health – this includes symptoms, behaviours, triggers, and context. Opening up to our partner may be a challenging process, but building trust towards full honesty is a goal. Our partners aren’t mind readers, and they cannot offer support to us if they don’t know what’s going on.


Remember our partners are people – not treatment or distractions. Love is a wonderful emotion that enables our partners to provide support and companionship through distressing times. But they are not able to, nor should they feel responsibility for, helping us deal and heal. They also don’t owe it to us to be a means of escape or avoidance for the feelings or thoughts that distress us.


Respect boundaries. Our partners, even when supportive, are still dealing with their own thoughts and feelings, struggles and joys. They may also have their own mental health struggles. They might not be able to ‘be there’ for us at all the times we expect, need, or want them to be.


Discussing our partners’ emotional and mental limits, and the amount of support they can offer, is critical, as is understanding that a partner’s support might go above and beyond at times – and fall short of our expectations or wishes at other points. This is both reasonable and human.


Tap into a broader support network. It’s impossible for one person to fulfil all roles for another. Asking other family members and friends for help can ensure we get the care and support we need as well as help prevent our partners from becoming resentful or burnt out. 


What to do when a partner isn’t supportive


Even with open communication, it is often difficult for partners to understand mental health symptoms and related behaviour. Sometimes, despite best intentions, partners end up aggravating our mental health struggles with arguments and dismissiveness.


In other cases, partners may be influenced by societal misconceptions and stigma against mental health struggles. In such situations, there are a few courses of action possible:


Set ground rules when both are calm. In most cases, our partners do care for us and want to see us healthy – they may simply not understand how to proceed supportively. Talking out situations and needs when both partners are calm and able to think logically can help set ground rules and expectations going forward.


Come to terms with differences. Our partners will not always understand why we behave the way we do; but conversely, we do not always need to explain every mood we have. Nor do we need to fully comprehend and predict our partners’ reactions to every situation. Sometimes, partners may not stand together – and must work through whether they both can live with their differences.


Recognise abusive prejudice. This is easier said than done. But a partner who has taken to heart societal bias against mental health struggles may dismiss or deride our difficulties. They will likely disrespect the boundaries we try to set during our periods of struggle. If a partner is not willing to unlearn their stigma and make an effort to understand us better, it might be time to reflect on how they impact our lives.



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