Partnering in Mental Health

Loving someone with mental illness

Partnering in New Year's Resolutions

Make resolutions to improve your physical, mental, and relationship health

It’s about that time of the year again…the time when people tell themselves that January 1 is the start of a new year, and darn it, this is the year they are going to ________! [Fill in the blank with the habit that has managed to elude your attempts to change for the past 365 days or more...]

As a psychotherapist, I’m all about people deciding to change their lives for the better. On a continuum that has “acceptance” on one end and “change” on the other, I very much lean towards the “change” side, unless it’s obvious that change is not possible and acceptance would be in the person’s best interest.

When you have a partner with mental illness, you have to try to balance the “change” and “acceptance” when it comes to the effects the illness has on your relationship. There are some aspects that need to be accepted, such as the fact that your partner has an illness, and that life is not how it might be if your partner was well. You may have to accept that your partner cannot fulfill 50% of the responsibilities in the relationship right now. Or that your sex life isn’t what it used to be because your partner is taking medication. What are other realities that you wish you could change but must accept instead?

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On the other hand, there’s likely a fair amount of change that is possible, such as making lifestyle choices to reduce stress, working with your partner’s treatment team to find the best possible medications and therapy, and deciding as a couple to do whatever it takes to minimize the impact of the illness.

What are some reasonable mental health New Year’s Resolutions you and your partner can make?

  • Lower expectations: Our lives are crazy busy, and the world doesn’t stop spinning because your partner has a mental illness. However, you both can lower your expectations about what needs to be done. If there are commitments you have that are impossible to keep right now, find a way to bow out gracefully. Maybe this year you don’t take on extra projects at work so you can be at home to help your partner with the kids. Or maybe you decide both of you will end your workday at 5:00 pm, instead of staying late or working on weekends.
  • Couple time: “Date night” isn’t just for when you are dating. It is important for committed couples to have regular “dates” as well. If your partner is ill, doing activities together for fun may have fallen into the “unimportant” or “unmanageable” bucket. Your partner may not feel like leaving the house, but perhaps you could bring the fun home. Or maybe your partner would benefit from a little nudging to shower, get dressed, and leave the house. Usually the worst part is getting there; once you and your partner are engaged in the activity, it gets easier.
  • Turn off technology: We are connected 24/7 by computers, cell phones, televisions, etc. This evokes a “need” to be available at all times, which can be stressful. What would it be like to actually turn off your devices at a certain time each night? Or for an entire day or weekend?
  • Commit to eating better: Most people will interpret this as meaning “go on a diet.” No, that is not what I mean. However, eating well can improve mental health. Most people could benefit from reducing the processed foods in their diet, or to cut back on caffeine or alcohol. Or perhaps you could pack your lunch instead of buying it or not eating at all. What would it be like to have a day when you didn’t eat meat? It’s the small changes that add up to big results.
  • Exercise: There are an increasing number of studies that show that exercise is one of the best ways to reduce depression and anxiety. You and your partner don’t need to run a marathon, but walking for 30 minutes most days of the week could make a huge difference.
  • Treatment compliance: As a therapist, it always gets me when I ask a struggling client if they are taking their meds or doing other changes that we had discussed and I hear, “No.” If your partner is one who “forgets” to take their meds, it’s time to figure out a system where they will remember. If the reason they are non-compliant is because they aren’t happy with the side effects of the meds, they need to speak with their doctor. If your partner can’t afford their meds, they need to speak to their doctor about alternatives. If there isn’t an identifiable “problem” and it’s just that your partner isn’t doing what they need to, then something else needs to be worked out. It may be time for you to find some support to learn strategies to manage the issues.

Kate Thieda works as a therapist in private practice in Durham, North Carolina.

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