11 Ways To Be There For A Partner Struggling With Their Mental Health
It's difficult to see a partner struggling in a mental health slump, not to mention the strain it can put on your relationship. And in a long-term partnership, it's likely to occur at one point or another. It's estimated nearly half of Americans will experience a mental illness at some point in their lifetime, and with the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic today, the mental health effects can be felt by people everywhere. If you're wondering how to approach the situation, here are 11 ways to support a partner who's struggling:
1. Don't ignore it.
According to therapist and author of How To Be Alone Megan Bruneau, M.A., "Oftentimes, we think ignoring something will make it go away, but ignoring a partner's mental health slump usually just leaves them feeling further isolated." It's important to start the dialogue, which brings us to our next point.
2. Start the conversation sensitively.
As certified couples' therapist Alicia Muñoz, LPC, previously told mbg, you want to approach the conversation delicately and sensitively. Open with phrases like, "'I've been thinking about you and wondering how you are,' 'I care about you and want to be here for you,' and 'Is there any special way I can support you right now that I might not be aware of?'"
3. No toxic positivity allowed.
Avoid being the ever-positive ray of sunshine when it comes to helping anyone with their mental health, particularly a partner. "Don't say things like 'Be positive!' or 'You have so much to be grateful for!'" Bruneau says. "This usually leads to them feeling shamed and misunderstood."
4. Resist the urge to give (unsolicited) advice.
We often feel compelled to offer suggestions or advice when people reach out to us, but this can feel patronizing, abrasive, and unhelpful to someone struggling with their mental health. As author and relationship expert Margaret Paul, Ph.D., explains, unsolicited advice can often be interpreted as "directly ignoring their agency and attempting to control their decisions or feelings." No one wants that, especially when they're already likely feeling down about themselves.
5. Don't give ultimatums or threaten to leave.
Getting through a rough patch in a relationship isn't always easy—but neither is dealing with poor mental health. Be there for your partner as best you can, without giving ultimatums or threatening to leave them, Bruneau says. "Don't abandon them in their period of pain or imply that you'll consider leaving them if they don't 'cheer up,'" she adds.
6. Get clear on how they'd like to be supported.
Everyone is different, including how they'll handle their difficulties—and accept support. Get clear on what they need from you. It might simply be presence and quiet time or a daily walk you take together. As licensed marriage and family therapist Kim Egel, LMFT, previously explained to mbg, showing your partner respect and understanding as they're coping with mental health challenges will strengthen your connection: "Your relationship will remain in better standing as you support your partner while allowing them to work through their own individual depressive symptoms."
7. Validate them.
Whenever people are facing hardship of any kind, we want to be validated and to feel seen, heard, and loved regardless. "Validation lets them know there's nothing fundamentally wrong with them or their experience," Muñoz says, "even if they're feeling fear, shame, confusion, or anger." Use phrases like, "What you're saying and feeling are completely understandable," or "I can see your struggle and how much effort you're giving."
8. Foster empathy.
On top of validating their struggles, don't shy away from empathizing. Really feel what they tell you, and allow yourself to open up to their emotions. "Empathy shows them you understand—or at least are trying to understand—and it validates them," Bruneau says. This lets your partner know they're not only allowed to have the feelings they're having, but you're there to support them through it.
9. Get vulnerable.
Sometimes it can be hard to open up about mental health struggles, particularly with those closest to us. If your partner is resisting getting vulnerable, you can model it for them. Without "hijacking the conversation and making it about you," Bruneau previously explained to mbg, "self-disclosure can also be effective in helping someone open up." Let them know how you've been feeling, or if there's anything you're struggling with, and they may feel safer to open up to you.
10. Make plans for something enjoyable.
Sometimes, Bruneau notes, depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues can "tell us lies" about whether we'll enjoy activities, "when in actuality they usually help shift our moods," she says. "Suggest and plan activities with your partner that might shift their energy, but if they're really against doing them, don't force it." (Think simple, low-maintenance things like going for a hike or walk, playing a board game, going for massages, etc.)
11. Know your limits.
And lastly, it's important to know where the line falls between partner and therapist. "Know your limits and refer [them to someone]: You're not their therapist," Bruneau says. "Encourage them to find support, whether that's therapy, a coach, a support group, etc." This does not mean, of course, that you'll no longer be there to support your partner, but it's very important to both of you and the health of your relationship that you set boundaries, "so you're not becoming their sole emotional caretaker—which tends to breed resentment," she adds.
Struggling with mental health is never easy, but having a supportive partner at your side makes a world of difference. You don't have to be a therapist to be there for your partner, and hopefully in time, the slump won't last forever. Once you start approaching bluer skies ahead, the two of you will feel stronger than ever.