“Depression,” Eva Recinos tells me, “is the third wheel in my relationship.” Recinos has been with her boyfriend for three-and-a-half years and lived with him for one-and-a-half. Even as their relationship has flourished, her depression and anxiety have always featured in it. “[My depression] showed up to our dates unannounced,” she writes in an essay for Refinery29. “It wedged itself between us in restaurant booths, whispering anxious thoughts into my ear, encouraging me to overanalyze every single thing that happened during an otherwise fun night.”
But she and her partner have learned how to navigate the distance a mental health problem can create between two people, developing communication techniques that bridge that gap. It’s hard to ask for help. It can be even harder when you have with a chronic health condition. Colds and flus last for discrete periods; they ask for chicken soup, a cold washcloth, a reassuring text. Mental health problems linger, often for entire lifetimes, receding and flaring up, requiring different responses for different people. They demand much of those who have them and much of those who love the people who have them.
To learn tools for dating while dealing with a disorder, I asked Recinos, sex and relationship therapist Vanessa Marin, and health coach Simi Botic — who has dealt with orthorexia and anxiety over her 10-year relationship with her now-husband — how those in a relationship in which one person struggles with a mental health problem can express what they feel and need. Read on for their thoughts. A resounding theme: Often, all we’re looking for from our partners is what writer Lucy Kalanithi calls “the simple act of witnessing.”
What are your biggest pointers for communication about a mental health problem?
Vanessa Marin: “First and foremost, you have to realize that you can’t fix [your partner’s] issue, especially if it’s a long-term condition. Nor should it be your responsibility to do so. This is extremely difficult to do in real life, but you have to keep reminding yourself. By jumping to fix-it mode, you cut your partner off from their own experiences and you send the message that you can’t tolerate sitting with them in whatever they’re experiencing. You also put a lot of pressure on your own shoulders and increase your chances of experiencing compassion fatigue.
“I would recommend talking to your partner about what they need from you, especially in moments where you’re feeling pulled into fix-it mode. Do they just need you to listen? Would they like help researching doctors or treatment options? Are there other tasks or errands that you could take on? Do they just need some company while they have a good cry? If your partner seems overwhelmed or can’t say what they want, try providing them two options and ask which one sounds better to them.
“Another general thought: Try to help your partner recognize that you love them just as they are — and also that their condition is not the entirety of who they are.”
Eva Recinos: “I think it’s hard, because you have to find that delicate balance between being vulnerable enough to tell your partner, ‘Today’s a bad day,’ but also ultimately you’re the one that has to make the decisions for yourself. When I told [my boyfriend], ‘I need to see [a mental health professional], please make sure I see someone,’ he was aware of that, but I didn’t want him to call the doctor himself. I had to make the call — I had to decide that I was going to go in. Nobody was going to hold me accountable in the end but myself.”
How can someone with a mental health problem communicate what they feel or need?
Recinos: “Usually, I’ll say, ‘I’m having a bad day,’ or, ‘I don’t feel too good,’ because normally, I don’t say, ‘I don’t feel too good’ to describe anything else, which is kind of interesting — I guess that’s like my euphemism for it. So, he kind of knows, ‘Okay, she needs to talk for a little bit,’ and he’ll just kind of listen. He knows by now to stop looking at his phone, stop doing whatever he’s doing, and just give me a few minutes, so I can kind of vent — but beyond that, I have to know when there’s things that I talk to my therapist about, or there’s a time that I need to call a friend, or there’s times that I need to do some sort of self-care on my own.”
Simi Botic: “I think the challenge is really connecting with what you need in moments that are a little bit more calm, so that when you’re feeling very overwhelmed, you’re able to communicate those things… I think when you’re talking to someone who’s never been in that heightened emotional state, which is very present when you’re talking about orthorexia or bingeing disorder or anxiety or depression or whatever it might be, you have to also understand that the person isn’t going to be able to get what you’re feeling 100%. It’s okay if they don’t get this 100%. It doesn’t invalidate my experience.
“[My husband and I] do have a signal, but it’s not a verbal signal, [it’s] like the spin of your finger — you know if you put one finger up and you sort of like, round it, like, ‘Let’s wrap it up’? We’ll do that to each other, so if I’m in a situation where I really need to go, I just do that subtly.”
What about the feelings and needs of a partner without a mental health problem?
Marin: “You have to have patience. We all want quick fixes, but that kind of mentality is what makes long-term health conditions even more difficult. As a partner, it’s easy to get compassion fatigue. You love your partner, but it’s hard to hear them express the same feelings over and over again. I recommend checking in with a therapist on your own every once in a while. Even a few times a year can give you a great outlet to talk about your experiences and share things that you wouldn’t share with your partner. Therapy, in general, is a really good call: individual therapy for yourself, to acknowledge that even though your partner is the one with the condition, it affects your life, too; therapy or support groups for your partner, so they get an opportunity to get more support; and therapy for you as a couple, to help you maintain a healthy relationship while dealing with an illness.”
Recinos: “I said to my partner recently, ‘You know, you should never feel like it’s going to be too much to [tell] me [how you feel], because if anything I’m very able to understand what you’re going through, because I have a lot of thoughts in my own head — I have a lot of self-criticism.'”
What’s an unhelpful way of communicating about a mental health problem?
Recinos: “This might sound really simple, but one of the things that has been damaging to me is whenever someone — I think especially coming from a partner this would be painful — but if someone says, ‘Well, why are you so angry?,’ or, ‘Why are you so sad?’ — this idea that your emotions aren’t valid. Even in the moment, when I realize that I am maybe overblowing something, in that moment, [the feeling is] so powerful — so, having someone close to you question the validity of your emotions, I think, can be really harmful.
“I feel like there’s a lot more going on under the surface than it seems, and sometimes, I am depressed, but I’m also angry and I’m also anxious and I’m also frustrated, and when you yourself can’t even really figure out those emotions, it’s hard if someone starts to question them. Obviously, when you go into therapy it’s different because you do really want to pull those emotions apart, but in the heat of the moment, it’s just kind of a lot to deal with.”
Botic: “I think a big way to help people feel safe in their relationships to communicate these things — and I know this has been true for me — is to resist the urge to apologize after you have shared something that is really challenging or really hard. I know that there were times in the past where, let’s say, I was experiencing severe anxiety and I would tell [my husband], ‘I’m feeling so overwhelmed, I feel like I can’t breathe, I don’t know how i’m going to be able get through the rest of the day, I don’t know what to do’ — and talking to him about it afterwards when I had sort of come out of the moment a little bit, I would want to say to him, ‘I’m sorry I acted so crazy,’ or ‘I’m sorry I can’t just be normal,’ or ‘I’m sorry you have to deal with this.’
“I think it’s so important that women don’t feel like they need to apologize for these experiences that they’re having and that we trust that our partners don’t want us to apologize for them, either…[but also,] we should all let ourselves off the hook from being 100% perfect communicators — just giving ourselves a little bit of grace and compassion when we are trying to communicate these hard things and not to go back over it and beat ourselves up and go, ‘I wish I had said this differently,’ or ‘I wish I had done this differently’ — just to let it come out the best that we can articulate it in that moment, and to let it be okay if it’s not 100% textbook perfect.”
By Hayley MacMillen.
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