We can also sometimes forget that those living with or managing a mental illness have just as much of a right to pursue new relationships, and that their illness, once managed, should not prevent them from dating and seeking a partner.
So what is the relationship between mental illness and romantic partnerships, and do they influence each other?
The central importance of marriage and long- term relationships have long been implicated in better mental health outcomes.
It is not clear however, whether it is marriage (or long term relationships) that influence our mental health or whether better mental health predisposes individuals to relationships in the first place.
The “selection hypothesis” states that better mental health predisposes individuals towards marriage. The opposite of this hypothesis (or theory) is the “experience hypothesis”. This hypothesis proposes that a healthy, long- term relationship is beneficial to mental health and reduces the likelihood of developing psychological issues.
The relationship is likely to be “bi-directional” (both theories are somewhat true). Twin studies (when genetically identical twins are compared), however, have produced some interesting findings. When environment and genetics are controlled, both selection and experience have a role to play. Experience, however, was much more influential in terms of mental health outcomes.
To put this more simply, the quality and level of commitment in your relationship is capable of improving your mental health.
This is backed up by data nationally. In one study involving a large sample of married individuals, relationship distress was associated with a higher level of substance use, anxiety disorders and personality disorders.
Whilst it is absolutely untrue to say bad relationships cause mental health issues, it could be argued that a stressful, dysfunctional relationship makes the development of problems much more likely.
To summarize, good mental health makes people more likely to develop relationships but good relationships are also more likely to lead to good mental health. The greatest benefits are seen when relationships are committed and long- term, further emphasizing the importance of working on the intimate relationships in your life.
Managing a Relationship with Mental Health
The usual relationship routine and everything associated with it can seem to have all but faded away, and anxiety about the future is par for the course.
In the midst of such turmoil what can you do to maintain a healthy relationship, rather than a relationship dictated by mental illness?
There are such a wide range of mental illness that it is impossible to know all the symptoms associated with them and the variability amongst individuals. As a result, it can be common to confuse certain behaviours with character flaws rather than symptoms. If your partner is irritable or aloof then maybe it’s worth checking whether this is part of their current mental health problems. With such an array of online resources as well as support from mental health professionals, it can be quite easy to become well acquainted with the relevant literature. Similarly, if you are the one suffering from the mental health issue, do your best to educate your partner.
View the illness as a challenge
After a mental health diagnosis it can be easy to think that everything has or will irrevocably change. This may not be true, and even if this is the case, all couples face serious challenges during the course of a relationship. Rather than catastrophizing what has happened, remind yourself that challenges can be overcome as long as both people are willing to put in the effort.
Know your role
As your partner’s main support you will most likely have a role to play in your partner’s treatment plan. Being unsure as to how you can help can lead to frustration on both sides. Speak with a mental health professional about how to best provide a supportive role, whilst also taking care of yourself.
Avoid blaming tactics
Under uncertainty and stress it can be extremely tempting to start blaming everything on the mental illness. Conversely, the partner who has been diagnosed with a mental illness can also feel unsupported and fall into a negative pattern of blame.
Check in with each other
Take the time share your current experiences and to state your needs for the coming week. This could even be for 15 minutes! By doing this, you are both on the same page.
Seek couples counselling
Counselling can help to ground your relationship, in a time where things are volatile and easily imbalanced. Rather than letting the mental illness steer the relationship, take control early on and enlist the help of a good therapist.
- 60% of people with mental health problems said that discussing their issues with their partner ‘made the relationship easier to manage’
- 50% of partners responded that being in a relationship with someone with a mental illness was easier than they thought it might have been
- 47% said that this is because the illness did not define their partner
Braithwaite, S., & Holt-Lunstad, J. (2017). Romantic relationships and mental health. Current Opinion in Psychology, 13, 120-125.