Partnering in Mental Health

Loving someone with mental illness

6 Self-Care Steps for Partners

We all know self-care is important, but too often, other things get in the way.

We all know how important it is for well partners to practice self-care in order to survive the ups and downs of having a partner with mental illness, but other things that are "more important" or "need to get done" often interfere. Days, weeks, months, and even years go by and we get more and more stressed, anxious, and depressed.

How’s that working for you?

Developing new habits and being deliberate about making healthy choices that support your well-being is an ongoing effort. It’s not a one-shot deal. No one else is going to wave the magic wand and make life easy, or eliminate all the excuses that are readily available.

You have to decide that you, your partner, and your relationship are worth it.

Trust me when I say I hear all of the excuses…no time, no money, no energy…X will happen when Y happens…too many responsibilities already, too many demands on your time, children who need care, pets who need attention, home repairs to do, etc., etc. You feel selfish about taking time for yourself. Someone else tells you it’s selfish to take time for yourself. Did I leave any out?

So here’s step one to achieving good self-care: acknowledging the limits.

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Yes, there will always be an excuse not to do something, and some may be legitimate (some!). But taking a good, hard look at what is getting in the way of self-care and why it is interfering is a good starting place. There are some things in life we cannot change, but we actually have a lot more control than we think we do. Where do you have control?

Step two: Identify the time suckers and resolve to eliminate one from your life.

I love it when people tell me they don’t have time to exercise, or job hunt, or engage in hobbies, or do something else that would drastically improve the quality of their life, but then go on to tell me they watch hours of TV every evening or spend hours online. Seriously? You don’t have to give up all of your “pleasant distractions,” as I’ll call them, as zoning out has its benefits, too, but if activities that are not enhancing your quality of life are your main excuse, it’s time to re-evaluate your priorities. After you have added one consistent self-care activity, try adding a second.

Step three: Be clear with yourself about why it is that self-care is so important.

Another common word I hear used in my office is the word “should.” We get caught in this cycle of making decisions because we think we “should,” even if it doesn’t feel right or true. And more often than not, that reason fails to be effective in motivating people, who then end up in my office, asking why they have failed. I could suggest some reasons why self-care is important, but it’s better that it comes from you and your values.

Step four: Involve the important people in your life.

Self-care is important for everyone, in a relationship or not. But for those who are in a relationship, there’s the extra element of involving your partner so that you can get support, too. Just because your partner has a mental illness does not mean they can’t be supportive of your efforts or don’t want to be involved. In fact, changes you make to incorporate self-care can be just as effective for your partner as well, or perhaps inspire them to make changes as well.

Step five: Keep working at it and go back to step three as often as necessary.

Like any new skill, it takes time, practice and effort to develop new behaviors. When you find yourself slipping or making excuses, go back to Step Three and recommit to why self-care is important. Maybe your motivation has changed, or circumstances have shifted. That’s okay–start again. Maybe your self-care practices need to be changed. Novelty is good! Don’t give up because you didn’t do it perfectly. This is not an all-or-nothing endeavor.

Step six: Have compassion for yourself.

Life is messy, and having a partner with a mental illness makes it that much more challenging. Remember that no one is “perfect,” and nothing is “normal,” despite what it make look like from the outside. When it truly gets to be too much, reach out for support, through friends and family, psychotherapy, or support groups.

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

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