Life as a couple, a challenge we can all rise to meet
Relationships have always been a hot topic. Who here hasn’t made or heard comments about a relative’s or a friend’s relationship? In truth, there are many types of couples. The modern world and the social changes that have occurred over the last few decades have forced us to change our values and expectations.
Today, when we talk about couples, several different types come to mind, including couples with or without children, heterosexual couples, same sex couples, couples with partners from different cultures and many more. It is becoming increasingly difficult to clearly define what being a couple means. At least the mathematical concept of the word “couple” has remained relevant, since it refers to a set of two associated items. Although the way we define a couple has changed, the majority of couples living in Quebec go through similar life stages, including dating, deciding whether to get married or be in a long-term relationship, productive working years, middle age and retirement.
Beyond the pleasures of living together, life as a couple has its obstacles. Relationships are a complex experience that involve many challenges. In many families, both partners must work to make ends meet and balance work and family responsibilities. So, what happens when one partner has a mental illness?
Partners will react differently, depending on whether or not the mental disorder existed prior to the relationship. Partners who know about the situation will be more accepting of the events that occur and will usually be more tolerant. However, if onset of the illness occurs after the couple has formed, the situation will be more difficult to accept, which can increase the burden and tension within the relationship.
Whatever the case, problems may occur, and when the limits of a couple’s new reality clash with mutual expectations, their loving relationship may change. The partner may become completely overwhelmed and unwittingly adopt a parental role toward their partner with the mental illness. In an effort to maintain balance and stabilize their life together, they may begin to exert an increasingly uncomfortable level of control over their partner. Partners may encounter difficulties in taking on their new role accompanying the person with the illness, as it can create insidious bias in the couple’s emotional relationship. As they attempt to orchestrate everything, they can quickly become overwhelmed.
When one partner accompanies the other in their mental illness, they can sometimes forget about themselves and lose sight of their own needs. This can lead to physical problems, including high blood pressure, dizziness, anxiety and feeling suffocated, not to mention the psychological distress that can also ensue. The duties and responsibilities of caregiving make it difficult to balance activities outside the home. Sacrificing oneself in the name of one’s partner cannot last over time and is never recommended.
Partners must preserve their own emotional autonomy. They must strive to maintain balance in their personal life, regardless of the turbulence at home. They must establish and learn to enforce their boundaries, share what they are experiencing and never hesitate to ask for help. Partners must be able to express their needs clearly and precisely to their partner with the illness by developing good communication skills. Some key elements to maintaining a harmonious relationship include reducing stress, listening carefully, talking about yourself rather the other person, taking the time to negotiate and acknowledge mistakes, being honest and having fun with your partner.
When your partner has a mental illness, you must dismiss the reflex to fight alone and the idea that asking for help may be interpreted as a sign of failure. In 1999, Deleu and Chambon defined the support needs of family members who have a loved one with a mental illness as the ability to receive information about symptomatology, learn specific ways to cope with problematic behaviours, build connections with others who have experienced the same situation and take respite from caring for their loved one.
Fortunately, for those living in Quebec, Réseau Avant de Craquer member affiliates provide the wide range of services described above. If you are living with and/or accompanying a loved one, partner or friend with a mental illness, don’t hesitate to reach out to our network. Learning to maintain an authentic relationship with the person with a mental illness and understanding one another’s boundaries will allow for a healthier, more dynamic adjustment period. There is no miracle solution, as every couple has their own unique life story. Aside from the partner’s mental illness, it is up to the couple to provide one another with the support they need to restore and strengthen a winning relationship.