Opening up to someone about your struggles with mental health can be challenging, especially if you’re romantically interested in the person. It is also not uncommon to fear that your personal struggles with mental health would ruin or disrupt your relationship.
Before Amirah and Izzat were officially attached, she was hesitant to break the news to him about her struggles with Depression, Anxiety and Bipolar Disorder. “Am I in the right frame of mind to be seeing someone?” was the question she repeatedly asked herself. After 3-4 months of dating, Amirah decided it was time to open up about her mental health conditions. Instead of judgement and shock, Izzat lovingly replied,
You shouldn’t be ashamed of it.
In a short interview with two couples: Amirah and Izzat, Jaslin and Isaiah (names have been changed to protect their identity), both couples shared their personal journeys on how their partners have supported them thus far, and how they’ve navigated through difficult conversations and conflicts.
How can I better support my partner?
1. Patience and Understanding
When Amirah and Jaslin were asked “What are some things you appreciate about your partner?”, “Patience” was number one on the list for the both of them. Both their partners had no prior experience dating someone with mental health conditions before. Yet, they displayed great willingness to hold heavy conversations, and to sit with their emotions. Instead of brushing them off with a “snap out of it” or “get a hold of yourself”, both their partners were willing to take that time and patience to journey with them.
Relationships take work – and lots of it. If you’re seeing someone right now and you’re wondering how to be a better support, the more important question to ask yourself is not so much “Are you able to”, but “Are you willing to?”.
2. Learning to avoid unhelpful words that perpetuate stigmatization
Izzat mentioned how he has had to unlearn some of the beliefs he was exposed to while serving as a Police full-time National Serviceman (PNSF). He used to carry with him the idea that individuals with mental health conditions are “dangerous” and “unpredictable”. Through his relationship, Izzat realized how unfair it is for people to describe them as such. It’s important to be aware of the language we use, and not to be hurtful with our words.
“I should be aware of the language I use, because this is something important to her.” - Isaiah
Similarly, Isaiah learnt that the word “Retarded” he used to say in the past had negative connotations. He shared how his partner didn’t like it whenever he used to say it and had to explain to him that it perpetuated stigmatization of individuals with mental disabilities.
How can I help my partner better support me?
1. Setting expectations on what support looks like for the both of you
We shouldn’t expect our partners to be at his or her fullest all the time. – Amirah
When Amirah recounted her first fallout with Izzat, she shared how he bought her flowers to cheer her up. Though this romantic sweet gesture did cheer her up, but she was quick to point out that she didn’t expect him to do that every time she’s down. Instead, being able to appreciate even the smallest things such as a heartfelt text, is sometimes enough. It is important to note that we all feel supported in different ways. Therefore, it can be helpful to communicate with your partner on what support looks like to you (e.g. a hug, listening to you, etc).
2. Communicating to your partner that listening is more important than giving solutions
It’s ok even if I don’t have a solution for her… - Isaiah
Sometimes when we hear someone sharing their struggles, we might be quick to offer practical solutions and advice. This was one of the challenges Isaiah and Jaslin faced in the initial stages when they got attached. Being the more practical one, Isaiah found himself being quick to come up with solutions. While his intentions were to relieve her emotional burden, Jaslin had to learn to communicate that when she’s down, she wants for him to hear her out, rather than be quick to present a solution. 3 years later, Isaiah has learnt how to better support Jaslin by sitting down with her and listening to her pour her heart out.
3. Learning to set boundaries when asking for time and space
Like every relationship, conflicts and arguments are inevitable. Sometimes, arguments, coupled with struggles with mental health can also lead to one wanting to withdraw from social interaction. In the past, Amirah used to disappear for 2 weeks without any communication. Since then, Amirah and her partner have able to navigate their way through difficult conversations by setting boundaries when she requests for space.
For them, it looks something like:
Amirah: “I need some space, please don’t call me now… I’ll be okay in about 3 hours”
Izzat: “Okay, I hear you. Take the time you need and know that I’m just a phone call away if you need me. “
Amirah shared that it is important not to force your partner to talk before they are ready to. However, she also learnt how it is useful to give her partner a time frame e.g. 3 hours. She acknowledges that setting a rough timing also helps nudge her to recover quicker, instead of dragging her negative feelings for too long. By sharing how much time you might need, it also helps reassure her partner, instead of leaving him hanging for an extended period of time.
Do I really need to love myself before loving someone?
Many of us have heard this quote before,
“You can’t truly love someone else until you learn to love yourself”
Perhaps, the quote has held you captive in thinking that you’re incapable of love because you haven’t learnt to fully love yourself. Or perhaps you see your mental health condition as a barrier from being worthy of love. The truth is, everyone, not just people with mental health conditions, are still figuring out how to love ourselves.
It is crucial to realize that “loving yourself” is different for everyone. For some, loving themselves could simply be sleeping at regular timings, or allowing someone to sit with their emotions, or seeking professional help. When both couples were asked what they thought of the quote, they all shared similar sentiments that the quote can be misleading.
Loving yourself is a learning process, and it’s possible to do so while loving someone. – Amirah
While loving yourself is important, it is not a final destination you have to reach before stepping into a new relationship.
“Loving yourself” isn’t a bus-stop you have to reach in order to board the bus that takes you to someone. Learning to love yourself is like sitting in a bus, looking out of the window while the scenery changes. As the landscape changes, it allows you to see that perhaps what made you happy 10 years ago can be very different from what makes you smile today.
While you embark on that continuous, never-ending journey throughout the course of life, you gradually learn a little more about yourself. Like all journeys, it might not always be pleasant. The roads could get bumpy and the bus might even break down. But, while we choose to learn how to be kinder to ourselves, we can also choose to let other people in. This doesn’t mean that your partner or loved ones will complete you. It means that you allow yourself to embark on the same journey of learning how to love yourselves, together.
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