Today is World Mental Health day so I thought I’d write a post about mental health in relationships.
My own position on mental health is that we all struggle, sometimes, with experiences of fear, sadness, anger, loss, shame, etc. which make life very difficult. Perhaps one of the most challenging times is when everyone in a relationship is struggling at the same time. That is what I will mostly focus on here.
I went to a very interesting workshop on this topic at the weekend which helped me to think through some of these issues. The workshop highlighted the fact that many people had shared experiences and had developed similar, very helpful, strategies for dealing with them. Of course I won’t write anything here about specific examples given because the workshop was confidential, but I do want to thank the other people there for helping me to clarify my ideas as well as for giving me the confidence to write this post.
Pressure to seem fine
The backdrop to why struggling is hard in relationships is the pressure that we are under to prove that our relationship is ‘fine’ at all times. People are often very fearful that if they admit that they have any difficulties, friends and others will say that it is the relationship that is at fault. Given that relationships are inevitably challenging, this can reinforce concerns that most of us have that perhaps there is a problem with our relationship.
For people in less conventional relationships, this issue may be exacerbated because any acknowledgement that things are not perfect could be taken, by others, as proof of what they always suspected: that this kind of relationship can’t work.
Such fears often mean that, when we are struggling, we don’t let anybody else in besides our partners. This can put strain on the relationship in multiple ways. We might feel that we are entirely responsible for our partners’ struggles (and for making them better) and that they are entirely responsible for us in return. Also, if everybody is presenting a perfect relationship and a struggle-free self to the world, then we can feel very alone knowing that we don’t really fit that.
Wanting to stop partners from struggling
One result of all this is that we can end up constantly monitoring our partners for any sign that they are starting to struggle, and then – if they do show signs – trying to cheer them up or prove that they are being irrational. This, of course, is rarely helpful and often makes it more, rather than less, likely that they will feel anxious, self-critical, or hopeless.
Perhaps part of this aim to stop partners from stuggling is the fear that we too will be drawn down into the suffering that they are experiencing. If we have had really difficult times ourselves in the past then this fear makes a lot of sense, but unfortunately the reaction to it (trying to stop anyone from feeling bad ever) is pretty unhelpful!
Instead of trying to prevent ourselves, and our partners, from ever struggling, we can try to acknowledge that we will all go through easier and harder times, and that it is okay to be sad, anxious or angry. Paradoxically, accepting such feelings often makes them less debilitating than if we layer extra difficult emotions on top of them (feeling sad about feeling sad, fearful about feeling angry, etc.) In relationships, one great thing we can offer our partners is acceptance that however they are feeling is acceptable and sensible given the situation they find themselves in.
Another part of this is recognising that just because a partner is feeling something, doesn’t mean that we have to feel it too. We might feel guilty if we are having a great time in life, whilst a partner is going through a difficult period. However, we are often of more use to them, and to ourselves, if we can hold both those things simultaneously (rather than trying to make them feel as good as us, or sinking down because they are struggling).
Different things work for different people at different times
What about those times when everyone in a relationship is having a hard time at the same time? Perhaps the most important answer is that different things work for different people at different times. For some people, at some times, it may be better to separate off and/or get support elsewhere, whilst others, at other times, find it good to get together for some mutual kindness.
An important part of this is recognising that, even in relationships where people have a lot in common, they might need quite different things when they are having a tough time. For example, some people long for physical contact whilst others find any kind of touch difficult. Some need to talk it all through till they feel better and some find words difficult. Some really want to be alone, whilst others find isolation incredibly hard at such times. And some like others to try to fix things whilst others just want to feel understood. Mutually respectful conversations about what different people find useful when things are difficult can be extremely useful, especially because it can be very hard to articulate these things in the moment when we are suffering.
Here are just a few ideas which might be helpful, and it can also be helpful to remember that all these options are available.
A great example that came up in the workshop, which I’ve experienced myself, was of spider phobia. I used to be somewhat scared of spiders myself, always asking somebody else to get rid of them. But I noticed that when I was with a partner who was very scared of spiders, I became much braver and actually rather enjoyed being the one to wield the glass and postcard.
Something similar often happens when more than one person is struggling. One person somehow realises that they do have a bit more strength or energy than they thought, and steps up to do some looking after, supporting, or problem-solving (whatever is necessary). It can be empowering to realise how much more we often have than we think we have, even when we’ve had a rough day or things are hard and we thought that we had nothing left.
The important caveat to this is that it can become problematic if it is always one person who becomes the ‘stepper upper’ in such situations. Getting stuck in roles (such as the emotional one and the rational one, or the victim and the rescuer) often leads to problems. So it is worth, when you are not struggling, having a conversation about how you might ensure that that doesn’t happen.
When more than one person is struggling and the struggles seem to be spiralling everyone into even worse places, it can be a very good idea to recognise this and get some time apart. This can happen, for example, when everyone feels that the difficulties they are having right now are much bigger than those that the other person/people are having, and keeps trying to show how much more desperate a place they are in. It can also happen when needs are very incompatible at that time (e.g. one person wanting silence and one wanting to talk).
Again, it can be useful to have agreed plans for what will happen at such times (how to ask for time out, where to go, how to know when to approach each other again, etc.)
Support from outside
It is wonderful if there are people in your lives who recognise that acknowledging difficulties doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with you or with the relationship (often quite the opposite). If we can cultivate friendships like this then it can often be good to go to those people at times when people in the relationship don’t have much to offer each other because they are struggling so much. Often an outside perspective can be a breath of fresh air, and taking the weight off a partner can allow them time to get to a stronger place.
Again, it can be helpful to lift our sense of responsibility that we should always be in a position to be able to help our partners, and to recognise that we can’t always offer that, and that sometimes being alone, or with other people, might be more useful.
Kindness and calmness
When we are weathering storms together with partners (whether the same storm, or different ones), it can often be helpful to focus on very calm, kind activities rather than trying – for example – to fix everything or to carry on with our plans as normal. For example, we might retreat to bed, cuddle up in front of the television, read each other stories, or go out for a walk together somewhere that feels safe. It’s good to acknowledge that we don’t have much to offer and to think what we have got available, and what activities might be helpful all round. Making sure that we get the basics (food, rest, and some physical activity) can also be very important at such times.
When we are being kind and calm to each other we can often stop the tough stuff from spiralling any deeper and create the right conditions for a gradual improvement. Instead of flailing around desperately trying to fix things immediately, we can find some safety and comfort where we are now, remembering that things will inevitably lift, and will be more likely to do so if we don’t force it.
I hope that some of these ideas will be helpful, and that Mental Health Day enables all of us to reflect on how we are all able to contribute to each others’ mental health: We can add to others’ sense of pressure and alienation, or we can ameliorate it by being open about our own struggles and by offering what we have available.