Love spans our entire selves and the rewards of love are endless. But, it's important that we are able to navigate the difficulties we face in order to have happy, successful relationships.
I would like to acknowledge that mental health is infinitely complex and, as a result, the issues that I discuss and their potential solutions may not hit home for everyone and I don't expect them to. What I do wish for you to takeaway is some insight into potential issues you or your partner may face and a sense that you are in no way alone in your experiences. I've had experience with depression, anxiety, and trauma, and so I've drawn from those experiences. But I've also drawn from my experience as a crisis counselor, family member, and friend, and have combined all of these experiences the best I could. It's also very possible that people without mental illnesses experience these same pitfalls, but I've noticed them more so in those with depression, anxiety, or trauma.
1. Choosing the wrong partners
It's a no-brainer that most relationships don't work out, but oftentimes those with mental illnesses end up in relationships with those who hurt them in similar ways they've been hurt in the past because it feels familiar to them, among other reasons, like feeling that's what they deserve, they're afraid of being alone, etc. Breaking out of these patterns of attraction is essential. Be careful to notice toxic patterns of behavior in potential (or current partners), and avoid getting involved with them like the plague. Write down descriptions of the essentials you need in a partner and the absolute no's in order to judge whether someone is a good fit, with a clear head — spend as much time as you need on this, but make it specific and irrefutable. Remember that you deserve to have someone loving and who treats you well. No matter how hard you work on a relationship, if you are with the wrong person, it's the wrong relationship. It took me years to step outside my comfort-zone and into a relationship with the right person because feelings of familiarity led me astray.
2. Lessening Self-Care
Sometimes in the midst of a new romance, we lapse in our self-care practices and find ourselves lapsing in the mental health arena as well. Relationships tend to spur an immense amount of change in short periods of time, and change of any sort can be stressful. You and your partner may want to spend all of your time together, but needing time alone to recharge, exercise, write, whatever it is that keeps you healthy and feeling okay with yourself, that's very important to do. You may want to spend all your time texting and calling, but if you really need to curl up with a good book, do it. Taking care of yourself and loving yourself are absolutely essential if you want to do the same for your partner — of course, there will be harder periods to get through with your partner, but as long as you keep trying, that's what's most important.
Sometimes we are reminded of our more hurtful experiences in the form of triggers, which can set off very emotional reactions that can be difficult for those around us to understand. Particularly in romantic relationships. Triggers can seem irrational or silly to some people; however, they are valid no matter the label slapped on them. It can be as simple as not receiving a response to a text for a few hours that sets off a destructive thought spiral — what if they're gonna leave me or don't want me anymore. Dealing with triggers is a two-way street, and we have to remember that. We have to keep working on reducing the impact of our triggers, perhaps with a therapist or with coping strategies, but also communicate to our partners what bothers us. In the texting example, we can ask that our partners let us know when they are too busy to talk at the moment or for just a quick response like I'm at the store right now, but I'll talk to you soon to help some of those destructive thoughts.
4. Leaning too much on a partner
Encouraging support within relationships allows both the relationship and the individuals within the relationship to flourish. The issue arises when we rely too heavily on a partner to make us feel okay with ourselves to the extent that it starts to drain them and strain the relationship. You should absolutely expect your partner to be there for you, but shouldn't expect them to necessarily make everything all better. I have fallen into this trap at times, particularly when I felt insecure with other friends and family members. The key to alleviating this issue is to ask yourself what you want to gain out of support, communicate to those who support you what would be most helpful, and to make sure you have multiple people to reach out to when you're feeling particularly distressed. If you've struck the right balance for support in a relationship, it can actually help increase closeness and emotional intimacy--but too far one way or the other, it decreases those aspects of relationships.
5. Withdrawing or pulling away
Sometimes we're too overwhelmed by the world around us, or we simply need to be on our own for a while. We could feel afraid or distrusting of our partner for warranted or unwarranted reasons that cause us to withdraw. Oftentimes withdrawing can increase emotional distance and cause pain and confusion in our partners, which creates big issues if this is a relationship you want to continue. It's important to notice if this is a common behavior of yours, figure out what drives it, and how to communicate to your partner when it's happening and what they should make of it.
6. Opening up too fast (or too slow)
It's almost cathartic to divulge your entire self at the beginning of a relationship, on the first few dates with someone new, wanting them to accept you and build emotional intimacy and trust between each other fast. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn't. It's okay to be a bit vulnerable with someone you feel comfortable with, but take it step by step with them as a relationship starts to blossom — or fades away into nothingness. I tend to open up a little too fast, so I know to pull back in these situations; if you tend to open up too slow and are hesitant to be vulnerable with someone, know that it's okay to take small risks in telling personal things about yourself. Ask yourself why you want to say what you want to say. Ask yourself if it's appropriate to tell them something very personal right now, given the state of your relationship. Recognize when the person you're seeing is divulging something about themself and see if you can strengthen your bond by saying something back. It's about recognizing what you're comfortable with, what's appropriate, and what they're bringing to the table as well.
7. Turning a partner into a therapist
Support in our relationships is essential; however, we cannot expect a partner to know how to solve all of our emotional problems. No matter how much either of you want that role to be fulfilled in the relationship, it can turn into a huge stressor and cause issues when we depend on them without being able to return the favor. It starts to feel more like work instead of love that drives the partner to take on the therapist role. And while it's nice to have a shoulder to cry on, you don't necessarily want to be doing that all the time and unable to do the same for your partner — you want support to be mutual and freely given.
8. Staying in your comfort-zone
Fear and other unpleasant feelings drive us back to the familiar, otherwise known as your comfort zone. In order to grow both as an individual and within the relationship, it's important that we are venture out of our comfort zones. It starts with little breakages in our regular routines and what we're used to that allows us to get outside our comfort zones, and that could look a little different for everyone. Of course, there are certain elements of our everyday lives that we would like to keep intact, but opening up to new experiences with another person can lead to a much better future and better times together.
9. Too much (or too little) assertiveness
I've found that in previous relationships I could be a bit more passive and lack some assertiveness because I was afraid of bringing up potential conflict; however, I've also found that developing more assertiveness in my current relationship helped to establish healthy boundaries and standards to allowed it to flourish. I've also found that too assertive partners can create a lot of friction and a feeling of entrapment on the other end, as it can be difficult to have frank discussions about how to negotiate wants and needs when one person is much more pushy than the other. Recognize if you tend to be more or less assertive, and whether you need to push more or pull back when it comes to making decisions in relationships. Just having a general rule of thumb for yourself can help a lot.
10. Expecting the relationship to end
Getting in the mindset that a partner is just going to leave you or that nothing's ever going to work out is completely destructive to the wellbeing of a relationship. Remember that our emotions are always giving us a message, but what that message is can be uncertain--it can take some decoding. Were you in a bad relationship before? Have you been broken up with multiple times? Did a relationship suddenly end without warning? Sometimes we carry these destructive ideas from our pasts to the present, and sometimes these ideas are actually based on what's happening in our relationships. The issue is that expecting the relationship to end can actually lead a relationship to end, an example of a self-fulfilling prophecy, where your beliefs about an outcome lead to that outcome. A healthier perspective to reach is that while it's possible that this relationship may end, this is where we're at in the relationship right now.
11. Feeling like your mental illness is a burden
You're not a lesser person for dealing with mental health conditions. The partner you chose chose you too; hopefully they know you well enough to appreciate you from a well-rounded perspective. Sometimes it can feel like your mental illness is some blemish on your body that everyone's always staring at, but you are always much, much more aware of what's happening in your mind than the people around you. It's not as obvious as you think it is to other people, and it's not some huge burden that you've put on your partner--you're just dealing with another health condition, and everyone has something they're dealing with. You bring so much else to the table in your relationship, no matter what you deal with. What can help in this case is learning to express appreciation to each other more often and, as much as possible, give freely to each other in your relationship--in terms of time, emotions, support, etc.
12. Hiding mental illness
At the start of a relationship, it's understandable that you would want to hold off on disclosing any mental illness that you may have. Sometimes that can scare people away when they don't know much about you, and mental illness is part of what little they do know about you. Your mental illness doesn't define you, so of course you can take your time to build trust and have conversations about what it looks like for you and how that would affect a relationship. An issue that sometimes comes up is trying to pretend we aren't depressed, or that we have anxiety or panic attacks, or that a certain trauma keeps playing over and over again in our minds. It's okay to put it gently that you're having a bad period of mental health, even to maybe say that today isn't so great for my depression, so that's why I may not talk as much. You're allowed to cry in front of them when you feel you need to, and it's not a weakness at all. You don't necessarily have to go into detail if you don't want to, but it's okay to tell them a bit about what's going on.