Supporting a partner with mental health problems can be challenging, especially when you’re not sure how you can help them.
Many couples experience problems in their relationship because of mental health issues. A recent Paired survey poll of over 12,600 people found that their or their partner’s mental health was the second most common challenge in their relationship (45% of respondents), following communication issues.
It's difficult to see your partner struggling with their mental health, not to mention the strain it can put on your relationship. A 2022 BMC Psychology study found that poor mental health was linked to lower satisfaction with partners.
The study authors suggested that couples should invest in each other’s mental health to increase their relationship satisfaction. Other research shows that support networks, and indeed romantic relationships, can help people thrive and overcome times of adversity.
Mental health issues are incredibly complex and there’s no rule book on how to help your partner when they’re going through a difficult time. Everyone will need unique support, but there are a few things you can do to help them.
Communication is a fundamental component of any healthy relationship, and one aspect of communication we shouldn’t ignore is listening. “Sometimes the best support we can offer is to sit down and actively listen to one another,” explains Dr. Cohen.
“Take time to understand the sources of your partner’s stress and areas of their life that they are looking to change and improve upon. Remember, don't just listen with your ears, listen with your body. Make eye contact and lean into the conversation to show them how much you value their experience.”
Many mental health issues can lead to withdrawal and isolation, so checking in regularly with your partner and giving them a safe space to express their feelings is really important.
“Being able to empathize with our partners is important, as it enables us to put ourselves in their shoes and get a better understanding of what they are going through,” says Dr. Cohen.
“This will make us more sensitive to their triggers (be it work stress, family-related stress, etc.) and get us on board with their self-care plan. Validating their decisions, whatever they may be, is important as it can strengthen the relationship by putting both partners on the same team.”
Even if you can’t relate to what your partner is going through, try to avoid toxic positivity and remind them that their emotions are valid.
You may feel compelled to offer your partner advice, but no matter how well-intentioned it is, unsolicited suggestions can come across as unhelpful at best and patronizing at worst.
“Perhaps you have a wonderful self-care routine, which may include running, yoga, breathing exercises, journaling, etc, but remember that what works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for another,” says Dr. Cohen. “Gently offer advice when it is solicited by your partner.” Remember not to take it personally if your partner doesn’t take your advice.
“We all look for support in different ways, so if you have any doubt about what your partner needs from you during their self-care journey, ask them,” says Dr. Cohen.
“Do they need practical advice? Affection? A shoulder to cry on? Tailor your support to them in the way they need it and it will enhance your partner’s well-being and your lives together as a couple.”
Lastly, remember to know your limits and recognize the difference between a partner and a therapist. While you might feel helpless, remember there’s only so much you can do to support your partner and you shouldn’t have to become their sole emotional caretaker. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t help them in any way, rather that it’s equally important to set boundaries and know when an expert should intervene.
In the US, the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline can be contacted on 988
In the UK, the Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123
In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is on 13 11 14