COLUMN: Let’s Talk Mental Health – Couples therapy can help
Let’s talk about maintaining relationships when mental illness is present. We all know that committed relationship often brings a variety of stressors and rewards to those who embark on the journey. For people with mental illness, these stressors can be even greater. Yet committed relationships can benefit from interventions that help the couple improve, or at least stabilize, mental health symptoms. Couples therapy can help both partners improve communication and problem-solving skills and enhance their resiliency.
Some relationship and family therapists believe that education can effectively prepare people for marriage and similar relationships by teaching them basic skills they’ll have to use daily. Education topics include finances, healthy communication, dealing with conflict and planning for parenthood. Some organized religions require that couples take a premarital course if they want to be married in that church. Certainly most marital researchers and therapists agree that identifying what you want for yourself and your relationship is important for the health of the committed relationship and the individuals. This is true whether mental illness is present or not.
A healthy view of the couple relationship includes reasonable expectations of the rewards that commitment brings and also recognizing that it requires personal effort by both partners to make it work. There are many helpful strategies that partners can use to maintain a healthy relationship and avoid being overwhelmed and directed by mental illness.
Learn about the illness and its best treatment options. Mental illness can be confusing. You might think your spouse is being lazy, irritable, distant or distracted. But these “character flaws” might really be symptoms of a mental illness. If it is determined that a mental illness is present, make sure your partner receives effective treatment. Learn from a mental health professional how you can support the treatment plan. Not knowing how you can help could be very frustrating for you and your partner.
Healthy couples don’t allow mental illness to determine the course of their relationship but define diagnoses as just another challenge to their relationship. They know that challenges can be overcome. They work on their relationship skills as they would without the mental illness intruding. Counsellors often see couples failing to attend to their relationshup through dating, talking, and sharing, which creates feelings of isolation and compounds the stress of the illness itself.
People often ask
Q. How can I keep mental illness from threatening my relationship?
A. Remember that mental illness can’t destroy a relationship. People destroy a relationship. You can save your relationship, whether mental illness is present or not, by carving out time when you both can fully enjoy one another, at least for a few hours each week or a half hour daily. This also helps couples become more resilient during tough times.
Maintain positive communication. Marriage therapists know that the relationships of couples who continue to say “I love you,” or to check in during the day via brief phone calls or texts tend to fare much better than those where partners ignore each other. Check in with each other. And every week, sit together for some time and talk about your needs and intentions for the coming week. Start with appreciations and affirmations from the preceding week.
Admire each other. Healthy couples focus on appreciating their partners for even the smallest things. This helps keep the partners accountable for their relationship’s wellbeing. Keep sight of the attractive characteristics that drew you to your partner initially. Stress is a common and overwhelming challenge for couples coping with mental illness and recent research shows that, regardless of the level of stress, couples that sustain their admiration for one another create relationships that tend to survive stress.
And be sure to practice self-care regularly. Many people think this is selfish but you need a lot of energy to help your partner manage a mental illness, and taking care of yourself is critical. Neglecting to focus on your own health increases the risk the illness will pull you and your partner into an unhealthy pattern and jeopardize your relationship.