How To Talk To Your Partner If You Think They Have A Mental Health Disorder They’re Not Dealing With
Although mental health disorders are extremely common and nothing of which anyone should ever be ashamed, the stigma attached to mental health can be damaging on so many levels.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 43.8 million adults in the United States experience mental illness in any given year. Of those who experience mental illness in any given year, 9.8 million of them will find themselves battling a severe mental illness that affects their daily lives. On a grander scale, the World Health Organization reports that roughly 450 million people, worldwide, suffer from a mental illness and one in four will be personally affected by a mental illness at some point in their lives. Basically, you don't have to go too far to find someone who's affected by a mental illness, either directly or indirectly.
While denial can seem like a safe way to deal with something that's stigmatized or that you wish didn't exist, it just leads to untreated illnesses. Because of this, sometimes a partner has to intervene and try to shed some light.
"One of the hardest things to talk about with our partner is when we see something that seems outside the 'normal' range," relationship expert Dr. Carolina Castaños, founder of MovingOn, tells Bustle. "There is a very fine line between playing a blame game and really addressing an issue that might be a big part of the problem. There are two in a relationship and it takes two for it to work, but sometimes one of them has a mental disorder or a substance abuse problem that they do not want to see and they cannot see. It is so difficult to see what you don’t see! It’s like someone telling you that there is a lake in front of you and you only see a wall. You simply don't see it until you're ready."
If you think your partner has a mental health disorder that they're just not ready to deal with, you need to tread lightly. Here are eight ways to approach them on the subject without rocking the boat.
1. Choose The Right Moment
Timing is everything, especially when it comes to talking to your partner about something that they're clearly trying to avoid as fact, so make sure you map out a good time. You want the discussion to be productive and supportive; it can only be these things if the timing is perfect.
"Talk about the behaviors you are noticing during a calm moment," says Dr. Castaños. "Do not bring this up during a fight as it will only escalate the discussion and create bigger distance between you."
2. Keep A Diary
In keeping a diary, you can present it to your partner should their response be one of anger or denial. Times and dates go a long way in proving one's case.
"Include any incidents that might have tripped off his or her reaction," Dr. LeslieBeth Wish, psychotherapist and author of Smart Relationships: How Successful Women Can Find True Love, tells Bustle. "Make a note about how long the reaction lasted. Rate on a scale of one to 10, with 10 high, the intensity of the reaction. Give details about the reaction, such as: slammed the door and walked out for half an hour; or cried; or threw a glass vase at the wall; threatened me; yelled at the children; etc."
3. Use Art To Start The Conversation
"Movies are a good way to project what might be happening with your partner and you, and can open a door for some insight," explains Dr. Castaños. "For example, the movie A Beautiful Mind shows how real our reality is for each one of us, even when that reality is not shared by others. You might watch a movie together and then talk about it; ask if your partner sometimes feels that way."
Art — all forms of it — is meant to create a dialogue, spark ideas, and get people thinking. Using art, whether it's movies, music, or literature, can be a great jumping off point to get the conversation started.
4. Let Them Talk
Broach the subject by giving them the entire floor to speak. You might be surprised by what's unearthed when someone is given unlimited space and time to get things off their chest.
"Ask [them] how [they] feel and what's happening in their lives in a non-judgmental way," says Castaños. "Let them talk; be a good listener without trying to change their mind or change them. Remember this is their truth."
5. Seek Professional Input
While you may not be able to get your partner to a therapist, you can certainly get yourself to one and get all the information you need. A professional can give you insight into what's going on with your partner and even point you in the right direction should your assumptions about your partner's mental state be off.
"Schedule an appointment for only you with a licensed mental health professional who specializes in your partner's disorder such as depression, anger, substance abuse, mood swings, etc," says Dr. Wish. "Your goal is to learn about your partner's disorder. Bring your diary. Ask for advice about how to handle it. Ask your primary care physician for a referral or search the American Psychological Association or National Association of Social Workers, call them, and ask for assistance in finding a therapist in your area. Be sure to ask the therapist if an intervention with your family members or your partner's family, or your partner's closest friends is a good idea."
6. Consider Calling In A Third Party
Although you don't want to make your partner feel like they're being ganged-up on, there is strength in numbers — especially if that strength is coming from a person who has witnessed what you've witnessed.
"If your partner gets too defensive with you (as maybe part of their defense mechanism is to blame it on you), see if you can think of someone else that can help you approach this issue with them," says Dr. Castaños. "Sometimes we are not the best to help, because we are so loved that what we say has more weight and can become a source of conflict and pain."
7. Be Supportive, But Don't Try To Save Them
"Avoid becoming the 'savior,'" says Dr. Castaños. "This is their journey and you cannot save them from this. The best way you can help them is being there for them with love, patience, acceptance, and compassion."
As much as you might want to be the savior or your partner might even want to be saved, avoid letting this happen. It not only gives you too much power, throwing off the balance in a relationship, but it can create a dynamic of codependency. You want to get your partner feeling good and healthy; codependency is anything but healthy.
8. Realize There's Only So Much You Can Do
"That old saying might come to mind: 'You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make the horse drink.' There certainly is truth in that," says Dr. Wish.
As Dr. Castaños points out, someone isn't going to see what they don't want to see, and as Dr. Wish points out here, you can try to make them see the light, but ultimately they have to do it on their own. This is something that you absolutely need to keep in mind so as to prevent yourself from getting frustrated with your partner. People live in denial because there's safety in it. You can't fault someone or be angry with them because they prefer to feel safe.
As long as your partner knows that it's coming from a place of love and concern for their well-being, then that's the first step in getting them to open up and, ideally, seeking help.