Strong inter-personal relationships are vital to maintaining good mental health, but mental illness can put enormous strain on those relationships. That’s when therapy can help – and not just those with the mental health diagnosis. I wrote this last summer, and although technically Mental Health Awareness Week is now over, this seemed like an appropriate post for me personally, to mark that week and its important theme this year, of ‘Relationships’.
A few months ago, my husband and I had a rare opportunity to go out in the evening together, while my parents looked after the children. We took the ‘bold’ decision to go out for dinner, rather than go and see a film; ‘bold’ because I have found it so difficult to sustain meaningful and non-confrontational conversations with him as our relationship has deteriorated over the last few years while I have been struggling with my mental health.
The evening was relatively uneventful until I raised the possibility of taking on some additional responsibilities outside work, which he was strongly opposed to because he believed I wouldn’t have enough time, and that it would affect the whole family if I took on too much. That in itself was a fair point to raise as a concern, but one of the features of our relationship over the last few years has been that we have each fallen into a particular way of responding to each other, that I believe comes from both our childhoods. I tend to react to him as a parent; and I think that he tends to react to me as a sibling.
A long-term illness of any sort, can put an enormous strain on relationships. When it comes to mental illness, symptoms can significantly distort someone’s thinking about themselves and the world around them (including other people). They may be ‘ill’, but they can also appear unrecognisable to their loved ones. It can be difficult for the ‘healthy partner’ to focus their anger at the situation they find themselves in, on the ‘condition’ itself, when that condition may have no obvious physical manifestation. It can become easy to blame the person themselves, who becomes synonymous with their condition.
There can also be the temptation to think that because one party in the relationship suffers from a mental health condition, the burden of psychological examination and change must rest with that individual. ‘You’re the one with the mental health problem; I’m okay’. Whereas there needs to be a recognition not just of the fact that the ‘healthy partner’ is often liable to suffer emotional strain themselves, for which seeking help would not just be beneficial to them, but beneficial to the relationship ; but that we all behave in ways that are patterned on our childhood experiences. If there are difficulties in our relationship, irrespective of whether or not one party has an illness of some kind, it is important for each person to think about their own unconscious patterns of interaction, and what might be triggering their responses.
That evening, my husband responded to me as if I were his thoughtless younger sibling who had hatched a ridiculous plan that he saw it as his duty, as the older, wiser and more responsible party, to put a stop to. I responded to him as if he were a parent trying to exercise control over my actions and trying to tell me what to do, without trusting me to make my own evaluation of the situation, and to come up with a sensible decision. I am relying on my own therapy to effect a change in both of our lives, and for the good of our relationship. But some of the perspectives that therapy gives you are hard to grasp if you have never been in that setting. For the moment, I am doing all I can to work hard in my own therapy, in the hope that I will gain the skills and sense of self-worth to be able to work more effectively with my husband, on our relationship. My wish is that one day, we will enter couples therapy together. In the meantime, I hope that we can both try and respond to each other as the people that we are and each fell in love with – flawed as we might be – rather than as the projections of our childhoods.