Being there for a Significant Other

Being There is a series about how to be there for a loved one with mental health needs. These are stories of real people and their friends, family members and significant others—and how their relationship dynamics are changed or shaped by mental illness.

This article focuses on being there for a significant other (SO) with mental illness. I asked people who have SOs with mental health needs what it’s like, what they already do, and what they could stand to improve on. Answers will be coming from 6 respondents, two of whom have chosen to remain anonymous. Most respondents said that mental illness affected their relationship to a moderate degree.

Having an SO with mental health needs

IMG_8715This is definitely not a guide on how all people with mental illness act, but there were commonalities between situations that have been shared to me. If these descriptions remind you of a relationship that you are in, encourage them to seek professional help, and of course, do your best within reason to be there for them. (Which I’m sure you’re doing if you’re reading this.)

 

The responses have been the most accepting in terms of SO’s mental health needs, than in any other kind of relationship. Being in a romantic relationship with someone takes a level of commitment and intimacy far deeper than that of a platonic one. Mental illness becomes a fact of the relationship that you have to work together as a team to overcome. Louie says of his relationship to a lady with mental health needs, “Not to say that we don’t take the time to address her mental health, but like any other aspect of who we are, we’ve always accepted its reality. Just as she accepts my flaws and issues, so I to hers.”

Increased reactivity and strained communication. As mentioned in Being There for a Friend, mood swings and strained communication may be signs that someone you are in a relationship with is going through mental health issues. An anon says that mental illness does not affect their romantic relationship too much besides being a bit more irritable: “There are mood swings every once in a while but nothing too drastic.”

Aly mentions, “I do my best but sometimes, it’s tough to handle especially when they say that they don’t want help.” Another anon says of their SO’s lack of communication: “Sometimes he has anxiety attacks, and when he does the way he copes is he shuts himself off completely, even from me. This makes it difficult sometimes.”

If both parties have gone through/are going through mental illness, this has both advantages and disadvantages. Two respondents mentioned that they are currently going through mental illness themselves. Paolo mentions that having gone through it himself, he is well-equipped to handle his girlfriend’s depression. “I can understand and can help with most of the depression.” Although he admits there is a limit: “I am less than capable at helping with some of the symptoms of anxiety, most importantly, the derealization.” On the other hand, Aly mentions the risk of simultaneously going through an episode. “Some aspects of the relationship can be difficult to handle at times especially with my own mental issues but we can mostly work through them.”

“Mental illness becomes a fact of the relationship that you have to work together as a team to overcome.”

Being There for an SO with mental health needs

Recurring Items #1 and #2: (1) Be There, and (2) Listen. Nikko mentions, “A lot of the time, just having a person there for you and genuinely care may already help greatly.” Louie says, “Don’t panic, just be there. We will never always understand what others go through, and most of the time they don’t expect us to. Sometimes they don’t even expect help. The fact that you are there helps heaps, and from there you’ll figure out ways to keep their chins up.”

Paolo also mentions that despite not being able to help with a specific problem, you can still provide comfort: “Sometimes people need a little distraction. Some things you can’t deal with or help with, so you cant blame yourself for that.” Louie concurs along the lines of being a welcome distraction, if talking about it fails to help: ” We make jokes, tell stories, plan ahead, or just make up random conversation. Anything to keep the topic away from the dark.” He wishes he could have more time on his hands to take his SO out on trips: “Keep her away from the daily routine that sometimes sets her back on her state of depression.”

An anon says that they and their SO talk things out while doing their daily routines. “We talk about various number of things over meals. Some things about work, some about what gives this person anxiety.” The same anon gives their tips for being more present and understanding in the life of your SO: “Be patient with them. Put yourself in their shoes and broaden your understanding of what they’re going through. Do your research so that you’ll know how you can support them further.”

Communicate. A romantic relationship affords a much deeper connection than in platonic relationships, so people tend to show their most vulnerable side. However, this is not a guarantee that they will be completely open about their mental illness–isolating oneself can be one of the effects of it, after all. Nikko says that apart from listening, he helps his SO see things from a different point of view as well: “At times with depression or anxiety, a person can get caught up with their own negative feelings and thoughts that it becomes a negative feedback loop. Having support systems I think can help to see past the dark clouds of the illness.”

Go the extra mile. (The definition of “extra mile” would depend on how serious your relationship is.) It comes with the territory of having a serious relationship with another person, that you would help in matters that are usually too intimate to be the business of friends. Aly says that apart from offering support and listening, she helps care for his well-being, too. “I also talk to his parents to update them on his well-being.” An anon mentions accompanying their SO to errands: “Whenever I can, I go with the person to purchase medicines in drugstores.”

Physical presence and contact as much as possible. Of course, this is context-dependent; this may not be applicable in the context of long distance relationships, or in a relationship where there’s an internal agreement about not being too physically demonstrative. Paolo says, “Hugs usually help.” Aly also attests to “physical presence and cuddles.” Louie acknowledges that he cannot always be physically available, in which case, the couple turns to technology: “I always try to be available, if not physically, at least through facetime.”

Do not let mental illness become the center of your relationship. Nikko gives an important caution against the dangers of having your relationship revolve around the mental illness. “An SO being supportive and caring is I think important to mental health, but it does not control the relationship. If that’s the case it may no longer be supportive or fair to either party.”

Through it all

A healthy, supportive romantic relationship could be a powerful link in one’s support system, but this requires a lot of effort and compromise from both sides. An anon with mental health needs discloses, “My significant other doesn’t make effort to actually understand what I am going through.”

On the flipside, the are a couple of respondents who said that their SO helps them the most among all the people in their support system. An anon with anxiety says, “My SO helps most, as I have revealed a lot to him and have no problem being vulnerable and emotional to him.” Apart from her having a firsthand understanding of depression, Paolo states another, quite heartwarming, reason that his girlfriend helps him the most: “My girlfriend is the most significant, as she provides me with motivation in the form of our future.” 💌

Browse the rest of the Being There series content:

  1. Being There, According to People with Mental Health Needs
  2. Being There for a Friend
  3. Being There for a Family Member
  4. Being There for a Significant Other

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Silakbo PH is an effort to uplift stories and creative talents, in the context of mental health. Let's fill this space with compassion.

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