How To Support a Partner With Mental Health Challenges—While Protecting Yours

It's important to have boundaries of your own.
couple sitting side by side on a couch with a therapist opposite them
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Elizabeth Ayoola
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Elizabeth Ayoola
The Knot Contributor
  • Elizabeth contributes a range of lifestyle content to The Knot.
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  • Elizabeth has a degree in Environment, Politics, and Globalization from King's College London.
Updated Sep 13, 2022

The likelihood of having a partner who struggles with mental health challenges is somewhat high, considering nearly one in five U.S adults lives with a mental illness. That said, the topic of how to support a partner with mental illness isn't discussed nearly enough.

We aren't taught how to support a partner who experiences extreme mood swings due to depression, has frequent bipolar episodes or is often fearful at work or school because of their anxiety. However, these daily realities can put a strain on the healthiest relationship and can also affect the supporting partner's mental health.

So, how can you support your partner and also protect your mental wellbeing? Imani Tutt, a therapist based in Freeport, New York, shares expert advice on how to help a partner with mental health issues while maintaining your own mental boundaries.

Accept That You Can't Solve All Their Problems

When you love someone, you don't want to see them suffer. However, it's important to accept that it's not your job to 'fix' your partner, you can only be there to support them. One way to support your partner is by taking time to understand their illness and see life through their lenses. Tutt recommends educating yourself on their mental illness, which could mean having conversations about their mental health as well as doing your own research. These conversations may help you show your partner compassion, empathy and validate their experience vs. trying to save them.

"Offering your partner support during this time does not look like solving all of their problems for them, feeling their feelings for them or even rescuing them. It's simply showing up and saying 'I see you,' 'I hear you,' and 'I am here with you,'" Tutt says.

Putting your superhero cape on and trying to fix your partner could also be a sign of codependency–when you mentally, emotionally, and/or physically rely on a partner. This isn't helpful for either of you and can stifle your growth as individuals.

"As we journey through life, we have to allow our loved ones to have their own experiences—including going through situations that may challenge them to grow," she says. Trying to save them could be crippling them as opposed to helping them. We are all responsible for saving ourselves."

Set and Maintain Boundaries

We often feel that love should be self-sacrificing, and while we do sometimes sacrifice for those we love, it's important not to go beyond your limits. This is why setting mental boundaries with yourself and your loved one is important. Tutt says you should think about what your limits are and what you're unwilling to tolerate. For instance, if your partner lashes out when they're in a bad spot, you may decide to physically remove yourself from the conflict during those periods.

"When we set boundaries with our loved ones, we put these limits in place to preserve our relationships. It is important for our loved ones to know how we would like to be treated and when we openly and honestly communicate our boundaries—we show others that our needs and wants matter just as much as theirs," she says.

It's possible that setting boundaries can make you feel like the bad guy because your loved one is vulnerable, but remember that you matter too. Overextending yourself to the point that your mental health is eroding won't do any good for you or your partner. Here are a few steps to take when setting boundaries with your loved one according to Tutt.

  1. Decide what your boundaries are—consider writing them down.

  2. State your boundary firmly while showing compassion for your partner's needs/wants. Reassure them that you love and care about them and remind them why you are setting the boundary.

  3. Your partner may not respond the way you want them to, but let them have their feelings-even if it makes you uncomfortable. Sometimes when we set boundaries people will subconsciously try to make us feel guilty for having them, continue to set them anyway.

  4. Decide how you would like to move forward if the boundary is crossed and your boundaries aren't respected.

See Your Partner Beyond Their Diagnosis

Sometimes, people are afraid to share mental health diagnosis because they think that's all people will see and it will take over their identity. Make a conscious effort to see your partner beyond their diagnosis. A way to do this is by putting any biases or judgments you have about them aside and not attributing all of their behaviors and characteristics to their diagnosis.

Tutt says treating them with gentleness and respect is a way to see them as an individual as opposed to their diagnosis.

Don't Stop Communicating

It's easy for your wants and needs to be overshadowed by a partner's mental illness. As difficult as it may be, continue to voice your needs and concerns. Avoid toxic positivity, or pretending you're fine if you're not –being honest and open is key. Tutt says that communicating with one another creates emotional safety, which is the bedrock of any strong relationship.

"When we stop communicating our needs and desires, we start to harbor feelings of resentment which disempowers the relationship," she says. "It is important for us to communicate how we feel, even if we are unsure how the other person is going to respond."

What happens when you don't feel physically or emotionally safe communicating with your partner? What if they often undermine your feelings or it leads to conflict?

"It may be helpful to reach out to a trusted friend, family member and/or licensed professional," says Tutt.

Speak to a Professional

When most of your time goes towards supporting your partner's mental health, yours can fall to the wayside. "We all need to feel supported and at times showing up for your partner who is struggling with their mental health can have an impact on yours," Tutt says.

Therapy is a way to get that support from an objective professional who can help you navigate your feelings. Tutt says a therapist can help you identify your feelings, process how you're feeling, and gain a new perspective. Keep in mind that therapy isn't only for people with mental illnesses—you can also see it as a form of preventative care for your mental health. This means you don't have to wait until you're overwhelmed before talking to someone. While couples' therapy is a great way to work through issues with your partner, individual therapy can also be extremely valuable. Taking care of yourself by getting the support you need will ensure you can love your partner from a place of overflow and have enough love to give yourself, too.

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